Footy philosophy: Australian Rules v AFL, sport v business, Plato

“Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.” – Plato.

Crescendo after crescendo of angst has broken on the shore of the AFL in recent times. M Flanagan recently wrote that if we applied the same scrutiny to our politicians as we do to football, we’d have different government. Maybe the same parties in power, but the governing would be different.

Footy (playing, watching) began for almost everyone as a source of fun, yet now has many regularly expressing outrage. Leaving aside obvious league tables of outrage-worthy topics (e.g. 1. the continuing objectification of humans running for their lives as somehow “illegal” or “queue-jumpers”, 2. the relative lack of opportunity for kids of poor parents relative to those of the rich, 3. my team giving opportunities to players in Round 23 who would not usually be given them, and in so doing resting some tired players and removing them from the threat of injury), this outrage can and probably should be thought through.
Plato would recommend this.
Why are we feeling this way?
Why are so many people feeling disenfranchised?
How have we departed from Eudaimonia (the ideal state of human flourishing)?

We need some form of therapy, to which we thankfully all have access: philosophy.

So where is the source of our discontent? Let’s think. It could be any one or a combination of trivial issues of life: the toilet is blocked, your partner failed to notice the anniversary of Winston Churchill’s birth, your child said she hated you, you went to defrost chicken but found it to be fish. These things irk us and lower our threshold for reaching outrage. Small matters probably do have a cumulative impact on our outlook.

These are kindling, though, to the fire of footy-centred outrage. How can we understand the many and varied high-pitched cries of disappointment that crash like waves, week after week, day after day, upon the shore of the Australian Football League. Audience members (mostly paying customers exercising free will) have variously cried over:
– inadequately described regimes of injections of unknown substances to players (e.g. S Curtain on Essendon)
– booing certain individuals and large misunderstandings about this (e.g. J Moore on Adam Goodes)
– the bells and whistles approach to marketing a match day experience
– inconsistent enforcement of policy by the tribunal when applied to individuals
– whole clubs and millions of dollars being lost due to Messiah complexes held by individuals
– inadequate explanation of Round 23 team composition (e.g. C Critchley’s strong piece “Faith is everything in footy“)
– the scheduling of a 23 round season as a masquerade of a fair or just competition in which 18 clubs compete
– inadequately explained and applied (seemingly arbitrary) decrees applying to trading and drafting (e.g. J Moore on Sydney treatment)
– inadequately explained selection of venues for finals games
– inadequate consideration of sentiment in assessing the capacity of older players to continue playing the game (much-loved players sacked by clubs; clubs who rely on supporters, supporters who love those players). General sadness.
– the tendency for risk-averse coaching and playing of football dominating the exciting and speculative (e.g. JT Harms on Johnno).

The common substantive issue here seems to be the failure of the AFL to provide everything we want, when we want it. Governments often fail the same test. As do partners. And work colleagues.

Of course, it’s an unreasonable expectation to hold.
But as footy lovers, we may reasonably ask “why is it unreasonable?” Can’t everything be wonderful? To answer, we need to separate in our minds the notions of Australian Rules football from those of the Australian Football League.

For the most part, the broad philosophies of Australian Rules football and those of the Australian Football League align. In each, we can imagine as central planks of their raison d’être: attacking and spirited athleticism, brave and skilful application, promotion of the freedom to express, promotion of the discipline of choice, the offering of sanctuary to outsiders, the offering of a role for everyone, promotion of fitness and wellness, promotion of community, promotion of self-reliance, promotion of awareness of the individual within a team environment; how to be part of something bigger than oneself.

But critically, and often overlooked, the Australian Football League is only a part of the spectrum of Australian Rules football. Necessarily, differences in philosophy exist between the two.

On the one hand, the sport of Australian Rules is a game based on a codified set of rules, bound in a rich and layered history. As such, there exists no “mission statement” for Australian Rules football (beyond the popular phrase “to keep the cricketers fit during winter.”) Indeed, it’s an interesting challenge to attempt such a Mission Statement.
Perhaps: “To enjoy and further the enjoyment of the unique hybrid sport of Australian Rules football; a game of indigenous Australian and colonial origin.” I’m sure a facilitator could rustle up some butcher’s paper for $1,000/hour and get us something better. But from the viewpoint of the sport of Australian Rules football, Steve Johnson would play one-out in the goal square beyond pension age.

