Sure, the AFL has measures in place, but I don’t know if it’s enough. Each club has a player welfare officer who helps with off-field development, but at the end of the day players have to want to develop, and it’s far too easy to neglect that when you’re in a bubble built around what’s on the field. I deferred from uni whenever my contract was up for renegotiation (which sadly happened far too often) because I thought I could succeed only if all my attention was on football. It was far too easy to fool myself into thinking footy didn’t give me the time to have a more balanced life, when the truth is I just didn’t see the value in anything else because nothing could ever have been as important as football.
I know I’m not the only one. I’ve spoken to former teammates who had long careers and those who never played a senior game, and there’s a common feeling of emptiness when their careers ended. It doesn’t matter how many properties you bought during your career, or how many times you kicked the ball between the tall posts; when a large piece of your self-worth has been built around being a football player, there is a painful gap that is left.
This is why I like the idea of lifting the draft age, because I think it can help reduce this gap. Give kids a year or two in a world without the dietitians, physios, doctors or welfare managers, and let them see what real hard work looks like when there isn’t a team of people putting you at the centre of the universe. Let them sit in a lecture theatre full of 500 kids who don’t know what the hell the MCG is and who are pulling all-nighters in the library to get the marks they need. Let them work on the tools and be knee-deep in literal shit so that when they do get to play in the AFL, they have perspective and understand what a dream coming true actually means, by knowing how a world without it feels.
When the time comes, football will still be there, and it might be only a year or two later, but I guarantee they’ll be in a better place to deal with its pressures and appreciate how fortunate they are to get paid ridiculous amounts to play the game they love. Then, when they stop playing, be it after a long career or a handful of games, an adult world without football won’t be completely foreign to them because they have already spent time in it.