The Sporting-Industrial Complex

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

President Dwight D Eisenhower (Former Army General and Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces in Europe in WWII – no bleeding heart) Farewell Address to the Nation – 17 January 1961

After the initial shock of the Essendon and Australian Crime Commission revelations, the public discussion has rapidly turned to “surely not my sport/club/boys.”  Identify the few bad apples.  Rub them out, and then we can all happily go on the way we have been.

We are demanding black letter standards of legal proof to demonstrate a problem.  If they do not exist, then ipso facto we have no problems – certainly not in my club, or the AFL in general.

If an ‘innovation’ is not illegal then it’s permissible and to be encouraged, valued and funded in order to give our team a 1% chance of winning more games this year.

That’s what most footy fans are saying on this website and elsewhere, not because they really believe those things, but because they have not thought through the long term implications of the Sporting-Industrial Complex.

Try substituting “sport” or “AFL” for “military” in the Eisenhower quote.  Then use any of “salaries/ sports science/ football departments/ gambling sponsorship/ media rights revenue/ or organised crime” for “arms” and “industry” in the Eisenhower quote.  “Australian” for “American” – we follow the US in everything economic and cultural – so our AFL eventually mimics their NFL, NBA and MLB in all things good and bad – game tactics, training, salaries, media control, commercial sponsorship authority, performance enhancement and corruption.

To me, Eisenhower was saying that when business and money intrude into national security, there will always be scoundrels telling you why they need more dollars to ensure that you are stronger, safer and can vanquish any threat.  America ignored Eisenhower to its great economic cost (witness their deficit and the terminally weak US$) and human cost (Vietnam, Iraq).  Every time the imperial war machine is rolled out, it pulls a hamstring.  Hello AFL, Essendon and the business of modern professional sport.

The current performance enhancing drugs controversy should be the “canary in the coalmine” to tell us that there are some things rotten in the culture, value and ethics of modern professional sport.  But don’t wait to hear it from any football coach; AFL official or paid media outlet.  None of them are going to bite the hand that feeds them so extravagantly.

Let’s play a mental game to imagine how the AFL might look different if it was about competition, excellence and rewarding skill and effort – instead of “whatever it takes to win and make more bucks”.

While I bag them as my natural right, I admire many of the people in leadership positions in the AFL and its clubs.  Fitzpatrick, Demetriou, Finnis and most Club Presidents and CEO’s exhibit a fair amount of altruism and societal concern.  Balancing that against their narrower responsibilities and the success of their own agency in a ruthless, competitive environment is a pretty tough gig.

In a society where we rightly condemn our political leaders for putting self and party interest ahead of community welfare – how about we encourage our sporting leaders to take a step back and consider the overarching goals of sport in shaping their response to current dramas.

The 2 articles that I enjoyed most on the Almanac website this week were Sasha Lennon’s “Western Desert Dreaming” and Jackson Clark’s “List of Top NTFL Players”.  Before all of the current controversy and amid the pre-season media hype, I was wishing that instead of the NAB Cup I could find a video feed of the Tiwi Islands league or the NTFL.

In my heart they seemed to represent some bucolic ideal of skill and flair; still played to win; but without the deadening tactics and ruthlessness of the AFL.  I have only ever seen a few glimpses (when ABC2 used to do late night State Leagues?) and the only full game I remember watching was marred by torrential rain that diminished the ball skills.

If that’s the brand of footy I want to see more of, then how do we create the structures and incentives to encourage it?

Scenario One – Halve the salaries and salary caps of everyone involved in the AFL.  Starting at the top Andy D gets $1 million a year instead of the $2.1 million last time I looked.  His 11 “Key Executives” get the Prime Minister’s salary of $365,000 per annum instead of their current $536,000.

Top coaches get $500K a year.  The number of assistant coaches and football department staff is halved.  Sports Science departments are halved and limited to only dealing with aerobic conditioning; strength training; nutrition and diet (which is what I naively thought was their current role until this week’s revelations).  Club CEO salaries are similarly reduced.

Top players get $600K a year instead of the obscene amounts played to Cloke, Judd, Ablett et al. The average player salary is currently $227K a year.  That could be reduced to $150K by proportionately cutting more at the top end.

