Claims of AFL conspiracy should concern us all

Revelations published in the Herald Sun this week that former Sydney chairman Richard Colless was subjected to a “torrent of abuse” from the Chairman of the AFL Commission, Mike Fitzpatrick, in response to the club’s decision to recruit high-profile former Hawthorn star Lance Franklin, should be alarming to most football supporters – not for the fact of Fitzpatrick’s alleged tirade, but because of what it reveals about the way the AFL does business.

Throughout 2013, it was widely believed that Franklin would leave Hawthorn and sign a lucrative deal with the GWS Giants at the end of that season. The AFL clearly took the view that a player with Franklin’s profile could generate significant interest in Western Sydney, which might translate into support for the AFL’s fledgling expansion franchise.

However, the AFL, GWS and Hawthorn were subsequently blindsided by Franklin’s announcement that he was joining the Sydney Swans under the AFL’s free agency rules.

Since Colless has gone public with his account of Fitzpatrick’s phone call, the ensuing media analysis has largely focused on whether the AFL Chairman reacted inappropriately. However, the most telling comments ascribed to Fitzpatrick were those concerning Sydney’s contentious Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) and Colless’s assertion that the AFL were deliberately trying to orchestrate Franklin’s move to the GWS.

According to the Herald Sun, Colless alleges that Fitzpatrick said of the Swans’ deal to acquire Franklin: “You knew what we wanted to do and you came to us with your bloody COLA, I told you I’d support you on COLA then you raced away and did this deal”.

Colless further alleges that the AFL was committed to paying Franklin an additional sum of money, either by diverting funds from one of the competition’s sponsors to the GWS, or by paying him that sum directly. If true, it means that the AFL was actively seeking to facilitate an outcome where a player from one club joined a competitor of the AFL’s choosing, while authorising a breach of its own rules governing club salary caps in the process.

Predictably, the AFL has denied Colless’s version of events.

It should be noted that Sydney has previously benefited from the AFL’s attempts to grow the game in Australia’s most populous state.

Indeed, Richard Colless would be aware of the AFL’s preparedness to engineer what it regards as a desirable outcome. When he crossed from Sydney to St Kilda in 1995, the AFL paid star full-forward Tony Lockett an allowance as an “ambassador”. These payments were in addition to his contract with the Sydney Swans and outside the club’s total player payment figure.  Former AFL Chief Executive Andrew Demetriou only publically acknowledged the existence of Lockett’s ambassadorial allowance in 2013.

More recently, COLA afforded Sydney an additional 9.8 per cent room in its salary cap. While the Swans have steadfastly maintained that COLA was (and still is) necessary to offset higher living expenses, critics have long opposed the allowance on the basis it does not represent genuine cost-of-living assistance and is no more than one of several measures, along with the Sydney Swans Academy, which is intended to give the Swans a competitive advantage.

The Sydney Swans have qualified for the finals in 16 of the past 19 seasons.

The AFL’s formal position on COLA, at one time consistent with Sydney’s, changed soon after the Swans lawfully recruited Franklin under the competition’s free agency rules.

Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s alleged comment that he was withdrawing his support for COLA and the AFL’s subsequent response, which was to announce the payment would be phased out completely by 2017 (to be replaced by a rental assistance scheme for lower paid players) and ban the Swans from trading for two seasons, reveals a willingness on the part of the league to enact punitive sanctions against anyone that hinders or obstructs the AFL’s plans.

Granted, the AFL have since softened their stance on the trading prohibition, which now only prevents the Swans from acquiring any player earning more than the median AFL player wage.

However, if Colless’s recollection of his conversation with Fitzpatrick is accurate, there are several troubling aspects.

Firstly, it depicts the governing body as one that has a penchant for cutting deals behind the scenes. It paints a picture of an AFL administration that is willing to pursue its commercial objectives at the expense of fairness, transparency, and indeed, its own rules and standards.

Fitzpatrick’s purported abandonment of COLA also lends weight to the conclusion that the allowance had not been calculated with reference to any reasonable or legitimate cost of living equation in the first place. It supports the view the AFL had given Sydney favourable treatment, which was revoked when the AFL deemed them to have stepped out of line.

Initiatives such as the salary cap, the draft and the equalisation tax each form part of an “equality framework” in the AFL. These measures are designed to instil confidence in supporters that the wealthy clubs cannot perpetually dominate the competition; that no club has a greater financial capacity than any other to acquire talent; that teams presently struggling on-field will have access to the best underage talent in the country, and that every club will have adequate resources to afford them the opportunity to be competitive.

The system of free agency, which permits a club to retain a restricted free agent (as Lance Franklin was in 2013) when it matches the offer made by a rival club, can only operate fairly if all clubs have the same amount of money available to them in their salary cap.

While supporters can attest to the fact the system does not always play out as intended, the broad objective of the equality framework is that each of the 18 clubs should win a premiership once every 18 years.

Of course, some transitional concessions were made in relation to salary cap and list size for the expansion clubs, but there was a consensus view amongst the existing clubs that these were necessary to make those clubs competitive in the short-to-medium term.

