To play AFL in 2020, or not to play. That is the question

But a smaller increase is still an increase. The numbers are still rising. The peak is still to come, and when it passes, the other side won’t be all downhill.

This week, I heard a health professional say authorities might at some point have to “antagonise” the flattening curve to speed up progression towards herd immunity. Descending this peak will be like descending Everest.

Even if the hubs get a green light, are they a sound idea? It would further isolate young men who have already been isolated at home for months, adding stress to already stressed families. Patrick Dangerfield for one is doubtful. On the spectrum of harms, that is not to be disregarded.

Then there are ancillary staff, broadcasters and emergency medical crews. Unable to fly in and fly out, they would have to isolate, too. That makes for quite a community, living in close quarters.

And even if that box could be satisfactorily ticked, what sort of message does the whole scheme send to the rest of us? The AFL says all players and staff would be tested beforehand. That is, they would move to the front of a long, long queue. With resources still scarce, no one else gets tested unless they have symptoms or are elderly.

If and when they do play, it’s footy, an intensely physical game. The rest of us are injuncted to steer wide berths, congregate no more than two at a time and wash our hands frequently. Not even in lanework is footy played that way. That’s not to say it would be unsafe for them, just that it would be a rule for them that is different from the rule for us.

Richmond v Carlton at a near-empty MCG.Credit:AAP

But isn’t that lesser harm? These are dog days. We’re all locked up at home, millions of us, working or, worse, not working. If we are out, we’re uneasy. The horizon is flat and endless.

Absent sport to play or watch, we’re going back to mist up over old games or play new games virtually. It might satisfy for now, but it won’t for long. You can sense the unrest, and sometimes hear it. It’s the mental health dimension.

Rightly or not, footy already was a panacea. Now it could be seen as an essential service, not so much above the law as exempt from some laws. Staging AFL footy now might not only mitigate harm, but bring some cheer and relief.

Maybe. For a start, there is no start. No one can say if the season will proceed, let alone when. That’s no one’s fault, but it doesn’t help.

Supposing a re-launch becomes possible, and even allowing for a three-week mini pre-season, the players will not be match fit. Possibly only a rowing eight would be more inconvenienced by this period in solitary than a footy team.

Probably, they will be playing in spring and summer, hardly footy weather; with modified rules, in empty stadiums. The sum of it all is bound to be a lesser spectacle. Fans tuned in to long-ago round one and its novelty value, but by common consent found the experience as hollow as the stadiums. So did players.

One of the harms the AFL must take into the reckoning is to the sport’s integrity.


Pick the least harm out of all that. Empirically, it’s not possible. Viscerally, something seems awry. The AFL has done well so far, moving swiftly to reduce costs, furlough staff, strike agreement with the players on a pay cut and shore up finances. Now it is persevering in trying to jerry-build a season, and it feels like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.

A written-off season would be miserable, but not the end. For a real worst-case scenario, look not at the vacant footy grounds, but all around and about you.

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