The AFL’s many failings are laid bare in a new book providing insights into conflicts between money, power and justice, writes former Australian Rules footballer Allan Hird.
In Michael Warner, Australia can now claim to have one of the best investigative reporters in the world. Bernstein and Woodward put investigative journalism on the map when they broke the Watergate story last century. Warner has made his mark as an investigative reporter with his book, The Boys’ Club. What’s more, he writes lucidly and simply about complex issues.
Warner, the Herald Sun’s Australian Rules Football journalist, has dug deeply into the operations of the AFL, the country’s premier sporting body (if wealth and audience reach are the metrics). He has exposed something very troubling. Every Australian should read The Boys’ Club. Every sports lover must read it to understand the threats to the games we love playing and watching.
The AFL gets ‘free kicks’ from governments.
Warner knew which rocks to turn over and who he needed to talk to, to reveal what was behind the series of events that have made sporting headlines in the 21st century. Sadly, those headlines were not about what happened on the playing field but about the AFL’s modus operandi when protecting the AFL brand.
The Boys’ Club: Power, Politics and the AFL
Hachette Australia, 2021,
The theme of The Boys’ Club is power and its misuse. Warner describes a series of vignettes—based on diligent research, including interviews with key individuals—examining the scandals that have dogged the AFL this century.
Warner gets behind the AFL spin and produces a disturbing picture of misuse of power and a disregard for the rights of individuals. Those vignettes are many and include: a culture of bullying and sexism towards women employed by the AFL; the cover-up by the AFL of the use of illicit drugs by West Coast footballers during the first decade of this century (including the year it won the premiership); the punishment of the Sydney Swans for having the temerity to recruit Buddy Franklin (within the AFL rules) when the AFL wanted Franklin to play with Greater Western Sydney; the Melbourne ‘tanking’ affair (more of that later); and, of course, the Essendon affair.
Richard Colless, the former West Coast Eagles and Sydney Swans chairman, points out in the book that Australian Rules football has natural advantages, including the uniqueness of the game itself, and a huge national following that has endured for more than 100 years.
Warner argues the AFL has enormous influence and power as the AFL is not taxed and governments at all levels fund sporting venues for Australian Rules football through the AFL, and not through community football. He discusses the ‘free kicks’ the AFL gets from governments and goes to some length to question the AFL’s tax-free status.
He makes a compelling argument for reviewing the tax-free status and includes in his reasons the outrageously generous salaries paid to the CEO and other senior executives; salaries that far outstrip the Prime Minister’s or the players who put the game on each week. Warner pinpoints the AFL’s ability to wield almost dictatorial power back to the fateful decision, in late 1984, of the 12 Victorian Football League clubs to cede their control of the game to the VFL Commission. As Warner reports, the self-interests of the 12 clubs held back the VFL’s development and a commission accountable to the clubs but with the authority to develop the game was the way to go.
This approach worked well with the VFL merging into the AFL as the game became national with the addition of clubs in Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland. Disturbingly though, in the 1990s the AFL disbanded the Australian National Football Council (ANFC) which had for more than 100 years been responsible for the rules of the game and for providing an independent avenue for State leagues and community football to have their views aired and discussed. The ANFC’s demise removed any say by State or community football.
But while the commission operated effectively, and kept a close eye on the AFL’s executive, the AFL remained accountable to the AFL clubs.
The change happened in the mid-2000s under the new chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick, and the new CEO, Andrew Demetriou. According to Warner, unlike his predecessors, Fitzpatrick was a hands-off chairman who gave Demetriou a free rein which turned out to be—to put it euphemistically—a ‘mixed blessing’.
Throughout the book, Warner is careful to provide balance. He reports many positive comments about Demetriou from past AFL directors and past and present chairmen of clubs. Those comments focus on Demetriou’s ability to extract funding from governments and to do media deals that saw rivers of gold flow into the AFL’s coffers. Those who knew Demetriou also spoke favourably about his ability to get things done and his ruthlessness when he pursued what he believed was necessary.
Warner exposes a regime prepared to go to any lengths to protect the AFL brand. He forensically pulls apart the AFL’s dark workings. Two examples covered by Warner illustrate his thesis clearly: the Melbourne ‘tanking’ affair; and the Essendon supplements program.
The AFL is a top-down socialist organisation.
‘Tanking’ in AFL parlance means deliberately losing games to gain priority in the AFL’s draft. The AFL is a top-down socialist organisation that attempts to level things out between the 18 constituent clubs. Thus, in the annual draft, when clubs get to pick budding players the worse a club has performed in the previous year, the higher picks they have in the next year’s draft. This, of course, provides a perverse incentive for clubs to lose games.
As Warner reports, in 2012 the story broke that back in 2009 Melbourne had deliberately lost games to exploit the AFL’s draft system. This became a story the AFL could not bury, unlike for example the use of illicit drugs by West Coast footballers during its premiership year. It wasn’t just a bad look for the AFL, it was a genuine threat to the significant revenue stream the AFL got through gambling. Ordinary punters had to believe clubs competed on their merits if they were to continue to bet on AFL games. Betting companies would not continue to sponsor the AFL if games were ‘fixed’. Worse still, the matter had been reported to the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation.
