Footy History: The Early Days of the VFL Players’ Association

Industrial Relations and Professional Team Sports in Australia





This paper examines the formation of the Victorian Football League Players’ Association and gives an account of their development during 1974. The emergence of the V.F.L.P.A. is set against the background of an industry circumscribed by a series of monopsonistic controls, which severely limit the employment opportunities of footballers; of the growth of similar associations in a number of overseas professional sports; and growing industrial tensions in a number of Australian sports. For students of Australia’s system of industrial relations the emergence of the V.F.L.P.A. should be of interest in the sense that it appears that collective bargaining will be the method through which rules of the workplace will be determined.

Both the internal activities and the external machinations of the V.F.L.P.A. are examined in some detail. Particular attention is paid to the V.F.L.P.A.’s concern with internal communications and to reasons for the V.F.L.’s rather lukewarm opposition to the formation of the V.F.L.P.A. The conclusion, on the basis of overseas experience, offers some policy recommendations to help improve the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the V.F.L.P.A.



IN DECEMBER of 1973 a group of players of the Victorian Football League (V.F.L.) met at Melbourne University and discussed the idea of forming a players’ association. The subsequent formation of the Victorian Football League Players’ Association (V.F.L.P.A.) marks a new and interesting development in the organization of professional team sports in Australia.[2] It may be possible to view the emergence of the V.F.L.P.A. as an indication of Australian sports catching up with developments in comparable overseas professional sports. English soccer players have been unionized since the turn of the century, and the early 1960s witnessed soccer players of France, Germany and Holland forming player associations [19, appendix 7]. Big professional sports in America-baseball, football (grid-iron), basketball and ice hockey also experienced a rash of player associations in the 1960s. Scoville, in reviewing industrial relations developments in U.S. sports, has commented that “unions of professional athletes are really in their formative stages. They have become active and powerful only since the mid-1960s and are still learning the extent of their strength and of the issues they might attack” [17, p. 218].


The V.F.L.P.A. is not the only sign of the growing importance, or the changing nature, of industrial relations in Australian sports. We have recently witnessed several instances of strain and conflict in employer-employee relationships in a variety of Australian sports. Probably the most prominent example of this is the six-day New South Wales jockeys’ strike in November of 1973, which resulted in the cancellation of 14 metropolitan and country meetings.[3] During preparations for the World Cup the Australian Socceroos were reported to have threatened a strike over what they considered insufficient pay in a warm-up game against an overseas club side.[4] In April of 1974 trotting drivers refused to drive at Harold Park when the New South Wales Trotting Club attempted to introduce the use of mobile starts.[5] Industrial confrontations in sports have not been solely confined to the “players”. Umpires also have been involved in clashes with the governing authorities of their sports. The umpires of the V.F.L. threatened strike action in negotiating a log of claims at the start of the 1974 season.[6] And umpires of the New South Wales Australian rules competition went on strike during June of 1974 in an unsuccessful attempt to gain a wage increase.[7] The fundamental point which emerges from these examples is that the conduct of industrial relations may be important, if not crucial, to the future successful operation of many Australian sports.[8] It may be useful, then, to examine the activities of the recently formed V.F.L.P.A. as an illustration of the new “ball game” that is developing, or is likely to develop, within many Australian sports. Such a study also has three broader implications. First, the emergence of the V.F.L.P.A. can be regarded as a continuation of the growth of white-collar unionism which has been so characteristic of trade union growth in recent years [1, 12, 20].[9] Second, it appears that industrial relations between the V.F.L. and the V.F.L.P.A. will be conducted on the basis of collective bargaining.[10] This paper is basically concerned with examining both the internal and external problems encountered by the V.F.L.P.A. in attempting to establish a negotiating relationship with the V.F.L. To the extent that such a relationship is established, it would be appropriate to view the development of industrial relations in the V.F.L. as a further indication of the shift of Australia’s system of industrial relations away from compulsory arbitration to collective bargaining [12, 27, 28, 29].


Third, most professional team sports are characterized by a “transfer system” whereby a player is bound to the club he signs with for life. This monopsonistic device, through its restrictions on the ability of sportsmen to change their employment, is seen to reduce the bargaining power, and hence, the income earning potential of sportsmen [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26]. Scully has attempted to measure the economic loss to American baseball players resulting from the restrictions placed on their mobility by the “reserve system”. His findings are, that “considered over career length, average players receive salaries equal to about 11 per cent of their gross and about 15 per cent of their net marginal revenue products. Star players receive about 15 per cent of their net marginal revenue products. Only mediocre players have salaries in excess of their net marginal revenue products.” Scully goes on to conclude “that the economic loss to professional ball players … is of a considerable magnitude” [23, p. 929]. Player associations, through the use of collective action and the exercise of countervailing power, may have the potential of improving the economic position of professional sportsmen. Kransnow and Levy, for example, have argued “it would appear that the logical course of action is to experiment with collective action as the possible answer to the professional athletes problems” [15, p. 754], a view which has been echoed by several other writers [2, 4, 8, 16, 17].


