Dustin Martin kicks the footy in the season opener against Carlton on Thursday night. (AAP: Michael Dodge)
AFL a masterclass in social distance signalling — maintaining a facade of following the rules
An admission — I. Love. Footy.
When the AFL’s chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, announced on Wednesday night that the season would go ahead, more than a little part of me selfishly leapt for joy.
I have no doubt millions did the same, or that it was exactly the same for all those passionate rugby league fans when the NRL’s chief executive, Todd Greenberg, made the same announcement about his game earlier in the week.
The very fact that the AFL took an extra 24 hours to come to a decision about the season points to the fact that it was an incredibly difficult one to make. The health of individuals and the greater good of the health of our community is literally at stake.
But I was pleased.
And I say this with the rational part of my sceptical, journalist’s brain telling me, loudly, that this makes no sense.
Because one of the remarks that cut through the most in this crazy week came from the registered medical practitioner and Federal Liberal MP Andrew Laming, in his call for a ban on contact sports.
“We simply can’t treat players like they’re a form of entertainment that keeps us busy while we’re all trying to self-isolate,” Mr Laming said.
“So, you simply can’t be swapping secretions, tackling and playing this kind of intense physical sport.”
But it’s happening.
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There is a profound disconnect in the calls by the Government and the chief health officers that all of us should be practicing social-distancing while at the same time footballers are practicing the very definition of social-closing.
And they’re doing it with the most bizarre conceit that they’re practicing the highest level of hygienic standards by not shaking hands before they embrace each other at high velocity sharing breath, spittle and sweat at close range.
Or that footballs are being washed while at the same time we are watching Carlton’s Patrick Cripps lick his hands to make them stickier for when he touches that freshly cleaned ball.
It’s time to drop that pretence.
Those players ARE engaging in a form of a madness, playing contact sport in the midst of a one-in-a-hundred-year pandemic.
Why are they doing it? There is surely a myriad of reasons — to protect the thousands of jobs that hang off our two biggest professional sporting codes, perhaps because they’ve been told to, clearly because they want to and, they say, for us.
We know that because the AFL Player’s Association’s chief executive, Paul Marsh, said this week after hook-ups with the entire playing community of both the men’s and women’s competitions, “AFL and AFLW players want to play”.
“They know how much people love and need football. The players feel a deep sense of responsibility to deliver,” he said.
The chief executive of the New Zealand Warriors, Cameron George, said his club was showing leadership by making the difficult decision to relocate to Australia and away from family and friends to continue playing in the NRL.
“The deciding factor was that it’s our time to be leaders in the community and rugby league,” George said.
“We’re going to stand tall and be leaders and take it on.”
So how can this happen? How is it we can suspend our disbelief while men and women go about an activity that is inherently dangerous?
Perhaps we are treating the players like entertainment for our benefit, as Mr Laming said, but we are told they have made the decision themselves.
Marsh said the players were concerned about their own health and their families but received assurances by the Victorian Chief Medical Officer and the AFL.
Consider too that the Commonwealth’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, was involved in the lengthy talks with the AFL Commission before the season was given the green light.
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Similarly, the NRL has been given high-level medical advice. A spokesman for the NRL said the league was being incredibly cautious. It has a pathology company on hand to test players if they show any symptoms.
The football clubs are able to be meticulous with the safeguards they put in place. If anyone has even the slightest sniffle, they are sent home. We’ve seen it already in both the AFL and the NRL.
Yes, there is self-interest involved. Yes, of course, millions of dollars are at stake. It would be naïve to suggest that the codes are acting entirely for the greater good and not themselves and the millions of dollars that are at risk through their TV deals. But not everything is black and white. Almost everything is a shade of grey.
And so, we benefit.
Because in these crazy unprecedented times, when all manner of normality has gone out the window, and where we are all craving for something familiar, we need it.
We need an outlet for our passion.
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And if that’s the otherwise mindless pursuit of watching men and women run around after a ball to kick it between some posts or put it over a line, so be it.
We need a connection to something we love. Because at the moment, people are dying, people are fighting in the supermarket aisles, businesses are going under, employees are losing their jobs, people are fearful, kids are scared, we can’t go out, we can’t see our friends and in some cases our family the way we used to. We can’t do so much of what it is to be human.
It may be counter-intuitive but — for now — fit and healthy athletes are doing what they’ve been training for six months to do, and doing what they want to do. The door is open for any conscientious objectors, but none have put up their hand.
What we won’t know perhaps for quite some time is whether the decisions the two codes have made were a calculated risk or extreme foolishness.
We do know that both the AFL and NRL will close down the moment an athlete tests positive to the coronavirus.
And it will happen.
But in the meantime, however selfish it may be, the football is giving us something to cheer for in these bleakest of times.