AFL Trade Period: Free Madness or Regulated Tyranny?

Pope Leo XIII (1878 – 1903) hated the AFL trade period. He wrote about it a lot, and was very clear in his disgust.


“(Labour) is an honorable calling, enabling a man to sustain his life in a way upright and creditable; and that it is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical power.”


He went on to say:


To enter into a [free association] is the natural right of man (read “AFL players”); and the State (read, “AFL”) is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and if it forbid its citizens (read “players”) to form associations (read “negotiate a free trade deal”), it contradicts the very principle of its own existence.”


You could say that Pope Leo was a fan of the free agency approach. The sort of approach that allowed clubs like Carlton to falsely flourish and descend into delusions of greatness, when, in fact, all they were good at was attaching high monetary values to players from other clubs (and sometimes illegally – refer 1995). They didn’t win flags, they negotiated them. No system is perfect.


But it did allow players free movement. It did prevent the current inhuman trade that we see in the media, where players are hung on meat hooks against their will, and haggled over. It disturbs me that we, the public (I’m as guilty as the next person) assess a player’s worth by his physical attributes and deeds, but hardly consider the notion that when his body is forced into moving from club to club, his mind and his wellbeing go with it.


Pope Leo believed that natural justice trumps all else.


“Let it be taken for granted that workman and employer should, as a rule, make free agreements, and in particular should agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that remuneration ought to be sufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner (player).”


This whole area troubles me. Free trade is a wonderful concept but how, pray tell, could the Lions compete with the Crows, or the Saints with the Bombers, if the only tool at their disposal was money? It raises the question as to whether or not the people bow to the hierarchy, or whether the hierarchy answers the people.


Equalisation, so called, has probably succeeded. Clubs can crawl up the ladder and snatch the flag. The Dogs of 2016 and the Tigers of 2017 show this to be a reasonable conclusion. But is there a hidden problem? Is equalisation (so called) more important than player welfare? How does a Queensland player feel when his club calls and informs him that he is off to South Australia because they have better options? What does a twenty-one year old think when, cruelled by injuries and misfortune, he is de-listed? Jettisoned? Abandoned?


The current system also kills off the notion of the tribal football club. The community, if you will. Clubs trot out the mantra that the players have “bought in”, the suggestion being that buying in creates community. But buy in is unemotive and contrived. It implies that people are pushed to joining a club and its “culture”, whereas the club’s inherent decency should pull players into joining. A mission statement wallpapers over a multitude of defects. Substance is crushed under symbolism and jargon. There is a school of thought which believes that the law should not dictate behaviour, rather it should simply recognise decent behaviour. Why should the AFL dictate the terms of any player and club deal (via a salary cap and other means)? This borders on tyranny. Indeed, this is tyranny. That thought, on its own, is troubling, though I do recognise it as the current reality.


The AFL rules, alone, cannot make good clubs, or determine if a club behaves appropriately. But if natural justice prevails, or moral law for want of a better description, if negotiations are undertaken between player and club freely and openly, then can human dignity be retained? Can club success be obtained? Or is this notion just too far- fetched? Is modern society incapable of such discreet thought? Maybe a tyrannical AFL protects us from ourselves? I have no answer, but perhaps the Pope did:


“Men always work harder and more readily when they work on what belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields, in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat but an abundance of good things for themselves and for those that are dear to them.”

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Dave Brown says

    All good questions, Dips. I’m not a fan of the current system because it is weird. Players out of contract (that are not unrestricted free agents) cannot just walk to their club of choice but can choose to only be traded to one club and to reject individual clubs that might otherwise choose them in the pre-season draft. It doesn’t really make much sense. I would much rather full free agency – once your contract is up you can walk if you wish. Interesting idea that the salary cap in and of itself may be tyrannical. If it is indeed, then perhaps we really want a bit of tyranny in our lives. A scary thought.

  2. Pope Leo (1903) eh, those were the days. Men downed their tools at 4pm and trudged to the local mud heap to take up cudgels for the local workingman’s club – call it the “North” Melbourne slaughter men, the Geelong boat men, or the Manchester “United” machine workers.
    Trying to get my head around the dizzying world of European football business machinations, I sense that we Australians are a bit behind the curve of “sport” as a commercial mega-business arm of the entertainment industry. The top English clubs owned variously by Russian oligarchs; Middle East oil sheiks; and American hedge funds. Consider Neymar a Brazilian star forward who wanted to go from Barcelona to Paris St Germain this season (basically because he was sick of playing second fiddle to Messi in the papers and on the field). PSG pay A$400 million to Barcelona just as a transfer fee. Plus pay him A$55 million annually on a 5 year deal as a player. Barcelona are still facing tax fraud charges for understating the amount they originally paid to buy Neymar. Messi meanwhile and his father were both found guilty of tax fraud at the start of the year and given 21 month suspended sentences and A$3 million fines (small change). Widely seen as a slap with a wet lettuce. The President of the Spanish League stood down at the start of the year after being charged with corruption over his time as a Club President. The President of Juventus (the Italian champions of the last 2 seasons) is on corruption charges for personally profiting from the sale of large ticket blocks to the Italian Mafia. He is the heir to the Fiat fortune, and his defence is that he didn’t do it for money but because the Mafia threatened his family (probably true). I could go on. And on.
    And there are just as many stories in American professional sports. Just not as colourful perhaps, being cloaked in American corporate speak.
    “Money doesn’t talk it swears” (Bob Dylan).
    We don’t have to like it, but we have to get used to it. We ain’t seen nothing yet.
    Nearly at the end of 6 weeks in Spain and Portugal (I’m with you on Portugal being better Dips), one of my overall feelings is what an insignificant fishing hole Australia is in the scheme of things. Spain is 10% of our land mass and more than double our population. The industry and daily buzz here dwarfs Richmond on Grand Final night. We are a back water; a mine and a tourist destination
    Long may it stay that way.
    Our policy position on North Korea and global warming?
    Gimme a break.

  3. John Butler says

    Provocatively selective (and self righteous) slant on Carlton’s glory years there, Dips.

    I presume Geelong lured Polly Farmer and Dennis Marshall over to the east by the power of pure virtue?

    Otherwise, you raise many worthy points of debate.

    There was much injustice under the old ways, let us not forget.

    I think PB might be nearer the mark with his bigger picture take. Those who seek virtue in a whorehouse might just be missing the point of the exercise. But this doesn’t, of itself, render virtue irrelevant.

    An eternal paradox. Much like the notion of a Pope.

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