This paper will be divided into three sections. Section one will briefly present a description of the institutional arrangements of the labour market for V.F.L. footballers. The purpose of this section is to provide the environmental context in which subsequent developments in the industrial relations arena will unfold. The second section will be concerned with describing and analysing the activities of the V.F.L.P.A. during the first year of its existence, and of the V.F.L.’s reaction to the formation of this body. At several points in the discussion comparisons will be made with the development of player associations, and industrial relations in overseas professional team sports. The third and final section will contain a summary and conclusion.





It has already been pointed out that most labour markets in professional team sports are characterized by a transfer system which limits the mobility and economic opportunities of sportsmen.[11] The peculiar institutional arrangements of the labour market for V.F.L. footballers have already been examined in detail elsewhere [4, 5, 6] and will only be briefly summarized here.[12] The organizational lynchpins of the labour market are zoning, the transfer system and the use of maximum wages.


Each V.F.L. club has been allocated a metropolitan and a country zone which gives them an exclusive right to employ prospective players residing in their zones. A prospective player wishing to play V.F.L. football has the club he may play for determined by the area in which he lives. A prospective player who moves from one zone to another in an effort to play with another club has to wait three years before he can become eligible to play with a second club. The only players who are not subject to these zoning rules are interstate players who can play for the V.F.L. club of their choice. It should be pointed out, however, that a V.F.L. club is only allowed to acquire two interstate players a year, and in all probability will have to pay an interstate club a large transfer fee to secure the services of that player.


In the majority of cases then, zoning determines the initial club with which a new player may play. Once a player signs with a club the transfer system will then bind that player to his signing club for life. Under the transfer system, a player who wishes to be employed as a footballer with another club—whether it be a V.F.L. club or a club in another competition—must first receive permission from his current club and the V.F.L. Before the 1974 season the V.F.L. allowed a ten year player a free transfer to a club outside the V.F.L. This rule, which has been subsequently abolished, as we will see below, played an important part in helping to establish the formation of the V.F.L.P.A.


The zoning and transfer systems severely restrict the mobility of V.F.L. footballers. On top of these mobility restrictions, the V.F.L. also specifies the wage, depending on the number of games played, which a player can receive from playing V.F.L. football. During the 1974 (and 1975) season(s) a V.F.L. first 18 player received $45 a game for each of his first 50 games, and a subsequent increase of $10 following the playing of each additional 50 games. There are two exceptions to this rule. Firstly, clubs are allowed to pay captains, vice-captains and deputy vice-captains whatever they like, and secondly, clubs are allowed to negotiate contracts with interstate and seven year players.


The picture which emerges, then, is a labour market in which the freedom of the individual sportsman is highly circumscribed.[13] V.F.L. footballers are probably unique in that not only are they denied a choice in determining the club with whom they can play, but also, in a large number of cases, they have no say in the determination of the income they can earn. Even players who are allowed to negotiate contracts, bargain with the knowledge that the transfer system prohibits them from seeking employment elsewhere. Only conscripts for military service may have less freedom in their employment relationships.





The V.F.L.P.A. was officially launched with a meeting at Melbourne University on December 10, 1973. However, a great deal of preparatory work had already been completed before this time. Geoff Pryor, the Essendon fullback, whose idea it had been to form a players’ association and who subsequently became the first president of the V.F.L.P.A., had already spent some time contacting and sounding out several players on the idea of forming a players’ association. A steering committee was formed and a draft constitution drawn up. The steering committee also sent letters to the V.F.L. and the clubs to inform them of their intention to form a players’ association.[15] The basic approach of Pryor and the steering committee in launching the V.F.L.P.A. appears to have been to vigorously push the idea of a players’ association, but to put it in such a way that its future role could only be interpreted in a positive light. For example, Pryor was quick to point out that “our last thought is to strike” and that players would be the ones to suffer if there was a strike. The players’ association was also projected as a body designed to help the promotion of football—“players want to contribute to the development of this excellent game”. And in their letter to the V.F.L. a link between the players’ association and supporters was stressed—“A player association will provide a vocal point for supporters so they know what players are thinking”.


At the Melbourne University meeting players were told that the V.F.L.P.A. had three broad objectives. Firstly, to provide members with an organization dedicated to the promotion and development of Australian rules. Secondly, that players would like to develop a better understanding and a closer relationship with the V.F.L., and thirdly, that players would like to develop an organization for players, run by players, so as where necessary, to advance the interests of players. More concretely the steering committee saw the V.F.L.P.A. pushing for an injury compensation and insurance scheme, provision of employment and contract advice for members, better facilities at grounds, a tax averaging scheme and the possibility of a V.F.L.P.A. representative on the V.F.L. board of directors. The 60-odd players at the meeting endorsed the idea of forming a players’ association and it was decided that players would return to their individual clubs to form club associations and elect club delegates. A second general meeting was to be held in February where the election of office-bearers would take place.


In both its internal and external activities 1974 would appear to have been a successful year for the V.F.L.P.A. By the end of 1974 financial membership stood at 300 (representing 70 per cent of all senior list players), ten delegates’ meetings had been convened, three newsletters had been published, and most importantly, virtual recognition had been gained from the V.F.L. We will now proceed to examine and analyse in some detail the activities of the V.F.L.P.A. during 1974. So as to aid presentation, the internal and external activities of the V.F.L.P.A. will be considered separately.