As the game’s national governing body and the custodian of the sport, the AFL Commission has an obligation to govern openly, transparently and in accordance with its own rules and standards. It has an obligation to enforce and adhere to every aspect of the agreed equality framework.

If the AFL is only prepared to pay lip service to that framework, or to abide by it only when it does not conflict with what it perceives to be the competition’s commercial objectives, then the game has a serious integrity problem – and as supporters, it affects us all.

About Lynden Albiston

Lynden Albiston is a match-day broadcaster with Casey Radio 97.7FM and has covered the Victorian Football League since 2009. You can follow Lynden on Twitter at @Lynden199. He has promised not to post any pictures of his dinner.

Comments

  1. Lynden has hit the nail squarely on the head when he advocates sound governance, transparency and fairness from the AFL but I wouldn’t be holding my breath. I have had some years of dealing with them as a victim of a vicious assault upon me by an AFL official and found none of those qualities get much of a run from that body.
    In my forthcoming tome on the subject and other related grass-roots footy matters, I advocate reform to make that influential body accountable to its stakeholders. Who are these stakeholders you may ask; I argue that everyone who buys a club membership, pays for Foxtel Footy Channel, goes to games and buys drinks and food at the inflated prices that we pay, is a primary stakeholder in the game. Those other 1000s out there in footy land who run junior and senior clubs, support those clubs and play for them are stakeholders as well and they deserve better than what they get from the AFL now.
    We who do all of the foregoing are shareholders in the game and we should have the same rights as shareholders in public companies. We should have the right to attend meetings whereat the members of the board must be accountable publicly for their conduct and performance. We should be privy to their decision-making, remunerations and perquisites of office and we should be able to vote them on or off the board based on our perceptions of their performance. We could also demand that their conduct in business elsewhere be reviewed as relevant to their conduct on the AFL board which would place one current member under scrutiny as his company has been found guilty of ‘unconscionable conduct’ in its dealings with its major suppliers.
    The current AFL ‘Commission’ has no one except the new CEO from grass-roots footy background and they exist by their ability to intimidate the constituent clubs due to the unfettered power they hold. No one should be surprised that a corporate heavyweight like Fitzpatrick would treat a member club the way he has, he is accountable to no one, least of all us mugs who pay his way and that of the phalanx of sycophants whom he employs.
    Anyone who thinks I am a bit harsh should try to seek anything from this behemoth we have allowed to subsume our game then come back to me. We need these clubs we sustain to stand up for footy and demand the good governance and transparency Lynden advocates or the bullying and insensitivity towards us will only get worse.

  2. Barb Jamieson says:

    The words of Andrew Demitriou still ring in my ears
    “We will do everything in our power to make the AFL a success on the Eastern Seaboard ”
    Anybody who follows football seriously has a pretty good idea of the ethics of the AFL. , if not full knowledge of how it uses its power to manipulate the game , the clubs and the individuals , and how the money makers and certain clubs , and people , are the protected species .
    Great piece of journalism , my only question is not a question on the credibility of your column .but Its what can happen to change it and make it a level playing field , and I guess the answer is , suck it up and get used to it , because that’s the way it is .

  3. Seriously i’m perplexed as to why anyone could be surprised by the actions of the AFL in these sort of episodes. The AFL is a huge corporate entity, with football being the commodity giving them their commercial existence. The millions of dollars poured into the two non-football states has to produce results. it has over time, with two flags to Sydney, and three to Brisbane.
    The AFL has too much to lose by not producing winners in these two states. Lynden talks about the Cost Of Living Allowance, the money paid to Tony Lockett as an ‘ambassador’, all this and more are features of the ‘expansion’.
    What about the many years of matches at the SCG where the crowd attendance were printed in the papers but never the gate takings. Draw your own conclusion.
    AFL, commercial interests, integrity, how many of these terms can you use in a sentence ?

    Glen!

  4. Dave Brown says:

    Yes, concerning Lynden, but nothing new. The AFL Commission represents the take over of the national game by the VFL, completed in 1993. Back then it had a purpose: to suck money out of the WA & SA football markets to supplement the otherwise unsustainable growth of expenditure in the VFL. It was hugely successful as Oakley wheeled and dealed. Always pragmatic, rarely open or accountable.

    Now, the commission, built off that unsteady foundation, seems to have no goal beyond increasing revenue. With so little accountability it’s hardly surprising it is treated like a fiefdom by the wealthy and powerful. The wheeling and dealing that not only brought Plugga to Sydney and attempted to bring Buddy to GWS but also brought Judd to Carlton but then shut the gate on other clubs wanting to pursue similar salary deals.

    All of that said Sydney were naive if they thought this was going to lead in any other direction. They already knew they were skating on thin ice with the COLA and the Tippett deal. To then the following year pull off the Buddy deal was all the ammunition the commission needed to act (and grossly over-react).

  5. Skip of Skipton says:

    Absolute power (the AFL), corrupts absolutely. You’re on the blacklist Lynden.

  6. All valid points, Lynden.
    All leading back to the saying that “you can’t fight City Hall!”

    It is interesting to note, however, that Mike Fitzpatrick is now
    starting to feel some heat.

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