The AFL had to act and, led by Gillon McLachlan (then deputy CEO), conducted an investigation. The outcome was a whitewash. Melbourne was cleared of deliberately losing games with McLachlan, in Warner’s words, “astonishing admission that he didn’t even know what the definition of tanking was”.
However, every AFL scandal needs a face.
However, as Warner shows in the Essendon supplements affair, every AFL scandal needs a face. In the Melbourne ‘tanking’ affair it could not be the people who ran the club, because that would have been an admission the club had not competed on its merits in 2009.
Instead the AFL settled on the coach Dean Bailey, who as Warner persuasively argues had done his best to have the team he coached perform on its merits.
Bailey was threatened with being banned from working in the AFL industry, the only work he knew, unless he took a 16-week suspension. Warner depicts Bailey as an honourable man who in his own words was not “a cheat”. To protect his livelihood Bailey took the penalty and later worked as an assistant coach at Adelaide. Bailey died of cancer in 2014. As Warner reports, Bailey died believing there was a link between his cancer and the AFL’s tanking investigation.
The cause célèbre of all AFL scandals, and indeed of Australian sporting scandals, is the Essendon supplements program that led to 34 Essendon footballers being banned for the 2016 AFL season. Warner gets behind the media smokescreen the AFL put up in 2013 to manage the outcome to reveal how the AFL attempted to protect the AFL brand.
The chapter ‘Cashed-up Bogans’, a term coined by Steven Amendola, James Hird’s lawyer, to describe the AFL executive, perfectly captures the machinations the AFL engaged in to limit brand damage. Warner shows how the AFL worked with the Gillard government and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA, now Sports Integrity Australia) to have the players cleared, while selected Essendon employees were to be punished by the AFL. The AFL kept its part of the bargain but unfortunately for the players a new ASADA CEO, appointed by the incoming Coalition government, prosecuted the players who were found by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to have taken a prohibited substance. While the AFL to this day continues to assert the players did nothing wrong, it banned them for the 2016 AFL season.
The lack of respect the AFL has for the rights of individuals, as in the Dean Bailey case, is starkly evident in the treatment of James Hird, the Essendon coach. In Warner’s words:
[Hird and his lawyer Steven Amendola] were met by McLachlan and his former VAFA state teammate, the AFL’s general counsel Andrew Dillon, and it became clear very early in the discussion that a proposed twelve-month ban for Hird was non-negotiable.
It was all about the ‘optics’ the Bombers coach was told, because the scandal required a face.
Hird was denied a fair hearing and was threatened with his club incurring draconian penalties unless he stood down for the 2014 season as coach. Like Bailey, Hird had to be the face that protected the AFL brand.
The Essendon Football Club was severely punished by the AFL for the way it ran its supplements program. Despite qualifying for the 2013 finals the AFL replaced Essendon with its arch rivals Carlton, the club was fined $2 million, and lost draft picks in subsequent years.
Warner agrees the penalties were justified. The basis for his opinion is the AFL’s version of events and a review the Essendon Football Club had Ziggy Switkowski conduct; a review which the club refuses to this day to release. Leaving aside the veracity of the information relied on to support the penalties, the penalties themselves hit the wrong people.
Warner has shown power needs to be checked and shared.
The players earned their spot in the 2013 finals in a very difficult year and—as the AFL maintains to this day—did nothing wrong. Then why punish them? The supporters followed the team faithfully throughout the 2013 season, paid their money each week, and probably bought finals tickets based on a reasonable expectation their team had qualified and would, therefore, play in the finals. The supporters did nothing wrong, why then punish them? AFL justice is indeed a curious thing. The AFL claims Essendon had run a bad supplements program that was dangerous to its players. Who did it punish? Not the Board that governed the club. Not the club’s executive that managed the club. No, it punished the players and supporters.
Buy this book. It is important because it highlights how a concentration of power that is not answerable to anyone can be so dangerous. Michael Warner has done us all a service by exposing the way the AFL operates. As Warner writes in his first chapter:
Unlike its rival sporting codes—cricket, soccer and rugby league—the AFL was its own world governing body, unelected and answerable to no one. A culture of arrogance, a sense of entitlement, and the absence of accountability contaminated the AFL administration. Transparency and due process were discarded, replaced by horse trading, intimidation and heavily negotiated backroom deals. Anybody or anything that stood in the path of the modern AFL was steamrolled or sacrificed to protect the empire.
The lessons to be learned here go beyond Australian Rules football and sport. Warner has shown power needs to be checked and shared. His book is nothing less than a lesson in how our democracy depends upon the three arms of government—the executive, the parliament and the judiciary—remaining healthy and robust in exercising their roles.
Allan Hird is a former Australian Rules footballer who played with Essendon in the (then) Victorian Football League (VFL), and is a past president of AFL Canberra. His father Allan Hird Sr (1918–2007) was also at Essendon where he played in a premiership, coached and was club president, and his son, James Hird, played for and coached Essendon.