The Melbourne University meeting asked players to go back to their clubs and form club player associations and elect club delegates. The second general meeting of players, in February 1974, was the occasion for the election of office-bearers. These elected office-bearers, together with the elected club delegates, constitute the effective executive of the V.F.L.P.A. The delegates’ meetings have been the forum in which V.F.L.P.A. policy has been formulated, and from there implemented. From a reading of the minutes of these meetings it becomes apparent that both the responsibility of decision making and the conduct of the day to day activities of the V.F.L.P.A. have been shouldered by the office-bearers and a hard core of five or six very active delegates.


The early delegates’ meetings were concerned with the basic tasks of forming a new organization—opening a bank account, determining a joining fee, establishing a postal address, acquiring stationery with an association letterhead, the drawing up of a constitution and so on. Sub-committees were also established to pursue some of the objectives that had heralded the arrival of the V.F.L.P.A. Sub-committees were formed to enquire into insurance for V.F.L.P.A. members and to produce a taxation guide to aid players. Progress appears to be quite smooth at this stage. The minutes of the second meeting record that “most clubs were starting to have membership drives and anticipated good membership from the initial response”. These expectations, however, were not initially realized. At the fourth delegates’ meeting, held on April 24, it was revealed that the V.F.L.P.A. had less than 100 financial members. Fears were raised that players saw little need for a players’ association. This meeting then assumes crisis proportions, for the awareness of this lack of members raises the fundamental question of whether or not there will in fact be an association. Undoubtedly this fourth delegates’ meeting is the most important of those held in 1974, for it is in responding to this crisis that the V.F.L.P.A. executive and delegates introduced measures which have helped to advance the internal cohesiveness (and ensure the survival) of the V.F.L.P.A. After a lengthy discussion it was decided that more effort and resources would need to be directed towards promotion of the V.F.L.P.A. in an effort to attract members. More specifically it was decided that a regular newsletter would be established, including an initial broadsheet setting out the aims and functions of the V.F.L.P.A.; delegates must become more active at club level; the President would contact all non-participating club delegates; and the V.F.L.P.A. would produce an association tic and T-shirt.


Even though the first V.F.L.P.A. newsletter was not produced until June, the increased effort at attracting new members yielded immediate results. At the next delegates’ meeting, on May 22, it was reported that financial membership had increased to 200, and at the sixth meeting, on June 18, membership had grown to 250.[16] The bulk of the administrative work conducted at these and subsequent meetings was concerned with the setting up of publication and promotion sub-committees and the hearing of reports from these and other sub-committees. At their seventh delegates’ meeting the V.F.L.P.A. decided to start a central file on contracts and conditions of employment to aid members in their negotiations with clubs.


The tangible results of this activity in 1974 have been a taxation guide for members, an association T-shirt and three association newsletters. The first newsletter was solely designed to attract members, whereas the latter two have been more concerned with describing the progress of the V.F.L.P.A. and giving details of their negotiations with the V.F.L. Despite several reports on injury insurance and compensation the V.F.L.P.A. has been unable to provide a scheme for members, due to the apparent high costs of such coverage. Injury insurance, however, has been a topic on which the V.F.L. and V.F.L.P.A. have agreed to exchange information and may conceivably be an area of joint control in the future. The major area in which the V.F.L.P.A. has been tardy is in the preparation of a constitution-which was not finalized until May of 1975. The slowness in the preparation of the constitution is of importance here because it appeared to be the only barrier blocking the V.F.L.’s recognition of the V.F.L.P.A.


The V.F.L.P.A. has continually devoted resources and effort to the improvement and maintenance of communication lines with both club delegates and rank and file members. To the outside observer it would appear that the V.F.L.P.A. has been quite successful in pursuing this objective. Ten delegates’ meetings, the production of an association T-shirt, and the publication of three newsletters add up to a body which has been very active in the first year of its existence. When compared with overseas player associations the V.F.L.P.A. again appears to be relatively strong in the extent of its communication channels. As an example of this we will examine the situation regarding the Professional Footballers’ Association (P.F.A.) of English soccer. The Commission of Industrial Relations, in its report on English soccer [19], noted, amongst other things, that communications between the P.F.A., club delegates and players were very poor and badly in need of repair. Many delegates were unaware of their responsibilities, and the great majority of players were unaware of the activities and benefits provided by the P.F.A. To overcome these problems the C.I.R. recommended to the P.F.A. that it should hold regional meetings of delegates and help train delegates in workplace and negotiating skills. It also recommended that a regular journal be published so as to improve communications between the P.F.A. leadership and the rank and file! To some extent these problems of the P.F.A. can be explained by the fact that English soccer is a national competition—its 92 league clubs are spread over the length and breadth of England, and into Wales. The V.F.L., on the other hand, like most Australian professional team sports, is a competition confined to one city.[17] Generally speaking, we would expect that this concentration of players in one distinct area would help to overcome many of the barriers associated with an effective communications network.


Despite what might be called this “objective” assessment, it needs to be pointed out that the V.F.L.P.A. has never really been convinced of the strength of its communications channels. The minutes of the delegates’ meeting almost continually harp on the need for strong communications, and specifically of the need for a delegate from each club to be present at all delegates’ meetings. The V.F.L.P.A. has never been able to achieve this specific objective—eight has been the average attendance at delegates’ meetings. Despite this, however, delegates from all clubs have attended meetings at various times, and the circulation of minutes has kept delegates informed of V.F.L.P.A. activities and decisions. It should also be noted that given the concentration of most players in the Melbourne metropolitan area, no one, where the need arises, is more than a telephone conversation or a short drive away. Nevertheless, the V.F.L.P.A.’s pessimism regarding communications still remains to be explained, and it is to this issue that we will now direct our attention.


