AFL General Writing: He’s not a role model, he’s just a naughty boy

By John Butler

A fine football season has reached a fitting climax. The rituals of triumph and despair will play themselves out in the competing team camps for some time to come. Grand Finals never turn out grand for everyone.

Another growing post-season ritual has already snuck an early start. The annual Spot the Drunken Footballer festival is well under way. And haven’t the lads set a cracking pace!

In truth, there isn’t much challenge involved in spotting them. They tend to advertise their presence loud and clear. Some even bring their own camera crews.

I don’t propose to (ahem) regurgitate events of the recent past. We’ve all heard chapter and verse on the various offences to good sense that have occurred. Rather, its’ the way off-field events are covered, the context and importance afforded them, and the assorted paraphernalia which attaches itself to the modern game which are my subjects.

There was a time when footy players enjoyed a rather different relationship with the media. They’ve always had a talent for transgression, but the tendency to public inquisition was less strong. When required, it seemed clubs and journos were more amenable to a nudge here, a wink there, so that all interests were served.

Times have changed this arrangement. Media saturation has seen the rise of the “Exclusive”. The notion of the Public Figure has broadened, along with the idea that private lives have public relevance. Insatiable hunger for copy helps drive this process.

These developments frequently seem a mixed blessing. Gossip is more often wrapped in the Right To Know. Oceans of trivia are now deemed required knowledge (by some). Notions of newsworthiness can seem fickle. This is not to suggest the old arrangements were without fault.

How does all this relate to drunken boofheads? At the risk of ignoring Dermie’s maxim about knowing one’s limitations, I’ll press on.

Footballers are never going to be immune to these changes; nor should they be. They enjoy many privileges from the status we give them and, oh boy, do we afford the best ones status. Many are written about in the fashion of rock stars. Most now receive healthy remuneration. Need I remind that lunches are rarely free?

But I’m perplexed when the term Role Model is constantly dragged into discussion of player behaviour. It often seems intended as part of the justification for the righteous rancour which quickly envelops each act of buffoonery. How dare he set such a poor example for the kids, etc? This leaves me feeling like I missed an important memo somewhere along the way.

I may be betraying my age, but I harbour a notion that parents and family should be a person’s primary Role Model. Your model for life should bear some relationship to how you actually live your life. I know the old family unit has taken many hits over time, but surely we haven’t sunk to needing footballers to fill the gap.

I don’t see many seriously suggesting rock stars should be role models. They seem scarcely less suitable than footballers. Lou, Keef and Iggy, come on down! Show us how to live! That should make the streets safer. For those who have fallen for this trap, the results have been rarely been less than disastrous. Thanks, I think I’ll stick to the albums.

Of course, player behaviour on or off-field can, when widely reported, leave a mark on impressionable minds. This is precisely when real Role Models should step in with the needed guidance.

I think that Role Models in the footy context are a product of another modern notion. The idea of protecting The Brand. Brands: the marketing guy who came up with that one was on a winner. Clubs used to have supporters and an identity, now they need a Brand as well. The AFL even has charge of the Uber Brand. This suits Andy D’s boys down to the ground. What bureaucrat ever refused some extra leverage?

When a player stuffs up now, he’s also damaging The Brand. This is a much more heinous crime than just being stupid. The long, strange journey of Ben Cousins from teen idol, to villain, to some sort of weird bad-boy rock star would seem to exemplify this best. Whatever his sins, it often seemed his biggest crime was tarnishing the game.

But protecting The Brand can have its complications. The Cuz circus served as a useful distraction from the fact that an admitted drug abuser was never picked up by the League’s testing regime. That regime is a result of The Brand. It was born from the idea the AFL needed to police player off-field behaviour. As Tim Lane, among others, has suggested, this could prove to be a path with many pitfalls.

A big complaint of mine is the sloppy thought and the abuse of language which now runs amok. We are apparently tripping over Super Stars. There are Great Men as far as the eye can see. Pockets are moistened as a matter of habit. This is surely just part of the old build-‘em-up to knock-’em- down game.

Is discretion really that bad for business? Isn’t The Brand ultimately devalued by all the rampant stereotyping and exaggeration? If I were a player (never likely), I’d be very wary that the same people lavishing praise on me now would be waiting with baseball bats when I made a mistake. I’d be giving them nothing; taking it one week at a time.

Footballers serve us best as heroes on the field. Let them soar or fall. Inspire or infuriate. Let them play football.

I can personally live without knowing if they can sing, dance or look good in a calendar. But I know my tastes aren’t everyone’s. However, I suspect fewer play this particular game to their advantage than they like to think they do. The celebrity pool can be murky and full of sharks.

Learning that heroes fail (on or off the field) can be important. This part of the deal we can all relate to. But don’t give the knuckleheads and thugs slugging it out on the streets of a night the excuse of a footballer’s example. Let them be responsible for themselves.

If some of the offenders prove to be players, let the punishment fit the crime, as it should for all. Just don’t be surprised if the quality of justice varies with the player’s ability. It’s curious that the better you are, the more likely your club is to be persuaded to leniency.

Australian football has always aroused the passions. It doesn’t need ground announcers, MCs, media “personalities” and such like to jazz it up. These exist now because there are theatre-goers to attract, a dollar to be made. Don’t expect them go away anytime soon. Other industries now depend on the game for sustenance. Just don’t give them more credence than they warrant.

Although, if somebody could do something about the ground announcers …

Now that’s off my chest, anyone seen Fev lately?

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. It is for these reasons that I embraced the Almanac – where people care for what happens on the ground three hours a week, both in this season and glorious seasons past. Well said John.

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