Tagged: AFL

Tom Boyd lived the dream. Now let him live his life

There’s a moment in David Williamson’s play The Club where Geoff Hayward, Collingwood’s prize new recruit, is confronted by his coach, Laurie (played in the 1980 film by Jack Thompson) after a game which he’s mostly spent watching a seagull while stoned out of his gourd. “Marry-a-wanna?” asks Laurie, incredulous.

Hayward is unrepentant. He identifies the absurdity at the heart of what he does. “It’s a load of macho competitive bullshit,” he says. “You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your life depended on it, and when you finally get it, you kick it to buggery and then go chasing it around again! Football shits me.”

“Well, I wish to Christ you’d told us that before we paid out 120 grand for you,” Laurie replies.

I thought of The Club when I heard of the retirement of Tom Boyd, a former No.1 draft pick, his enjoyment sucked from the game after 61 matches, only nine of them with his first club Greater Western Sydney, before the Bulldogs landed him on big money. At that time, like Hayward, he was just a kid with potential. He ended up winning them a fabled premiership.

I see a lot of parallels between Boyd and the fictitious Hayward. The expectations that accompanied his outsized talent, draft standing and salary. His awareness that sport is fundamentally unreal, even as each body-on-body contest put him in physical jeopardy. That he was living out a fantasy that compensated for the frustrations and jealousies of others.

Another character in The Club, the veteran Danny, harbours his own resentments. “If I’m going out there to risk a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for the amusement of a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand, I want to get paid!” he yells at the club president. If the film was set in the present, he might also be addressing warriors behind their keyboards.

Were Hayward real and playing today, as a high-profile and highly paid recruit, he might have taken the same path offered to Boyd: made an unavoidably public declaration that he was struggling with his mental health, taken time out, and been treated with care and sympathy by his employers and teammates, if not by those in the outer and playing at home.

I’ve covered football on and off for 14 years now. It’s an enormous privilege but there are times when it shits me, too. I grew up supporting and crying over a club, not the one I mostly write about. On weekends as a kid, I ran around a muddy oval, struggling to get a kick, blessed with no discernable athletic gifts, much less physical courage. (Those who can do, et cetera.)

In the earlier days of the internet, I lurked and posted on message boards and observed the way football totally consumed the lives of some people, many of whom seemed to relish tearing down players for their lack of effort or skill or dedication or all of the above. But I also recognised and revelled in the same joy and love and communion they took from the game.

Here in Brisbane, I’ve seen one final in 14 years. In footballing terms, that’s failure, and many of the players I’ve watched have been worn down by it. They might be 20 years younger than me – the kids coming through now, 30 years – and I see their physical and emotional resilience as they try to take each day one day at a time. Those words are a cliche for a reason.

At times, away from work, I’ve struggled with my own issues. For me, tuning in to the homespun wisdom of coaches could be as useful as an extra therapy session. They’d remind me that everything is temporary and that nothing is ever quite as good as bad as it seems (useful for someone prone to black-and-white thinking, and I don’t mean Collingwood).

I hope Tom Boyd’s experience reminds all of us that footy is a game, no matter how much money or prestige or pizzazz is attached to it, and that if it’s not fun anymore it’s not worth doing, or even watching. He’s 23. He’s got a crook back but he’s also got the rest of his life to live and the world at his feet. He doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing more than what he’s already given.

He was a kid with potential, who delivered in spades. With five minutes to go in that 2016 grand final, Boyd grabbed the pigskin, kicked it to buggery, and it bounced between the two big sticks. In that moment, he gave hundreds of thousands of Bulldogs fans a pleasure they’d never known before and will never, ever forget. I hope he never forgets it either.

First published in The Age, 18 May 2019

Going public, or private, on mental health in the AFL

Let’s say a player at an AFL club has a mental health issue. He, or now she, may be struggling with depression, or clinical levels of anxiety, or even one of the more complex conditions recognised in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

They go to see the club psychologist, and talk things over with the coach and footy manager. It’s agreed some time out of the game is required, just as effectively as if the player was physically injured.

The club and player concerned then face a difficult decision. Should they go public, as Alex Fasolo, Tom Boyd, Lance Franklin and (going back further) Mitch Clark and Nathan Thompson have all done?

In Franklin’s case, he may hardly have had a choice: his enormous profile meant that any absence from the game leading up to the 2015 finals was always going to be heavily scrutinised and would require a public explanation.

Most of us, in less public lines of work, don’t face that question. If we’re lucky, we may have access to stress or sick leave, and we go home to fight our battles privately, hopefully with the support of family and close friends.

Let’s now say a player wants to take this latter option: to keep his or her struggle under wraps, after making the decision that going public will only exacerbate the stress and pressure they’re already under.