On the other hand, the AFL is a corporate entity; it’s a business. Finding its Mission Statement was beyond me. However, I did find some “objectives.” In the 2014 Concise Financial Report of the AFL Annual Report, the AFL is referred to as “The Company”. The “four major objectives of the Company include the following:
i. To manage the AFL competition to ensure that it remains the most exciting in Australian Sport. [their capitalisation].
ii. To build a stronger relationship with the supporters at all levels of the game.
iii. To help ensure that AFL Clubs [theirs again] are financially secure and competitive.
iv. To provide the best possible benefits for AFL players and to drive the next generation of elite athletes to choose our game.”
p164, 2014 Annual Report of the AFL

What are these AFL Clubs? Vitally, they are also corporate entities; businesses. The AFL Clubs themselves have objectives. For example, those of Geelong are listed in the 2014 Financial Statements:
“1. Win premierships by having a collaborative environment that enables our people individually and collectively, to evolve and excel, with:
– high quality player recruitment
– effective list management
– a collaborative coaching and football development program
– optimum and innovative team performance programs
– a holistic player development program
– an extensive and challenging development pathway and VFL program
– best practice provision and usage of technology
2. Grow our member and supporter base and commercial profit by:
– empowering employees…
– engaging with our members…
– generating merchandise…
– re-establishing Club events…
– creating, delivering and constantly evaluating our long term strategic brand marketing plan
– providing entertaining experiences…
3. Be an outstanding community contributor by delivering sustainable community development, relations and assistance programs with the ultimate aim of being ‘more than a football club’, and to protect, preserve and promote the Club’s history and tradition.
4. Infrastructure development…
5. Have great people and a unified culture…
6. Delivering ongoing and enhanced profitability each year…
7. Operate within a best practice corporate governance structure…
8. Provide environmentally responsible facilities…
9. Keep our supporters informed and connected…”

These are business objectives.
That’s because the AFL and its clubs are unmistakably businesses.
There’s nothing listed there about the spirit of the game, nor the making of decisions based on sentiment. None of us would expect to find among Transfield’s objectives the aim to re-engender road making ideals of the 1950s, and nor should we. Businesses and those controlling them, have very clear, very explicit goals.

AFL clubs (as businesses) are all about winning premierships and making money (Geelong objectives 1 and 2). This is all spelled out very clearly.

And yes, while it is possible for a club to be more than a business, it must act as a business first and foremost. After that, it may stretch its philanthropic wings. There is no such thing as a broke philanthropist.

That leaves us as supporters feeling a tension.
We feel a tension because we are emotionally connected to these businesses, or worse, to individual employees of these businesses. When our favourite employee of our favourite business fails to meet the demands of the employer (the business owner, who is necessarily planning for the future), and is sacked, we feel sadness in a way we would not for the sacking of a BHP-Billiton forklift operator.
It’s not unusual or wrong. It’s just a messy overlap of emotion and business.

A Catch-22 messiness here is that each of the club businesses and the AFL business itself, relies upon our emotional investment for their very survival. Each must be careful not to upset us too much, lest we decide not to spend our money on their (otherwise useless) product.

Thoughout the year (years/ decades) tension has bubbled along in the overlap between Australian Rules football and the AFL. Thinking logically about the objectives of these two disparate entities:
A follower of Australian Rules football should expect to see: drug-free sport, boo-free football, convivial atmosphere created organically by a crowd of people in attendance, even-handed transparent application of rules, an even competition in which all teams play each other twice, a valuing of more than just match-results – a valuing of the importance of clubs as community first and foremost, clubs as supportive crucibles of creativity and daring.
The AFL supporter should expect to see: boundary pushing of scientific performance-enhancing drugs to seek advantage (“whatever it takes”), paying “customers” exercising their “right to boo,” paid marketers interfering to build an artificial match-day experience, rules introduced to favour larger, more profitable clubs (that generate television ratings), maximum number of televised games in a calendar year (regardless of the integrity of the competition or the effect on other sports), the win-loss record as the first order measure of success, the balance sheet as the second order measure of success, clubs as conservative risk-averse institutions.

