Does Leadership Matter – Reprise

If you ever wanted proof that being a good player, coach or club official has nothing to do with leadership, Eddie’s medieval history lesson on Ordeal by Water or Brad’s “shoot first and ask questions later” comments about umpires demonstrate it.

I’ll leave it to others to give the individuals concerned their just desserts about their verbal atrocities and to track football’s sorry recent track record of such incidents. My lament is that with every foot-in-mouth episode like this, the AFL is squandering its unique opportunity to show some serious thought leadership to the rest of society on issues that really matter.

Sure, the League is a sports organization. It can only do so much to influence issues outside its core role. But its ubiquity places it in an extraordinarily powerful position to influence our hearts and minds. The game and its actors are in our faces all the time. More importantly, huge numbers of ordinary folk are genuinely interested in footy. By virtue of the game they’re involved in, AFL players and officials command our attention. We listen to what they say because we’re interested in what they do. Far more than our politicians or our business and community figureheads.

The AFL has proved that it can act as a positive exemplar on important societal matters. It has celebrated the contributions of indigenous Australians to the game and in doing so, drawn attention to the broader socio-economic challenges of our indigenous communities. It hasn’t been perfect but it’s improved our understanding, our attitudes and our tolerance. The launch of the Women’s League is a similarly promising step in the massive task of giving greater prominence to women’s sport, and reinforcing the more important subliminal message that anything men can do women can do too. Even corny concepts like “Umpire Appreciation Round” have a small but important impact on our attitudes towards umpires and people in all walks of life who perform the role of “objective official “.

The problem with these carefully crafted initiatives is that they’re just that – staged, pre-meditated, packaged. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that provided that what the institution is presenting is an honest portrayal of its beliefs and values. But when members of the AFL “leadership” make unthinking remarks on mass media about “apes” or “drowning women” or accusing umpires of deliberate bias, we get an insight into the real prevailing culture. Our trust is destroyed about the sincerity of any of these worthy programs. Most disturbingly, for people who are already equivocal or, worse, hostile about issues of racial tolerance, gender equity and respect for officials, these comments send clear messages that that’s OK.

Let’s not kid ourselves – many Australians spend far more time thinking about how their team will go this week than about wicked societal problems like the plight of indigenous Australians or the incidence of domestic violence. They’re too disturbing to contemplate or they’re too hard to fix. Imagine then, the power that consistent messages would have from high profile AFL figures if they sincerely and consistently challenged us not to accept the horrendous statistics and attitudes. Imagine if these messages weren’t scripted as part of weasel-worded apologies for previous faux pas, but as spontaneous parts of their regular public commentary. Just like those that have caused so much recent damage.

Now that would be leadership.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!

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