We would have seventeen games a year to enable a fairer fixture and preserve player longevity.  A couple of All Star/State of Origin games played mid-season during player breaks (no player is in more than one; no club has more than 2 participants; and you automatically miss a home game if you are selected and unable to play – your rehab comes first with us).

The AFL would announce that it is committed to community welfare and sport being a practical expression of society’s ideals.  They would not allow any form of gambling advertising to be a part of any AFL broadcast, or any program showing game footage.  Media rights value would be reduced by 20% from $250 million a season to ‘only’ $200 million with the reduction in games and no gambling advertising, but the reduction in AFL and club salaries would still mean a healthy surplus and plenty for the grass roots of the game.

Gambling on the results of AFL games and the Brownlow Medal etc would still be legal, but Federal and State governments would outlaw all spot betting on professional sport (first goal; runs per over; betting in the run etc).  Fans could still have a punt in a safe, regulated environment without every second TV ad normalising gambling to children as “the way you barrack for your team and show off your knowledge” (while the corporate bookies take 15%+ off the top depending on your market).

We can all debate the detail and the fine points, but does any fan, as distinct from those who benefit directly or indirectly from the AFL Industrial Complex have a problem with the thrust of this?  My contention is that it would make the sport we love more attractive to watch (rather than lucrative to participate in through various avenues) not less attractive.

Scenario Two – Full public disclosure of all medication and treatment administered or advised to any AFL player by an employee, agent of sub-contractor of the club.

I have always thought that “sunshine is the best disinfectant”.  There absolutely needs to be some form of regulation of banned or permitted substances, both to protect players and ensure a ‘level’ playing field for competition.  But when I read the debates about whether to have a banned list of prohibited substances (as currently), or a list of permitted substances (as many medical experts prefer) I get totally overwhelmed by the legal/scientific complexities.

We know from history that “the smarties” (scientists, lawyers, criminals) will always be two steps ahead of any regulatory environment.  I fear that in a lawyer driven society, we will tie ourselves up in regulatory detail and black letter law, when we should be having discussions about the culture and values we want sport to exhibit.

In my imaginary world, every club would give the AFL a monthly list of the date, nature and amount of all treatments administered or advised to each player.  That list would be publicly available on the AFL website.

We would all know who is “bulking up” and who is “getting jabs” for injury management.  I suspect there is a black market for gossip and ‘inside info’ about these sort of things anyway.  Put it out in the open so as a fan I can say “gee I wonder if it’s good for Daniel Kerr’s long term health or his final’s availability to be getting so much XYZ”.

I know its all part of the historical culture of footy for player injuries to be masked from competitors, and we mythologise a “Dermie who was so tough we just gave him some jabs and he ran through brick walls every week.”

But that’s archaic and counterproductive to both healthy sport and healthy competition.  Companies operate under an environment of continuous disclosure – so should professional sport.

I’m not saying ban these treatment practices.  I’m just saying that if we know about them, rather than hiding them from view and our general understanding, then it is likely to settle toward a natural level of “appropriate treatment and intervention”.  Change the incentive to change the behaviour.

Of course public sharing of information will mean that no club could gain a short term advantage from the latest “pushing the envelope” innovation in sports medicine (Lactaway; peptides; returning your own oxygenated blood etc, etc).  Any worthwhile innovation would soon be duplicated, so a club would have to carefully consider the cost/benefit of its introduction.

Great I say.  I want to see a competition between footballers, not a sports science Arms Race.

The other strategy that I keep coming back to in this debate is biological passports.  Hell, even Lance thought the jig was up when cycling introduced them.  I don’t really understand the complexities of it all, but the principle seems to be that you have a lot of base line testing when you come into a sport to get an idea of your natural capacities (hormone levels;  blood chemistry – whatever).  There is an allowance that you can expect say 5% annual ‘natural’ improvement with tough training, but sudden peaks and troughs in subsequent testing is a marker that you need detailed monitoring.  Perhaps even a 3 month automatic suspension to allow time for ‘normalisation’ of those abberant levels.