The club, of course, supports the player’s decision and does its best to honour it – knowing, at the same time, that the media will ask questions, that club forums and social media will be chattering about his or her absence, and that the industry leaks like a sieve.

“You’re trying to balance player confidentiality versus public expectation of wanting to know what’s happening,” says a football manager at a club in exactly this situation [not identified to protect the  player’s privacy].

“Our overarching aim at all times is what’s in the best interests of the player, so we’ll always revert to that, but the system both within how we report player injuries and actual media interest in it sometimes makes that a difficult situation to navigate.”

Going public with a mental health problem is often rightly lauded for its courage, especially in the context of competitive sport. They remind us that our sporting heroes are as vulnerable and have as many human frailties as the rest of us.

“We know that a lot of people who have mental health issues aren’t getting treatment, for a start, and certainly young men would be in that category, not just footballers,” says the same club’s head psychologist.

“We know that’s the case, so helping them, broadly speaking, and helping players and young coaches know more about these things is absolutely a good thing, there’s no question about that.”

But while removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues is a worthwhile aim, not all heroes wear capes, or want to be poster boys or girls for a cause. Doing so only adds another layer of scrutiny in a hyper-scrutinised environment.

“There may be a necessity to keep things pretty private, because the recovery process and helping people get back on their feet from some of the challenges they’re experiencing is a sensitive issue and can take time,” says the psychologist.

“It depends on the individual as to how they actually deal with those things. We want their hands to be on the steering wheel, in terms of who needs to know and how they would like to proceed.”

Brent Hedley, the AFL Players’ Association’s head of mental health and wellbeing, agrees that keeping health issues private is a challenge.

“The simple fact is that players’ lives are now more public than ever, and it’s becoming really hard for players to keep things in the background [with] the level of surveillance that occurs through media and the public.

“We’ve obviously witnessed a recent growth in the number of players that have spoken publicly. And while that’s really heartening, and it supports the de-stigmatisation of mental health [issues], we want to stress is that player consent in that process is paramount.”

Both Hedley and the football manager agree that it becomes more difficult when mental health issues intersect with poor on-field performance and, especially, erratic or anti-social off-field behaviour.

Of course, few young workers are as heavily psychologically profiled as elite athletes entering the world of professional sport. Long before prospective players begin their careers, the AFL actively seeks to weed out those unsuited to its particular rigours.

“There’s standard psychometric and psychological testing that the AFL does for all potential draftees, and all that information’s accessible to all of the AFL clubs,” the football manager says.

“We have our own sports psychologists who we engage specifically around the recruitment process, and their job is not necessarily to find reasons not to draft particular players, but to make sure that we have a complete picture to make sure we can give them every opportunity once they do come in.”

Whatever screening a player goes through before being drafted, clubs also need to be aware that mental health issues don’t discriminate and can affect a person at any time.

According to Beyond Blue, one in eight men will experience depression in their lifetime, one in five will experience clinical anxiety, and one in seven will experience both in the space of a single year. And evidence suggests men are less likely to seek help than women.

But, Hedley says, that increasing awareness means that the response to players who do open up about their struggles – whether it’s just to their teammates and club, or the broader public – is increasingly supportive.

“What we do witness time and time again is an overwhelmingly positive public and industry response. There’s a really strong thread of care and compassion,” he says.

“There’s no coincidence that more players are opening up, for that very reason.”

The point is that players need to know not only that they can ask for support, but that they can dictate the sort of support they want and need – hopefully with the cooperation of the media and understanding of fans.

“Ultimately the player needs to drive it,” says the club football manager.

“Like, OK, here are the options in front of me; I’d like to go down this path, and I understand that if I go down that path, then these are the potential consequences.

“And one of them may be that if it’s out in the public, that some people are going to make judgments, that there might be some embarrassment or commentary on it or whatever it might be.

“So the player needs to understand the implications of each option, and it has to be [their] choice, so [they’re] making that choice not under any pressure, but with strong support.”

Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

First published in The Age, 19 April 2019

In the Top End, footy’s not a religion. It’s more than that

On a sports oval in Barunga, an Aboriginal community south east of Katherine with a permanent population of a few hundred people, a fierce footy match is unfolding. It’s the grand final of the Barunga Festival football carnival, and the game is being cheered on by hundreds of spectators. A small colony of flying foxes provides additional commentary and special comments while hanging upside down from a fig tree in a corner of the ground.

The carnival has gone for the full three days of the festival, and for the third year in a row the Ngukurr Bulldogs win, defeating the Gurindji Eagles 4.7 (31) to 3.3 (21).

Don’t let the low scores fool you, though. In searing heat, there are just 10 minutes per quarter. The games are played at relentless pace, with little regard for the defensive structures and zones that constrict AFL games. They just play the game, one might say, as it should be played.