It should be realized that the V.F.L.P.A. has barely been in existence for a year and that for the V.F.L.P.A. executive—i.e. the office-bearers and active club delegates—1974 would have been their first experience of leading and organizing a collective, or group body. More importantly, it should be realized that these men were not just engaged in forming another association, but were concerned with forming an association of professional team sportsmen—something which has hitherto not been achieved in Australia. In some ways, this tilt at history has weighed heavily on the minds of the V.F.L.P.A. executive. The need to be successful and achieve results has always been dominant, but equally, if not more dominant, has been the fear of failure. In this, its first year, it appears that the V.F.L.P.A. executive has been unsure of its ability to convince players that there is a need for a players’ association. The leadership is still very conscious of supposed player apathy and of star players who see little to be gained from collective action.[18] Interpreted another way, 1974 has been a year of great uncertainty for the V.F.L.P.A.—not only in terms of what could be achieved, but more importantly in terms of the very question of survival. This uncertainty, this fear of failure, has led the V.F.L.P.A. to become more and more concerned with being successful. The achievement of success overcomes the fears associated with failure. The major problem, in the minds of the V.F.L.P.A. leadership, has been the very question of its existence and relevance. To overcome these fears it becomes increasingly imperative to build a strong and cohesive organization. It is for these reasons that the V.F.L.P.A. executive has been almost continually dissatisfied and concerned with the question of communications. By opening up communication channels, by disseminating information to members about the V.F.L.P.A. and its activities, the survival and relevance of the V.F.L.P.A. is guaranteed.






A major obstacle which has confronted the progress and very existence of most attempts at the formation of player associations has been the opposition of the clubs and the governing authorities of the relevant sport [3, 4, 10, 11, 15, 24, 25].[19] However, in the case of the V.F.L.P.A., it is surprising to report that there has been little opposition from either the V.F.L. or the clubs.[20] The clubs and the V.F.L. have not actually encouraged the V.F.L.P.A., but equally they have not mounted or launched a campaign to destroy the V.F.L.P.A. Late in August 1974 the V.F.L. announced the conditions on which it would be prepared to conduct future meetings with the V.F.L.P.A.—in effect the conditions of recognition. Our task will be to describe the events leading up to this granting of “recognition” and then to consider the more difficult question of why the V.F.L. and the clubs have been so luke-warm in their opposition to the formation of the V.F.L.P.A.


On March 27, 1974, the V.F.L.P.A. sent a letter to Mr Eric McCuthcan, the administrative director of the V.F.L., asking for the arrangement of a meeting to be held between representatives of the V.F.L.P.A. and the V.F.L. directors. The letter states that the envisaged purpose of the meeting was twofold: “Firstly, it is so we may introduce ourselves and explain our Association’s objectives. Secondly, so that we may consider ways and means for formal and regular consultations between our two bodies”. The letter went on to “emphasize that the V.F.L.P.A. is no transient group but rather a serious movement by players to think and act responsibly towards the development of Australian rules football.” Club delegates were instructed to contact their club’s representative on the V.F.L. board of directors to endorse support for this initial approach.


McCutchan acknowledged receipt of this letter stating that it would be submitted to the V.F.L. directors for their consideration. Apparently the V.F.L. directors did not wish to meet the V.F.L.P.A. but were prepared to allow McCutchan to meet the V.F.L.P.A. on their behalf. The V.F.L.P.A. accepted this offer and a meeting was arranged for May 9.[21] Pryor, the V.F.L.P.A. president, claimed that such a meeting was “historic” and went on to add that “it means that the V.F.L. has recognized us”.[22] Despite its beneficial public relations effect, it is difficult to see what the V.F.L.P.A. gained from the V.F.L. at this meeting.[23] During the hour-long meeting McCutchan stalled on any suggestion of meetings with the V.F.L. directors, informing the V.F.L.P.A. representatives that all communications should be channelled through his office. There was some discussion over the issue of insurance coverage, where McCutchan invited the V.F.L.P.A. to submit any suggestions which he would then pass on to the directors for their consideration. The V.F.L.P.A. responded by pointing out that information exchanges should be two-way; McCutchan’s response was that he would pass this view on to the V.F.L. directors. Most significantly, no agreement was reached on when future meetings would be held. It appears that it was expected that the V.F.L. would be in touch with the V.F.L.P.A. by letter after its next directors’ meeting. Over the next few months there was some further correspondence between the V.F.L. and the V.F.L.P.A. over the issue of parking facilities for players at V.F.L. Park. The V.F.L.P.A. however, had failed in its initial attempt to establish a formal relationship with the V.F.L.


