Free Agents, Commentators, and Kids

This week on the AFL website, commentator Damien Barrett promoted the potential benefits of free agents openly admitting they are planning to leave clubs the best part of 12 months before they actually do so.


This argument, that players should be transparent if they intend to leave, has existed for years. In 2010, when Gary Ablett was playing for Geelong but rumoured to have decided he’d leave for the new Gold Coast team the following season, Gerard Whateley made Barrett’s point. But what was ignored by Whateley then, and is ignored by Barrett now, is the fact that the AFL’s most important constituency isn’t 30-somethings who want to fill time between AFL games by reading about player movement, nor is it journalists who want more opportunities to discuss off-field drama and their latest scoop. Rather, the AFL’s most important audience is under 10 years old – the kids who are becoming lifelong devotees of their favourite game.


Barrett’s hypothetical world is one in which every child in Australia could have their favourite player ripped from them not just during the Trade Period, but at any moment. A world where kids don’t just understand that a few players can change teams at the end of a season, but rather they see members of their favourite team openly admitting that they don’t care about their club as much as they do their career. A world where kids who make the pilgrimage to their club’s family day or open training will look at their favourite player who they know doesn’t love their club enough to stay, and see them as……what? How should they react? Will they seek an autograph out from such a player, asking them to sign a jumper that are colours the kid knows the player doesn’t want to wear?


If Barrett has his way, kids’ pure adoration of their favourite player – often their first childhood hero – would instead be replaced by existential questions regarding loyalty and fanhood. Sure, high schoolers and adults come to understand that these two concepts are often incompatible with the business of sport. Prior to this realisation, though, the same concepts drew us all into the game and its inexplicably beautiful tribalism in the first place.


But every week in Barrett’s World, kids would find the business of sport bombarding them as they watched a player who doesn’t love their club playing for it anyway. Imagine, if you will, a 5 year-old Port supporter with number 9 on his back, embarking upon the first year of school just as Robbie Gray takes Barrett’s advice. The Easter Weekend would become the “Why doesn’t Robbie love us?” weekend. The ANZAC Round would become the “What am I supposed to, or allowed to, think about him now?” Round. The Sir Doug Nicholls Round would become the “I can’t have his poster any more” Round. The split rounds would become the “I need a new number on the back of my jumper, but maybe I shouldn’t get one in case my new favourite player leaves too” rounds. Never Tear Us Apart would be the most ironic tune in league history.


In response to Whateley 8 years ago, I was reminded of one of most apt metaphors ever written about sport, from the incomparable Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, who was writing about attending a high school American Football game soon after 9/11:


“However, something, I said, was still off about that game. I’d played in and watched too many games not to know it. Because when games are right, they’re like pulling a blanket over your head when you’re a kid—suddenly the world goes away and nothing outside that little space even exists; it’s delicious.


“Yep, it’s like playing a trick on yourself, and for it all to work right, it has to start with the players believing that the outcome really matters, then spread out over the crowd and the viewers at home and cover them too, get them screaming and jumping and throwing pillows at the screen. Only a few athletes, or maybe a handful of fans, not losing themselves in the game can start lifting the edge of the blanket, start making everyone see that the game doesn’t mean a thing.”


A number of things can lift the blanket on sport. Planes crashing into buildings can lift the blanket. Rumours of drug taking or match fixing can lift the blanket. And players openly admitting they don’t care about their team because they are going to be playing for someone else the following season lifts the blanket. It lifts it for adults, who can find it difficult to believe that the player involved truly cares about any given result; and it sure as anything lifts it for kids, replacing their innocent love for their favourite team, player, and game with existential angst.


Barrett and other adult commentators perpetuating their argument forget that the AFL isn’t about them. They are the Australian sport commentariat’s version of the grown man who would lunge in front of a kid to catch a foul ball, or the man who ripped the towel out of a kid’s hands at Wimbledon.



Adults quietly lying to protect childhood joy and passion is a well-trodden path. Please, free agents, ignore Mr Barrett. Remember, you are heroes to our kids, and those who have come before you have coped with a little white lie in order to maintain the beautiful trick that is sport, and leave the blanket over our youngsters untouched.


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About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.

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