Though it understandably may appear as one, this is not an exercise in cynicism; rather it is one of logic. The Australian Rules and AFL viewpoints are incompatible.

Problems necessarily arise.

It is entirely reasonable to support Australian Rules football while dismissing the AFL business agenda. No one really supports the AFL. And yet many of us do support member clubs. We need to realise that when we support an AFL club, we support a business (with all of its foibles and advantages).

Australian Rules football lovers can only be disappointed with aspects of the AFL scene when their expectations are unrealistic. So of course North Melbourne dropped 9 players from last Friday’s game. Of course Geelong de-listed Steve Johnson. Of course the AFL won’t support a stand-alone Tasmanian team. Of course the AFL acts in own interest at all times seeking to maximize revenue. That is as it should be. It makes sense, given the business model that exists now.

To see different choices made by the AFL and by clubs would require them to be acting within entirely different systems with different priorities. Outside of the business model. Either that, or enough supporter pressure would need to be applied to that sensitive spot of “supporter (sponsor) satisfaction,” to force ad hoc changes (e.g. reissuing the 1980s -style jumper at Carlton).

If all of that has left you feeling a little flat, it’s worth remembering that Australian Rules football is much bigger than the AFL. And that people will never be machines. Within the AFL, pockets of free-spirited ballyhoo still do break out; like Irish Republican flags, they cannot be repressed. Players of unbridled creativity light the AFL stage from time-to-time. Otherwise, finals of local footy competitions around (southern) Australia are now on at a ground near you. That’s where to find Australian Rules football. (Tip: the earlier finals are probably more likely to fit the mould than Grand Finals, which can sometimes revert to defensive possession-based exercises in fear and relief).


JT Harms from 2011 – “How the Footy Almanac saved football




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About David Wilson

David Wilson is a writer, editor, flood forecaster and former school teacher. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and a dog, Pip. He finds playing the guitar a little tricky, but seems to have found a kindred instrument with the ukulele. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Very well summed up, D.Wilson – the quandary I find myself in most weekends as a follower of Australian Rules Football. The one small trouble is that the AFL Commission is actually responsible for the game itself, nationally. Given as you have highlighted above it is first and foremost a business (that should be paying tax) it is singularly unqualified to be responsible for such a thing of beauty. It should have a seat at the table – not own it.

    I have no problem with occasionally foisting unrealistic expectations on the AFL – it’s the price they must pay for keeping real human beings interested. From one perspective it’s amazing how often they respond.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    So much to ponder on here, ER. The idea of something is often more desirable than the thing itself; footy, love, political integrity, Johnno playing from the square.

    A quote by Platonic scholar and writer Umberto Eco sums up my feelings about footy and the world at the moment:
    “I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

  3. Interesting ER. I might suggest if you want some further reading pertinent to current AFL,,nay sport, peruse Guy Debords prescient work, The Society of the Spectacle. Possibly dated in parts, but in our current commodified existence it is good to ponder the way aspects of our lives have gone from being to having,now to appearing. THe AFL, ‘reality shows’ , etc, all part of a spectacle confronting us.


  4. Thanks gents.
    D. Brown – I’ve heard that before – that idea of AFL as guardians of the game. Stewards of the game. I understand that the “point of truth” for rules etc needs to reside somewhere. (The MCC would be the cricket analogy, here). But the indefinable “spirit” or approach or attitude of participants cannot be codified.
    The self-interest motive needs no elaboration.

    P Dimitriadis – glad to know you’re pondering. I like that quote. It points to a wisdom similar to that held by the idea of “impermanence.” I remain surprised that the whole resting-of-9-players last week received the coverage it did.

    Glen – thanks for the tip. Always open to reading tips.