Early in July of 1974 Carlton announced its intention to move at the next V.F.L. directors’ meeting that the ten year rule be abolished—i.e. the rule which allowed a ten year player a free transfer to any club outside the V.F.L. At their seventh delegates’ meeting, held on July 9, the V.F.L.P.A. expressed its displeasure at this move and argued that “it is being done for selfish motives and is not in the interests of players”, and on the following day released a press statement strongly criticizing the Carlton move.[24]Despite these protests the V.F.L. duly abolished the rule at its next directors’ meeting on July 24. This snub by the V.F.L. produced a hostile reaction from the V.F.L.P.A. Pryor approached the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Jim Cairns, and the Minister for Labor and Immigration, Mr Clyde Cameron, on what government action could be taken over the V.F.L.’s decision to rescind the ten year rule. Pryor received a sympathetic hearing from both Dr Cairns and Mr Cameron which resulted in Mr Cameron sending a telegram to the V.F.L.P.A. where he labelled the V.F.L.’s attitude as “cavalier”, and that the V.F.L. should have consulted with the players before abolishing the ten year rule. Mr Cameron also expressed the wish that players would not strike over this issue and most significantly agreed to the appointment of an independent arbitrator to help resolve this dispute.[25]


At their next delegates’ meeting, held on July 30,[26] the V.F.L.P.A. again condemned the V.F.L. and the clubs over the decision regarding the ten year rule. It was decided that a letter should be sent to each club, and the V.F.L., to indicate the V.F.L.P.A.’s hostility to this decision—“This dictatorial action taken by the clubs without consultation with our Association is a retrograde step and is unacceptable to our members”—and invited two representatives of the clubs to meet with the V.F.L.P.A. in the presence of Mr Justice Robinson on August 19.[27] A press statement was released the following day to publicize the contents of this letter. The press reports at this time point to the strength of the players’ feelings over this issue and convey a strong hint of the V.F.L.P.A.’s preparedness to take further action if the clubs did not agree to attend this meeting.[28]


The V.F.L. relented to this pressure and in a letter, dated August 8, McCutchan informed the V.F.L.P.A. that the V.F.L. directors had agreed to appoint a sub-committee to discuss with the V.F.L.P.A. the decision regarding the ten year rule. As a result of the V.F.L. now being prepared to meet with the V.F.L.P.A. it was decided that the proposed meeting with Mr Justice Robinson should be cancelled. On August 16 representatives of the V.F.L.P.A. entered V.F.L. House to meet a sub-committee of V.F.L. directors.


The V.F.L.P.A.’s representatives were unable to convince the V.F.L. sub-committee to reverse its decision regarding the abolition of the ten year rule—all that occurred on this issue was a simple exchange of viewpoints. Notwithstanding this however, the V.F.L. did grant two procedural concessions during this meeting. Firstly, the meeting discussed the question of worker compensation and player insurance. The V.F.L. sub-committee announced that it was prepared to discuss any view put forward by the V.F.L.P.A. and pool their knowledge during such a discussion. This was a major improvement on the earlier meeting with McCutchan in May—McCutchan had then indicated that the V.F.L. was not prepared to exchange such information with the V.F.L.P.A. Secondly, the V.F.L. sub-committee held out the prospect of future meetings between the two bodies. The V.F.L. sub-committee said it was prepared to meet with the V.F.L.P.A. on any matter thought worthy of discussion by the V.F.L. Of course, it is conceivable that the V.F.L. may conveniently be unable to find such a worthy issue; but what is of importance here is that the V.F.L. sub-committee had left the gate open for future discussions.


After this meeting the V.F.L. directors met to discuss their position regarding the V.F.L.P.A. In a letter dated August 24, they requested three pieces of information from the V.F.L.P.A. before they would agree to any future meetings between their respective representatives. These were firstly, a copy of the Constitution and rules of the V.F.L.P.A.; secondly, the number of financial members of the V.F.L.P.A.; and thirdly the number of players the V.F.L.P.A. purports to represent. The V.F.L.P.A. immediately provided the information requested regarding membership, but had to wait until May of 1975 before they could provide the V.F.L. with a copy of their constitution. Given the removal of this last barrier to “recognition” it will be interesting to observe how the emerging relationship between the V.F.L. and the V.F.L.P.A. unfolds.


The question we will now consider is, why is it that the V.F.L. has been prepared to grant recognition to the V.F.L.P.A.? It may initially appear that such recognition was simply a pragmatic response to the situation that developed after the abolition of the ten year rule. The intervention of Mr Cameron, the knowledge that the V.F.L.P.A. had improved its organizational capability—not only had it increased the size of its membership but was already publishing newsletters—and the possibility of a strike may have cajoled the V.F.L. into recognition. It will be suggested, however, that the reasons for recognition lie much deeper than this. Before developing the alternative explanation it may be first useful to consider the following aside. As was mentioned earlier most V.F.L. players reside in the Melbourne metropolitan area. In some cases clubs have been prepared to fly players in from interstate to play each weekend. Geoff Pryor, the founder of the V.F.L.P.A., was transferred by the Department of Overseas Trade from Melbourne to Canberra at the start of the 1974 season. His club, Essendon, decided that it was prepared to fly Pryor to and from Canberra each weekend. This decision was made in February of 1974,[29] at a time before the V.F.L.P.A. had been established. If the V.F.L., or a group of clubs, had have wished to hamper the development of the V.F.L.P.A. it would have been so easy to suggest to Essendon that Pryor’s transfer to Canberra was a convenient way of getting rid of a trouble-maker. But this never happened.