As drug testing has become more sophisticated the attention of the performance enhancement industry has turned away from direct ‘doping’ to substances that stimulate your own body’s output (eg peptides to stimulate growth hormones and EPO to stimulate oxygen carrying red blood cells).

Unless we can find ways of detecting ‘unusual physiology’ without endless lists, testing and surveillance we are always behind the game.  The costs of PED are to the athlete who runs second to the ‘artificially enhanced’ athlete, and most importantly to the long term health of our strongest, but often most naive young people.

Remember the spate of distance runners having heart attacks back when EPO first appeared?  One of the sickest parts of the USADA report into cycling was about riders having to be woken to ride their exercise bikes in the middle of the night (during a Tour event) a few hours after EPO had been administered, to stop their own blood ‘thickening too much’.  Have a look at some of the better scientific websites about actual and potential side effects of peptides and excess growth hormone levels (remember none of these things have been subjected to long term clinical trials) – pituitary tumors, diabetes, thickened bones and nerve pressure on top of the short term numb fingers, oedema and insomnia.  In 20 years will players think the extra wins and games played balanced by the life consequences?

Now all of what I am tentatively suggesting has its limitations (my only self-taught expertise is in the extremes of human nature and behavior).  I can see that it would be difficult to draw the line between ‘food’ and ‘treatment and medication’ (after all we have a thriving ‘natural medicine’ industry).  The disclosure requirement would not stop individual players taking things into their own hands.  That is why we still need testing and something like the long term biological passport (which would be confidential to the player; their doctor and ASADA –personal health issues where they don’t impact sporting performance are no business of mine).

This may be a naïve hope, but I would really like to hear Mike Fitzpatrick and the AFL Commission taking the lead on the role of professional sport in enhancing our society.  Don’t wait for governments.  Be the change you want to see in the world.

I am reminded of the author Ian Banks (Affliction; The Sweet Hereafter) who referred to ours being “the first generation to have colonised our kids”.  He meant that most of the new international source of resources and markets had been explored by the 1960’s, so the new business frontier was entertainments and distractions sold largely to those without the life wisdom to judge their long term costs and benefits.

I hope the sports I love can show that they are above this, and not unspoken agents of that exploitation.

Your club; your sport; your 18YO nephew just recruited to the AFL may not have yet encountered all the negative consequences of the Sporting- Industrial complex.

Give it time.



  1. Barkly St End says

    So the solution to all of the AFL’s problems is to extend socialistic policies beyond what’s already present in the AFL, afterall, the Eastern bloc had a terrific history in all of its sporting endeavours.

    I think the biggest problem is the large number of people who take a black and white view on everything.

    Top level sport has always been about taking things to the max. It doesn’t make sense that anyone would expect anything less. Clubs will spend right up to the salary cap. They will offer their players supplements right up to the level where they remain legal. They will train their players up the level where it starts to damage them. Everything in elite sport is done to the max – that’s why it’s elite.

    If you don’t like that, stick with watching suburban leagues (and even then, I fear you will be equally disappointed).

  2. Neil Belford says

    Excellent article Peter – Obviously the pay scale is a function of what is coming in, and that affects the footyalmanac as well. That little gambling ad up there on the top right is a key part of the revenues of this co-op. Could we survive without it – probably. Could the AFL survive without gambling revenue – definitely. We dont have to regulate the pay, the total revenue reduction will cause that re-allocation to occur, but the AFL can do more to regulate its income – No alcohol, no gambling revenue. 17 home and away games, instead of flogging the best to death, and new form of NAB cup – Australia wide involving feeder comps – possibly an U25’s or something.

    Australian Rules Football is our game. Collectively we make the rules, and as our agent the AFL has done a reasonable job. But they might have exceeded their mandate, and now, their own perceptions of what they are responsible for. Certainly if Mike Fitzpatrick, as Chairman of the Board, cops a personal OH&S lawsuit in the hundreds of millions from Essendon players, we will see some new structures emerging pretty fast.

  3. There’s no doubt that the AFL is now a massive bureaucratic dry hump, but down-scaling the money in the boardroom and on the field does nothing to address the big money that is made around the game.

    The game is now driven by the principles of the free market, and while I support such a philosophy, I believe there are areas of life where market principles should not apply… but that’s another essay for another time.

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