In recent days, we have seen the announcements of the immediate or pending retirement of three fine players, Hayes, Maxwell and Cassisi, and doubtless the next few weeks they will be joined by many more.
All three played over 200 games for their clubs, were one-club players, all captains, with two saluting on Grand Final day and the other one going close twice, with a Norm Smith to boot.
In amongst all the platitudes and tributes though, a comment that came through in relation to the first two, and possibly about to be asked of the third, rang clear for me. These were questions all variations on a similar theme, asked of them or about them constantly following their announcements:
What next, Coaching or the media?
Are you interested in a role in the media? Do you see yourself as a coach? He’d be great as a special comments man? Will you be joining the club as an assistant coach? He’ll definitely coach somewhere.
I was struck by the view that this was where all players immediately go to. Yes, a quick look at the TV coverage, boundary riders, commentators, columnists or within the coaches’ box shows that this isn’t an unreasonable opinion.
But, nobody ever seems to ask, “So, are you going to get your travel agent’s licence now?”, “Are you going to open a green grocery?”, “Are you going to TAFE to get a trade?”
Likewise, few players seem to have a plan for beyond football, or at least one they are able to share upon retirement. Few say that they are going to complete their unfinished Uni degree, or become a builder or follow their dream to be a farmer/accountant/sales rep/policeman/teacher/butcher/doctor, etc.
It made me think of how clubs and the AFL prepare players for life after football or how players prepare themselves.
I know there is admirable work being done by both the AFL and the AFLPA on preparing players for life post-retirement, both financially and emotionally. I believe that a page has been taken from the US experience, where an astonishingly high percentage of ex-NFL players suffer depression or bankruptcy not long after finishing in the sport. NBA suffers a similar situation too.
So I worry about the fact that few players seem to know or have their plan ready for when they finish. Bear in mind the three I have mentioned chose to finish, and have had long careers. Many others are faced with the end of their dream and one stage of their life/career/high earning capacity, much earlier and often not of their choosing. They don’t get big press conferences when they finish.
We seem to get excited by the isolated examples of careers players have post-football or those who have careers or plans whilst playing. Wow, Leigh Colbert is now a pilot! Did you hear that Chris Dawes is actually studying law? Hey, that great charity is run by that ex-Essendon bloke Mark Bolton.
Being an AFL footballer in the modern game leaves little time for outside study or employment. And it is fair to say that with the earning capacity many of them have, well above the average for people their age, and with less education normally (at least at a tertiary level due to training commitments) there’s little interest or need to do so.
With the vast majority of the modern footballer population, this has been their home since they were 18 years old. And it’s full time.
However, if the view of football observers or the football media is that a player will naturally gravitate towards the media or coaching, it belies the fact that there are still few roles available in those fields. And that even fewer make it their career in either arena.
There has been debate recently about raising the age for players to be eligible to be drafted. Part of the thinking here is that it will give players at 18 years old the ability to concentrate better on their final year of school, instead of having the pressure of TAC football and draft camps whilst doing VCE. This at least would give them some base to return to should football not eventuate as a career, or if it does, when it eventually ends.
So why do we only see Lenny Hayes as a potential coach? Or Nick Maxwell as being a natural for Friday night on Channel 7. Maybe they both will, that could be their dream.
But I am intrigued by the small number of players who seem to be able to approach finishing and have a plan to look outside the norm, or their industry, and seek new opportunities. Or, have the skills to do so.
The irony is that the AFL athlete is becoming a full time professional yet his tenure in the game at the same time is probably becoming shorter.
There are enough stories of players who will say that their career dream was to play AFL. Or, that if they hadn’t made the AFL, then they would have fallen on hard times, like many of their colleagues as teenagers. AFL saves many people, sets many up and creates opportunities for people to be successful.
But, after that? When they are discarded or delisted. When they retire, unable to go on? When their bodies can’t do what they need it to do?
And when the income stops? Not to mention the attention, regimen and mateship. They can’t all become coaches or work in the media.
What do they know of football, who only football know?