It will be argued here that the V.F.L.’s response to the V.F.L.P.A. can only be understood in terms of the V.F.L.’s efforts, over the last two decades, of becoming a fully professional sport. Both the individual clubs and the V.F.L. have been conscious of the need to adopt a professional approach to ensure the survival and progress of Australian rules football. The development of V.F.L. Park at Waverley, the move to V.F.L. House, the increasing use of professional administrators by clubs and the growth of social clubs are all indications of this trend. Only a professional sport can afford the luxury of a players’ association. The V.F.L.P.A. then is seen as serving the important psychological function of helping to convince both V.F.L. and club administrators that the V.F.L., and Australian rules football, is developing on a professional basis.





We have been concerned with describing and analysing the initial development of the V.F.L.P.A. So far the V.F.L.P.A. have not gained any substantive concessions from the V.F.L., but nevertheless have established an informal relationship with the V.F.L. The indications for the future are that this relationship will be conducted on a more formal basis. The major advances that the V.F.L.P.A. have so far made have been in terms of developing an internally cohesive organization. The V.F.L.P.A. leadership have been continually aware of the need for a strong organization if they are to achieve concessions from the V.F.L. During 1974 the V.F.L.P.A. have continually devoted resources to the improvement of communications between the leadership and rank and file players. The players of the V.F.L. are aware of the V.F.L.P.A., its activities and the development of its relationship with the V.F.L. Not only have they been informed by club delegates, but also by a series of V.F.L.P.A. newsletters. This initial concern with internal cohesiveness should yield dividends in the future when the V.F.L.P.A. attempts to win substantive concessions from the V.F.L. and the clubs.


Notwithstanding this however, a few suggestions will now be made regarding the internal functioning of the V.F.L.P.A. At best the V.F.L.P.A. can never have more than 400 members—this is the approximate number of players on the senior training list of V.F.L. clubs. The problem of this small membership is that it will be very difficult for the V.F.L.P.A. to raise funds to pursue many of its objectives—this problem will be especially acute if the V.F.L.P.A. decides to appoint a full-time officer and open an office in an attempt to become more professional in its operations. The V.F.L.P.A. has been aware of this problem and there has been a suggestion that a national players’ association be established. David McKay, the V.F.L.P.A. vice-president, spoke of this idea in an address he gave in Adelaide urging the players of the South Australian National Football League to form a players’ association.[30] His speech apparently made an impact as the V.F.L.P.A.’s first newsletter for 1975 reports that the South Australian players have decided to form such an association.


The practice of overseas player associations may throw some light on how additional finance can be raised. English soccer’s P.F.A.’s major source of income is derived from its share of television rights. In 1972/73 the P.F.A. received over £37,000 from this source [19]. And the National Football League Players’ Association of American grid-iron employs a group licensing scheme as a means to raise additional revenue. The group licensing scheme simply consists of the N.F.L.P.A.’s endorsement of consumer products.[31] During 1971 and 1972 the N.F.L.P.A. raised over $400,000 from this scheme.[32] The V.F.L.P.A. would be well advised to consider adopting either, or both, of these techniques as a means to raise additional finance.[33]


At this stage it is not clear what will be the nature of the collective bargaining relationship established between the V.F.L. and the V.F.L.P.A. The two bodies may only agree to meet when an issue of mutual concern arises; or they may agree to hold a series of formal meetings at stipulated times during the year; or again, they may indulge in the drawing up of a comprehensive agreement, as is characteristic of American professional sports, where the rights and obligations of the parties to each other are clearly expressed.[34] What is clear, however, is that a relationship will be established, and in all likelihood that the V.F.L.P.A. will start to press for substantive concessions from the V.F.L. We may well find that the competition off the field will prove to be more interesting and significant than the competition conducted on the field.




[1] This article was first published in The Journal of Industrial Relations, Volume 18, Number 1, March 1976, pp. 28-44 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the editor. This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at a Conference on Sport, Society and Personality held at La Trobe University in May of 1975. Thanks are expressed to the [then] officers of the V.F.L.P.A., especially Mr. Geoff Pryor and Mr. David McKay, for the provision of documents and information regarding the activities of the V.F.L.P.A. It goes without saying that the author is solely responsible for the views expressed here, and any subsequent errors or omissions.


[2] See B. Dabscheck, The Labour Market for Australian Rules Footballers, Master of Economics Thesis, Faculty of Economics and Politics, Monash University, March 1973, pp. 111-117, for an account of an unsuccessful attempt at forming a union by the players of the V.F.L. in 1955.


[3] For an account of this strike and its eventual settlement see The (Sydney) Sun, November 22, 23, 27, 28 & 29, 1973 and January 22, 1974. The Australian, November 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29 & 30 and December 1, 1973, The Age, November 24, 26, 27 & 29 November, The Daily Mirror, November 23, 1973, The Daily Telegraph, January 18, 1974.


[4] See the reports in The Daily TelegraphThe Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian on February 6, 1974.


[5] For details of this dispute see The Australian, April 13 and May 1, 1974, The (Sydney) Sun, April 18, 1974 and The Daily Telegraph, April 22, 1974.


[6] For events surrounding this dispute see The Age, November 22, 1973, February 19 & 21, March 16 and May 2, 1974, and The Australian, March 15 & 16, 1974.


