Patrick Dangerfield is one of the AFL’s big stars — but will he and the game remain as popular if pay squabbles continue? (AAP: Michael Dodge)
AFL a masterclass in social distance signalling — maintaining a facade of following the rules
When people are hurting there is a natural inclination to turn on those we believe are refusing to share the pain.
So, inevitably, professional athletes have become popular targets for ridicule as they seek to negotiate, even minimise, compulsory cuts to what are, in some cases, lucrative contracts.
The AFL Players Association, particularly, has been attacked for creating the impression its members are quibbling about reductions at a time when front office and boot room staff have been laid off.
The AFLPA initially suggested a 50 per cent pay cut, the AFL wants 79 per cent.
NRL players have been told they might have to take an 87 per cent cut. A-League and Super Rugby players must wonder if there will even be a pie left to slice.
As we have found when our leaders stammer through press conferences or equivocate about isolation measures, clear messaging is vital at a time when the entire population is gripped by fear and uncertainty.
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So when AFLPA president Patrick Dangerfield mentioned the players’ recent involvement in a bushfire charity in the context of their potential sacrifice, one of the game’s surest ball handlers committed an awful clanger.
Need we mention the players merely donated their time to play the bushfire game, just as thousands of volunteers and charity workers do every day without receiving the back-slapping afforded AFL stars?
AFL players donated their time for the bushfire relief match, but it wasn’t that big a deal in the scheme of things. (AAP: Michael Dodge)
Or that many of the club supporters who chipped in to ensure the match raised $6 million have had their wages reduced by 100 per cent — without the privilege of negotiation, nor the prospect they will be reinstated in a few months when the new normality begins?
No need at all. The hanging judges on the talkback lines and social media beat us to it.
Dangerfield’s comments played into a common preconception — “out of touch millionaire sports stars are trying to protect their vast fortunes while the rest of the world suffers”.
Jan Grimoldby tweet: Why are we supposed to feel so sad for AFL players and staff? Players say they’ll take a 50 per cent pay cut. So, they get paid 50 per cent of lots for doing nothing. Just no work but plenty of gravy.
Yet, while the Geelong captain’s sentiment was unfortunate, it is far too glib to suggest professional athletes have become detached from what we call the “real world”.
What is the real world anyway?
Are well-paid sports stars any more detached from our mundane financial realities than millionaire stockbrokers, or wealthy business owners or, for that matter, the highly paid executives that administer their games or pundits who commentate on them?
Instead I suspect, rather than sheer greed the factor that created some reluctance among athletes to immediately accept their new reality was one shared by most — the delusion our wealth was eternal.
For a generation of athletes that has known nothing but good financial times in sports that have enjoyed a continuous period of prosperity thanks largely to ever-inflating media rights deals, this is understandable.
In cricket the game’s wealth escalated so rapidly that the participants’ negotiated share meant their wages were disproportionately high.
AFL players have seen nine figure investments in expansion franchises and Docklands purchased seemingly with the coins that fell down the back of chief executive Gil McLachlan’s couch; NRL players have witnessed the game create its own vast internal media network while clubs squander cash that could have been used to fortify the game.
Training facilities like Collingwood’s are lying idle while the league is closed down due to the coronavirus. (AAP: Michael Dodge)
In most sports the construction of “state-of-the-art” facilities, the expansion of coaching panels, improved sports science and the introduction of data analytics created the impression there was as much money to spend as things that it could be spent on.
So can athletes be blamed for believing their game’s wealth was eternal and their wages were not merely a fair representation of their value to wealthy leagues, but almost a birthright?
The current generation of full-time sports stars are also the beneficiaries of the rapid transition from amateur to full-time professional sport.
Zac Jardine tweet: Who gives a toss what pay cut AFL players are taking. The industry struggling to come to terms with how insignificant it is.
For some of us, it does not seem that long ago when the guy who kicked the winning goal on Saturday afternoon would sell you a pair of sneakers, pull your beer or even collect your rubbish during the week.
The almost simultaneous transition to full-time professionalism in the four football codes, particularly, has created fierce competition for elite athletes in a small market.
The AFL boasts it offers 800 jobs paying an average wage of $380,000 per year.
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Football and basketball point to the vast salaries to be made in a truly international sport — which, as an aside, might explain the difficulty local leagues have had gaining traction.
Once the decision about which sport a talented teenager played was based on which they loved most or which suited their skills best. Now, as often, it is which is likely to pay the most.
Thus for a generation of talented athletes the wealth created by their talent has not merely been a bonus or a privilege but an expectation.
This is not to condemn contemporary sports stars for their choices and certainly not their pay packets. But it helps explain their bewilderment at the current situation, if not their reluctance to take cuts.
But the world will have changed for professional athletes, as it will for everyone, when we finally open the doors and walk out blinking into the new world.
So by all means condemn those who don’t eventually understand the need for drastic pay cuts, but forgive some initial hesitation and uncertainty.