  5. Good one ER. I am more into your French philosophers at the moment.
    Liberte’, Fraternite’, Eagle-ite’.
    They knew what they were talking about. Just been down to the Place de la Concorde to check out where we bring the tumbrels with those imperial scoundrels – Fitzpatrick and McLachlan – come the revolution. See what happens when you let a Carlton merchant banker run the cake shop.
    “Let them eat cake.”
    Still we mustn’t complain. I watched a half of a France – Scotland rugby union game on tv the other night, before falling asleep on the sofa at half time and waking up in a warm wet pool of vin rouge. (Hope the landlord is not an Almanacker). Most turgid, boring sporting contest I have seen for ages. Big blokes trundling into each other with no exciting backs to run the ball. The All Blacks and Wallabies would run rings around those water buffaloes.
    Still sport is the only thing on the TV I can understand over here, and even Fremantle – Melbourne dazzles by comparison.
    Bon chance.

  6. Bonjour PB,
    Magnifique. Très bon.

    I expect that running the AFL would be difficult.
    And perhaps its unfair to demonise those in charge.
    I’m not having a pop at them.

    But I think it’s always worth imagining how you would LIKE thing to be.
    “imagine what you would like people to be saying about you at your 80th birthday,” for instance. Imagine it, and then ACT NOW to achieve that vision.

    I wonder what the vision is for Austrslian Rules (as opposed to the AFL), and who advocates on its behalf.

  7. Bec. Blossomvictory says

    Well, profits making don’t have to collide with moralities/ ethics, all personal choices to be honest. If the AFL Authority is going to continue to shrug off its moral responsibility in the like of NMFC saga, this AFL-run Footy Premiumship stuffs will be game over soon, Watch out!! … Ouch, as direct consumers paying Footy tickets / Memberships, thank God we can give the AFL a good whack when it’s Necessary, hence It should listen to us the Majority of the market voices a bit more pls, and act More Consciously in the future too (at Ur own hand – AFL Authority) … Great research Bro, Congrats!!

  8. David- excellent interrogation of the state of the footy nation. Let’s drop off some butcher’s paper to AFL House. Having said that we continue to consumers their products with a ravenous ferocity.

    Thanks for that.

  9. This is the inspiration for a seminar, a conference, a retreat – or a night at the pub.

    What I see in this is a wonderful application of clear thinking in an attempt to understand what’s going on.


    I believe in free agency – if (and only if) I am of critical mind and have made an attempt to understand the context of all (am I arguing for theorists here?) So in the Australian Rules fan v AFL fan dichotomy, I have the freedom to seek that which I desire. Football – for footy’s sake.

    What makes the supersport version of the game so teeth-grittingly infuriating is the con. The AFL and those who feed off it spends so much time on the con. The AFL and its clubs spend millions making you feel like it is Australian football. I sense/know/feel that it is not what I think footy is – in so many different facets – so I am frustrated.

    Response: I seek footy elsewhere.

    Is it only a matter of time before I seek footy elsewhere, if the trajectory remains the same? At what point does my attitude/behaviour change? Where is Geelong in my scheme of things now? And what of the Fitzroy Football Club?

    It doesn’t really matter what I think. Who cares?

    But what happens when there are thousands of me?

    ER, thanks for taking so much time to put together this piece. Plato always scores a lot of dream team points.

  10. Steve Hodder says

    Apart from existing so that players, good enough, get to play at the top level; I can’t think of any other use for the AFL at all. Mission statements are for spivs.

    Plato, they say, could stick it away, half a crate of whisky every day. Sorry I couldn’t resist.


  11. kath presdee says

    I’m going to put in a counter-point of view which may make as much sense as a mission statement, but hey, no one should black hat in a brainstorm session!

    I did not see Aussie Rules regularly until the VFL stopped thinking of the Game as a game and as the start of something more professional. We got a team in Sydney that didn’t really compete for hearts and minds until they got themselves some lair as Full Forward and some colourful personality as their owner. Even then it was all panem et circus rather than football. The Sydney public knew who Capper was; they then knew who Lockett was. The master goal kicker was king.

    Momentum came not from the Swans finally getting their act together on the field in the mid 1990s but, arguably, the schism of Super League. The changes to the game of rugby league on the field were minimal. The changes to the Game, however, were one group of Clubs lining up with a big bucket of money and a supposedly better deal compared to another group of Clubs lining up with a big bucket of money and a supposedly better deal from another party. People were fed up and started watching other things. Not surprisingly some people started watching the AFL competition on a regular basis. Some of us enjoyed what we saw and came back for more.