[7] Accounts of this dispute and its aftermath are contained in The Sydney Morning Herald, June 17 and July 18, 1974, The (Sydney) Sun, June 26, 1974, and The Daily Telegraph, June 11, 1974.


[8] It might be appropriate to quote Scoville here, who argues that “the growing militancy of player associations … has made labor relations in sports a matter of considerable public concern”. R. G. Noll (ed.), Government and the Sports Business, Brookings, Washington, 1974, p. 185.


[9] E. G. Kransnow and H. M. Levy, “Unionization and Professional Sports”, Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 51, 1963, have also made this point in relation to American player associations.


[10] It is interesting to note here that the 1955 abortive attempt at unionization by V.F.L. players culminated in an unsuccessful attempt at registration before the then Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. See Commonwealth Arbitration Reports, Volume 84, 1956, pp. 675-9.


[11] There are two exceptions to this rule. They are French soccer, see Professional Football, Commission of Industrial Relations, Report No. 87, London, 1974, Appendix 7, and the New South Wales Rugby League where the transfer system was abolished after a legal challenge by Balmain player Dennis Tutty. The relevant cases are Tutty v. Buckley, New South Wales Report, 1970, 3, pp. 463-76 and Buckley v. Tutty, Australian Law Journal Reports, Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1972), pp. 23-32. For details and an examination of the N.S.W.R.L.’s reaction to this decision see B. Dabscheck, op. cit., pp. 116-118 and a newspaper article by the author entitled “Driving the Crowds Away”, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 24, 1974.


[12] For accounts and descriptions of the institutional arrangements found in comparable overseas team sports see:

  1. S. Davenport, “Collusive Competition in Major League Baseball: Its Theory and Institutional Development”, American Economist, Vol. XIII, 1969.
  2. G. Demmert, The Economics of Professional Team Sports, Lexington Books, Lexington, 1973.
  3. C. H. Jones, “The Economics of the National Hockey League”, Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 2, 1969.
  4. G. Noll (ed.), op. cit., Political and Economic Planning Report, “English Professional Football”, Planning, Vol. XXXII, No. 496, 1966.

Report of the Committee on Football (Chairman, D. N. Chester), Department of Education and Science, London, 1968.

  1. Rottenberg, “The Baseball Players’ Labour Market”, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. LXIV, 1956.
  2. J. Sloane, “The Labour Market in Professional Football”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. VII, 1969.


[13] This is not to say that players—especially star players—are not without their defences. For details of this and how clubs get around the V.F.L.’s wage rules see B. Dabscheck, op. cit., and B. Dabscheck, “The Wage Determination Process for Sportsmen”, The Economic Record, Vol. 51, 1975.


[14] Unless otherwise stated the bulk of the information contained in this section is derived from the minutes of V.F.L.P.A. delegates’ meetings and their attachments and reports, and from V.F.L.P.A. newsletters.


[15] This and the following paragraph rely on newspaper reports in The Australian, December 10 and 17, 1973, The Age, December 10 and 11, 1973, The Herald, December 10, 1973, and The (Melbourne) Sun, December 19, 1973 and February 19, 1974.


[16] Part of the increase in membership may be explained by the external manoeuvres of the V.F.L.P.A. with the V.F.L. See below for details.


[17] With the exception of Geelong, which is approximately 45 miles to the west of Melbourne, the V.F.L. clubs and grounds are located in the Melbourne metropolitan area. Including Geelong, grounds are concentrated in a 60-mile radius.


[18] These views have been expressed in recent private communications with office bearers of the V.F.L.P.A.


[19] Bain, in writing about the development of white-collar unionism, has noted that “even the most superficial reflection should indicate that employer policies and practices may profoundly affect the growth and development of trade unionism”. G. S. Bain, The Growth of White-Collar Unionism, Oxford University Press, London, 1972, p. 122.


[20] Two qualifications need to be made here. Firstly, Richmond sees little need for a players’ association as it believes that it looks after their players. Secondly, Collingwood strongly attacked the V.F.L.P.A. over its call for legal protection of players playing against John Greening. In 1972 Greening was knocked unconscious in a game against St. Kilda. Greening remained unconscious for several days and on recovering was found to have lost much of his control and co-ordination. Collingwood initiated legal proceedings against St. Kilda, but the matter was eventually settled out of court where the two clubs agreed to raise $60,000 for Greening and his family. In 1974 Greening made a comeback and the fear of the V.F.L.P.A. was that Greening’s old injury would be aggravated. For details see The Sporting Globe, May 11, 1974, The Herald, May 15, 1974, and The [Melbourne] Sun, May 16, 1974.


[21] On the two days preceding this meeting the V.F.L.P.A. held meetings with both the Federal Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Mr Frank Stewart, and with the V.F.L. umpires’ association. The V.F.L.P.A. found the meeting with Mr. Stewart unsuccessful due to his apparent lack of appreciation of the situation regarding V.F.L. football. The meeting with the umpires was more successful: Besides the two bodies formally recognizing each other the umpires gave details of their recent negotiations with the V.F.L. See The (Melbourne) Sun, May 7, 1974. A second meeting was subsequently held in September where the two associations agreed to the strengthening of formal ties, to have two meetings each year and to work together towards encouraging the V.F.L. to consult both bodies before any decision affecting members are made.


