Then the players showed themselves to be even more out of touch with the unfolding calamity demanding more time to resolve their pay readjustment. At a time clubs were given one or two days to stand down up to 80 per cent of their staff, Marsh and his players at first suggested that it could take months to untangle their thicket of contractual complexities.
To Marsh’s credit, the deal was done within days, but not before a significant amount of damage was done to the players’ and therefore the game’s standing in the community. Players pointing out they were still being drug tested in isolation and had to stay fit, mentioning their mortgages and using the bushfire game to underline their selflessness underlined their existence outside the most people’s reality.
Then, having achieved by comparison an extraordinarily generous new deal which for some footballers won’t provide a big incentive to actually return to play, this week’s biggest issue has been the players’ resistance to the prospect of living and playing within quarantine hubs for up to 20 weeks.
Again a communication breakdown seems to have fuelled the players’ distress. Some senior players have scoffed at the AFL’s alleged primary focus upon their mental health and wellbeing when the priority is clearly putting money in the bank to insure the future.
The AFL and clubs, in turn, appear aghast that Marsh took the worst-case scenario of hubs – a scenario that seems remote – directly to the players and Marsh has hit back, saying it was the only scenario he was given. Head office suggested Marsh should have waited until he had more information.
A recurring theme of this pandemic is that every time a major issue or proposal is presented to the players it comes with little previous consultation from McLachlan and his team – and usually at the last minute. The clunky nature of remotely addressing 800 or so young men probably doesn’t help.
But again, in an environment where so many Australians are being forced to significantly reassess their lifestyles and long-term futures, the players emerged from the hub conversation looking entitled and out of touch.
Last year’s joint mental health initiative, in which the AFL and the union created a national network for players and appointment of league-based doctors Kate Hall and Ranjit Menon, looked to be a portent for a new productive relationship between the two bodies. But that proved a false dawn.
Not only was the AFLPA excluded from early key decisions but they have been left out of every major working group established in recent weeks to help advise the rebuilding of the game – this includes a return-to-play advisory group, a talent pathways committee and a third group advising on the needs of football departments. Surely players should have been represented somewhere.
If AFL footballers have been quarantined from the real world then the entire industry is at fault, including the league executive and the clubs.
It’s all very well to blame Marsh and his leadership and question the structure of the players’ association, funded as it is by the AFL, but the game could have done better during the COVID-19 crisis by keeping its life force inside the tent.
Clubs facing insolvency had no choice but to acquiesce, but unionised footballers are a different matter. And all of the above comes in the context of forthcoming CBA negotiations looming as soon as next month or July. A significant pay cut is coming with the new forecast broadcast deal along with a brutal conversation over list sizes.
It serves no one in the game for club members who have stuck steadfast to lose faith in their heroes. Nor does the impression of entitled players help the AFL’s reputation in New South Wales and Queensland at a time when NRL players are offering Australian rules such a blatant free kick.
Caroline Wilson is a Walkley award-winning columnist and former chief football writer for The Age.