    I don’t know what the golden era of play was. I have no comment about whether the introduction of the interchange, much less substitution, has wrecked the game in pursuit of a better return for the Game. I come from a traditional background of watching grind, graft, rough and tumble where defensive tackles and feats of strength are admired as much as the nimble and fleet footed dancer down the sideline. The Swans play under Roos (assisted by Lyons) which emphasized the defence and win at all costs spoke to a city where, if you must be cynical, the end justifies the means and whatever it takes is not only accepted but encouraged.

    I watch far more Aussie Rules than I do Rugby League or Rugby Union. I would never have got to this point if it was not for the AFL. Many of the kids who are in my son’s footy team are the same. Either their parents started following the Swans and/or the kids are hooked on the Swans or the Giants. We’re not immigrants from the “southern states” so the attachment to the old model is not there. We’re having to grow a game in the far-flung outpost. We are the Gauls who have learned Latin and Greek and provide the gold to Rome… but the Romans don’t want us in their Senate because, well, we’re not Roman.

    I also look at the other sporting codes and the difference between the game and the Game. Sport is an industry producing product for consumers who want to be entertained. Those of us who have watched for long enough know that they’ve tampered with the classic formula too much and the game as played is of inferior quality to what we remember. But do consumers care about the visceral thrill of the crowd, the shared experience of winning and losing? Or is it enough to enjoy it in the relative solitude of our homes, where we control who we watch, when we watch and who we watch it with. Is it the Game that is driving our behaviour or is the consumer behaviour driving the Game?

    How do we get the game and Game back in balance? Throw me a whiteboard marker, I’m happy to pitch in.

  12. The late great Bruce Andrew spent many years in the middle of the last century on behalf of the Australian Football Council, trying to get the media in the colonial backwaters and rugby holdouts of NSW and QLD to drop the disrespectful and cringe-worthy “rules” tag from Australian Football.

    Our indigenous code of football has never ever been called Australian “rules” Football (especially not with a capital “R”) by any senior officiating body. The “rules” rag has its origins in the nineteenth century especially in the more British centric ‘mother’ colony of NSW (it took multiple referendum to get it to agree to become part of Australia). According to those who favoured an Imperial federation with London as the capital, nothing ‘Australian’ could be anything original but only a derivative variant of something from the superior mother culture. Hence Australian Football could only be a “rules” variant of another code of football. As such it was all part of a cultural cringe, typical of insecure settler colonies. American Football is confidently just that and is never American “Rules” Football.

    Unfortunately with the Australian game spreading at the highest level into the NSW and QLD a new generation of the generally ignorant has taken to the notion that Australian Football has “rules” as part of its name, along with a dull-witted lack of appreciation why this shouldn’t be so.

  13. Kath – great perspective. Always helpful to think from a variety of viewpoints.
    This idea of what Australian football is (ah-ha) and can be is an open question. Probably and necessarily the game at the peak professional level will always be constrained in a way that park footy is not.
    Probably all about motive/ objectives(!)
    Terrific that you’ll grab a whiteboard marker.

    Michael – I’ll happy concede that I know nothing. Disrespectful, cringe-worthy, ignorant and dull-witted seems a bit harsh.
    Happy to live and learn. And yours is just one more perspective. No bother.
    I guess names are important. I think Confucius is attributed with saying: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
    Looks like we’ve got session 1 of the conference (pub night) sorted.

  14. Late to the discussion (as usual), but I’m glad I caught it. A lot of thought put into this E Reg. And it’s provoked an equally thoughtful discussion. Thanks to all.

    Irreconcilable tensions. Isn’t that the human experience in essence? No surprise a very human endeavour like football should generate them.

    Corporations are given the rights of a citizen in law, but does that make them human enterprises?

    Kath, Roman or not, that’s a more clear-headed justification of the AFL than I suspect the AFL could muster themselves. Which probably leads us back to discussion of motive/objective.

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