[22] See newspaper reports in The Age, May 8, 1974, and The Herald and The (Melbourne) Sun, May 9, 1974.


[23] The timing of this meeting, however, is extremely important. It is held only two weeks after the fourth delegates’ meeting where is was discovered that the V.F.L.P.A. had less than 100 financial members. It does appear that the V.F.L.P.A. leadership had calculated that the publicity associated with a meeting with McCutchan, and to a lesser extent the umpires’ association, would help them in their drive to attract members.


[24] For an account of its contents see The Age, July 11, 1974.


[25] For details see newspaper reports in The Age and The Australian on July 27, 1974.


[26] Representatives of the V.F.L.P.A. met with Mr Brian Dixon, The Victorian Minister for Youth, Sport and Recreation, on July 30 in the afternoon before this meeting. Most significantly, especially at this point in time, Mr Dixon agreed to officially recognize the V.F.L.P.A.


[27] It appears that Mr Jordan of the Victorian Trades Hall was to help arrange this meeting with Mr Justice Robinson.


[28] See The Herald, July 30, 1974, The Age and The Australian, July 31, 1974, and The Sporting Globe, August 8, 1974.


[29] See The (Melbourne) Sun, February 19, 1974.


[30] For details of his speech see The Adelaide Advertiser, August 24, 1974.


[31] It is interesting to note in this regard that the V.F.L. and the dubs attempted to enter this area in the 1975 season where players would have been required to wear advertising emblems on their guernscys. The proposed scheme fell through, however, when the commercial television channels threatened to stop their coverage of games because of a conflict of interests with their sponsors.


[32] See the Natiotial Football League Players Association, Report of Activities, 1970-1972.


[33] It may also be advisable for the V.F.L.P.A. to amalgamate with the umpires’ association where funds and expertise could be pooled.


[34] It should be pointed out that both English soccer and American sports have a variety of grievance procedures to resolve disputes that may arise between a player and his club. See M. S. Jacobs and R. K. Winter, Jr., “Antitrust Principles and Collective Bargaining by Athletes: Of Superstars in Peonage”, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 81, 1971, R. G. Noll (ed.), op. cit., and Professional Football, Commission of Industrial Relations, Report No. 87, London 1974. It is conceivable that the V.F.L.P.A. will press for the introduction of similar procedures in the future.





  1. G. S. Bain, The Growth of White-Collar Unionism, Oxford University Press, London, 1972.


  1. “The Balance of Power in Professional Sports”, Maine Law Review, Vol. 22, 1970.


  1. P. S. Craig, “Monopsony in Manpower: Organized Baseball and the Antitrust Laws”, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 62, 1953.


  1. B. Dabscheck, “The Labour Market for Australian Rules Footballers”, Master of Economics Thesis, Faculty of Economics and Politics, Monash University, March 1973.


  1. B. Dabscheck, “Sporting Equality: Labour Market vs. Product Market Control”, The Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 17, 1975.


  1. B. Dabscheck, “The Wage Determination Process for Sportsmen”, The Economic Record, Vol. 51, 1975.


  1. D. S. Davenport, “Collusive Competition in Major League Baseball: Its Theory and Institutional Development”, American Economist, Vol. XIII, 1969.


  1. H. G. Demmert, The Economics of Professional Team Sports, Lexington Books, Lexington, 1973.


  1. “Discipline in Professional Sports: The Need for Player Protection”, Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 60, 1972.


  1. P. Gregory, The Baseball Player: An Economic Study, Public Affairs Press, Washington, 1956.


  1. R. B. Hoffman, “Is the N.L.R.B. Going to Play the Ball Game?”, Labor Law Journal, Vol. 81, 1971.


  1. J. E. Isaac and G. W. Ford (eds.), Australian Labour Relations: Readings, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1968.


  1. M. S. Jacobs and R. K. Winter, Jr., “Antitrust Principles and Collective Bargaining by Athletes: Of Superstars in Peonage”, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 81, 1971.


  1. J. C. H. Jones, “The Economics of the National Hockey League, Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 2, 1969.


  1. E. G. Krasnow and H. M. Levy, “Unionization and Professional Sports”, Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 51, 1963.


  1. J. G. Weistart (ed.), Law and Contemporary Problems, issue on “Athletics”, Vol. 38, 1973.


  1. R. G. Noll (ed.), Government and the Sports Business, Brookings, Washington, 1974.


  1. Political and Economic Planning Report, “English Professional Football”, Planning, Vol. XXXII, No. 496, 1966.


  1. Professional Football, Commission of Industrial Relations, Report No. 87, London, 1974.


  1. D. W. Rawson, A Handbook of Australian Trade Unions and Employed Associations, Department of Political Science, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, 1973.


  1. Report of the Committee on Football, (Chairman, D. N. Chester), Department of Education and Science, London, 1968.


  1. S. Rottenberg, “The Baseball Players’ Labour Market”, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. LXIV, 1956.


  1. G. W. Scully, “Pay and Performance in Major League Baseball”, The American Economic Review, Vol. LXIV, 1974.


  1. H. Seymour, Baseball—The Early Years, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, How York, 1960.


  1. H. Seymour, Baseball—The Golden Age, Vol. 2, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.


  1. P. J. Sloane, “The Labour Market in Professional Football”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. VII. 1969.


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