Creeping wowserism: the AFL is making a rod for its own back

On Saturday 10 March 2012 the Stansbury Cricket Club won their ninth consecutive Lower Yorke Peninsula Cricket Association A grade premiership.  The next day the team celebrated at a local hotel, in an area that was not open to the general public.  They were joined by a teammate who had been unable to play in the final.  That young man joined in a team tradition – he stripped to his boxer shorts and may or may not – reports differ – have “sculled” a beer in the process.  According to people who were present he was not drunk and he did not abuse anyone.

Undoubtedly there was much backslapping, happiness and camaraderie.

What a boring story.

So let’s spice it up a bit.  Let’s make it into something that can be the subject of an AFL Club investigation and press conference – something that can command almost daily reporting in the SA and even national footy press.

The young man’s name is Bernie Vince, player for the Adelaide Football Club.  The “incident” was reported to Adelaide radio station 5AA by email – the author(s) of the email claimed to be members of the AFC, that Bernie’s actions were “disgraceful” and that they would be returning their memberships in protest.  5AA passed this email on to the AFC – after, of course, giving it plenty of airtime and before, of course, doing any fact-checking.

The AFC has been unable to find the name of the email’s author in their membership database and the author has not responded to emails from the club.

After investigating the “incident”, and finding no corroboration from other people present at the pub for the claims in the email, the club’s CEO, Steven Trigg said that “it was a silly thing to do … it’s another silly action .. the latest in a few silly things that Bernie has undertaken.” [from press conference video published on AFL website]

(One wonders if Triggy was thinking of other people, not just Bernie, when he repeatedly used the word “silly”.)

The club required Bernie to buy 30 double passes to the NAB Cup Grand Final; these were distributed to members.  There was no other sanction and no suspension (this was reported by Michelangelo Rucci in the Adelaide Advertiser as “Adelaide also put a ban on hold”, which is pretty much the equivalent of saying that a judge “decided not to jail” a person who has just been acquitted).

Sorry – it’s getting boring again.  Let’s spice it up again, with a look at Bernie’s prior rap sheet:

  • 2007: Suspended by club for breaching a team curfew (by, apparently 20 minutes).
  • 2010: Suspended by leadership group for a late night out with Matthew Jaensch after a Friday night game in Melbourne.
  • Boxing Day 2011: Was with a group of people who were asked to leave the Adelaide Casino when one of them indulged in offensive/antisocial behaviour.  Vince was not one of those specifically asked to leave, nor was he accused of any bad behaviour.

Wow.  A veritable Brendan Fevola.

And just to put the nail in the coffin of any hopes I might have of becoming a tabloid journalist, let’s look at just some of the stories written by journalists who know how the game really works:

  • Vince in the firing line again [Michelangelo Rucci, AdelaideNow.com.au, 12 March]
    CROWS midfielder Bernie Vince is embroiled in his third off-field drama in less than two years, bringing into collision his social life and the demands of an AFL footballer…
  • Crunch time for Crows’ Bernie Vince [Michelangelo Rucci, AdelaideNow.com.au, 13 March]
    CROWS midfielder Bernie Vince is again testing his last chance at Adelaide after admitting to another poor choice at the weekend.

     And with his boxer shorts moment Vince has new coach Brenton Sanderson facing his first test of disciplining players – a task that strained Neil Craig’s relationships at the AFL club, in particular with Vince…
  • Bernie Vince told to buy 60 tickets for NAB Cup final [Michelangelo Rucci, AdelaideNow.com.au, 16 March]
    BERNIE Vince is sorry and fears he will be making farewells if he lands in hot water again…
    (Yes, that’s right – 3 stories over 5 days, and that’s just from one outlet)
  • Bernie Vince on thin ice at Crows [AdelaideNow.com.au, as reposted via optuszoo.com.au]
    BERNIE Vince has put himself on a tightrope with the Crows ready to dump their top-notch midfielder if his social life again tarnishes the Adelaide Football Club…

Yeah.  That’s how it should be done.

Back to Steven Trigg: “Bernie is a loved and integral part of our organisation, but the silliness that goes with it sometimes is a distraction to us. “We love his spirit, we don’t want to take the fun out of (Bernie) and we want him to play with flair … but a little lapse in judgment creates days of distraction.” [as reported on AdelaideNow.com.au]

This was a theme echoed by Bernie when he said “”(I’m) pretty embarrassed by the whole thing. Hopefully, that’s the last you will hear of me in that sense. I’ve wasted a lot of people’s time and effort behind the scenes here at the club – it is something they don’t need and something I don’t need.” [AdelaideNow.com.au]

Because that’s what the problem really is.  It’s not about breaking the law, or offending people, or engaging in antisocial behaviour.  It’s about “distraction” and it’s only a “distraction” because the claims of anonymous and malicious gossips are reported ad nauseum by the media – to the general boredom and frustration of footy fans who just want to read real news, real stories and real analysis of our rich and interesting game.

If Bernie’s actions had been given the media space they deserved (i.e. none) then there would be no “distraction”.  There would be no need for press conferences and public statements.  There would be no need for a club CEO to struggle to find words to describe the “incident” and come up with “silly”.

And it’s no defence (of the media) to claim that this sort of tripe “sells papers” or that it’s “what people want to read”.  Because it doesn’t sell papers, and it’s not what people want to read.  Quite the reverse, in my experience – the commentary about this incident on footy blogs (you know, where real footy fans hang out and write what they think) is liberally sprinkled with negative and frustrated comments about the role of the media in beating up these non-events.  And not because those fans are being defensive of their club or their players, but because they are genuinely tired of (and increasingly unwilling to pay for) this sort of shallow and irrelevant “coverage” of the great unfolding sporting drama that is an AFL season.

(And let’s not even talk about Taylor Walker, who was hauled through the court of the media for – shock! – drinking a beer at a SANFL match.)

But none of that is news, and I’m not writing this to bemoan the parlous state of the footy media in this country and especially in my State.  That would be like complaining about rainy weather in winter.

The real problem the AFL needs to tackle is not the media or the malicious gossips who feed unverified, exaggerated and anonymous reports to the media in the certain knowledge that they will get their 15 minutes of “fame” without any need to back up or prove what they say.

The real problem is that the AFL has adopted a progressively more spineless and appeasing attitude to the tabloid press and the gossips.  Over recent years the standard for off-field behaviour for AFL players  has risen from “community standards” to “above community standards” to “monk-like”.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = “feral” and 10 = “what you’d do at Buckingham Palace” the standard for AFL players currently stands at about 15.

Every time the AFL or one of its clubs panders to the gossips and the prudes with even a token sanction for a trivial incident, they give a little ground and they make it that much harder for themselves when the next one comes up (as it surely will).

And it’s not just about the AFL and the clubs – they’re big enough and rich enough to employ an army of media advisers to deal with this stuff.  No, it’s more important and basic than that.

The AFL and the clubs have a responsibility to the young men who play this sport and make so much money for the executives who run the game (as well as, of course, for themselves).  They have a right to demand high standards of off field behaviour, yes – but they also have a responsibility to draw a line in front of the media and the gossips and the prudes and the wowsers.  They have a responsibility to set standards that are reasonable, not those of a monastery.  They have a responsibility to tell the media and the gossips where to get off.

They have a responsibility to push back against this tide of sensationalism and prurience:  to say “there’s nothing to it” when there really isn’t, and not make up placatory statements that give even the slightest credence to trivial “complaints”.  (And I use quotes around “complaints” because there is serious doubt that the Vince email was actually a genuine “complaint”.)

(It would be insulting to quote Martin Niemoller’s “First they came for the Communists…” poem in this context. But by crikey I’m tempted, because even if the situation of an AFL player doesn’t compare to that of the groups mentioned by Niemoller, there’s still something in it.)

The AFL code of conduct, as publicly stated, should read something like this:

We expect our players to hold themselves to a high standard of conduct when in public and away from the club.  We expect them to abide by the law, to represent their club and their game in a good light at all times, and to not engage in offensive or antisocial conduct.  Players need to understand that with the privilege of being an AFL player comes great responsibility – to their club, its sponsors and the members and supporters.

We do not require them to keep their pants on in country pubs.

 

Comments

  1. Tony Robb says:

    Hear hear Richard Terrific article. The poor reporting and acceptance or poor reporting is a disgrace Sadly it is just reflection of tabloid media in general and an apathetic and equally lazy readership that fails to question the drivel that spews from it
    Cheers
    TR

  2. John Harms says:

    Richard, You’ve organised the voting for the Tuck Medal very well over there. Bernie won it hands down. What was the cricket club by the way?

  3. Richard – well said. The fun police are evrywhere. Can’t even enjoy a pint on St Paddy’s day anymore without being frowned upon by some.

  4. Peter Baulderstone says:

    Absolute drivel, Richard.
    As I said to the Avenging Eagle at quarter time – “that immoral, licentious ball magnet should be immediately suspended for the next 3 quarters.”

  5. Pamela Sherpa says:

    ‘We do not require them to keep their pants on in country pubs ‘ absolutely love it .
    Go Bernie -be the star you are on the field and the person you are off it.

  6. John – that would be the STansbury Cricket Club :)

  7. PS: When Bernie was announced as the M Tuck Medal winner, the crowd went OFF.

  8. Richard
    The great paradox is that, in this era of homogenisation,
    the AFL is constantly searching for “characters” on whom
    to market their product (particularly in the frontiers, i.e.
    B Fevola, B Hall, even as far back as W Capper!), but at the
    same time the industry will not tolerate any square pegs
    which do not fit into its carefully constructed round holes.

  9. “Every time the AFL or one of its clubs panders to the gossips and the prudes with even a token sanction for a trivial incident, they give a little ground and they make it that much harder for themselves when the next one comes up (as it surely will).”

    Very true in all aspects of our lives. It appears that human nature is such that rather than appreciate what is gained, humans merely set new benchmarks against which they want more. I can only see it ending in tears….

  10. John Butler says:

    Richard, it seems the punitive impulse works in many different ways. Not just players.

    Hard to see where any of it is getting us.

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