Helping coordinate the teams is Paul Amarant, who updates the crowd in between games. Ngukurr’s win is no surprise. It’s a remote community on the banks of the Roper River in southern Arnhem Land. It has 1200 residents and eight individual footy teams, making Melbourne’s old suburban VFL and VFA competitions look cosmopolitan by comparison.

“Whenever there’s a footy game on, everyone comes out – old people, young people, they all sit on top of the hill all around the oval and the noise is so deafening it’s like you’re at the MCG,” Amarant says.

“They treat the game so seriously – every kick, every tackle is watched and barracked for. This is where these kids learn the art of playing footy. They’re dodging and weaving or they get tackled into the ground. If you had city kids playing like this they’d be crying, running to mum!”

He notes, though, that the players are mostly lightly built, agile and very quick. “The contests are hard, but people bounce off each other because there’s no big, hulking bodies throwing them in the turf.

“Down south it’s more structured, it’s big bodies on bodies at stoppages. Whereas in the Territory it’s all pace, high marking, what football should be, good goal kicking. They kick goals from all angles and in the AFL they can’t kick goals from straight in front, and at Etihad they can’t even use the wind as an excuse because they’re kicking with the roof closed!”

As he speaks, with the game over, I watch a kid practising kicks from the boundary about 25 metres from goal as we speak, dribbling kicks through as casually as shelling peas, rarely missing.

A carnival like this isn’t easy to organise. Julie Hunter, the AFL’s regional development coordinator for Katherine, says sometimes teams simply don’t show up. But allowances need to be made.

For southerners, it’s hard to get your head around how big the Top End is, let alone the Territory as a whole, and how much harder it is to get around. For example, the trip from the coastal community of Maningrida – 500 kilometres east of Darwin on the edge of the Arafura Sea – takes 10 hours, much of it on dirt roads, with a few river crossings thrown in.

Try that in a bus with a trailer attached to the back. “So if buses break down or if there’s been sorry business [a funeral], or things happen in communities, that mean the community’s shut down, those are things that we obviously need to be respectful of,” Hunter says.

“So we’ve got a draft fixture ready, and as the teams rock up we confirm them in a slot and away they go. There’s going to be teams come in late, mostly for travel reasons, so we grab the teams that get here first, they get the first couple of games and we move forward from there.”

Representatives from Hawthorn were here on Friday doing reconnaissance; this is part of their Next Generation Academy zone. “They know how much talent there is up here and the only way to get them is to actually make AFL accessible to them at that elite level,” Hunter says.

But making elite football accessible doesn’t mean even the most talented players can make the required adjustments. Cyril Rioli, for example, boarded at Scotch College in Melbourne from the age of 14, giving him time to settle into life in the big smoke.

Amarant mentions a player from Ngukurr drafted by a big Melbourne club who rang him, begging: “Get me out of here.” Disadvantage and intergenerational trauma play a big role. If you’ve been shuttled between aunties and grandparents and are used to sleeping on floors in the Top End, sleeping in beds in a cold Melbourne winter is another kind of culture shock.

Women’s football is developing, too. “We tried probably 70 or 80 girls over the course of the two days here, and the Katherine comp started up last weekend, so we’ve got regular football for girls now.”

One thing that can’t be escaped is the heat. Simple things like lights at the Barunga ground would make a huge difference, meaning games can be scheduled in the late afternoon and evening. But resources are scarce, and in every community priorities need to be made.

In the southern and central Northern Territory, football is played in the dry season, but in the Top End, it’s played in the wet. The NTFL comp starts during the mind-melting humidity of October and November, the “build-up” before the rains come.

In Darwin, the grounds drain well, but “you take somewhere like Lajamanu where they’ve got a red dirt oval, put that with the wet season and they’re running around in red mud, basically,” Hunter says.

“But the reality is we’re playing in the Top End. It’s hot footy and they tend to struggle more when they go down south and they’ve got to play in the winter.”

The elements aren’t about to put off kids walking around in Eddie Betts and Cyril Rioli shirts. “Ngukurr’s got a field that’s got bindis all over it that stick to the ball,” she says. “But they just love footy, it’s their life. I know we talk about footy being a religion. Up here it’s more than a religion, it’s a way of life.”

First published in The Age, 16 June 2018

Jimmy Stynes

Jimmy Stynes was an amazing footballer. More impressive than the fact that he won a Brownlow medal in 1991 – Australian Rules’ highest individual honour – was the fact that, in a senior career with the Melbourne Football Club lasting 11 years, from 1987 to 1998, he played 244 of his total 264 games in succession. It’s a benchmark for durability that’s yet to be beaten, and probably won’t be.

It’s also a benchmark for bravery, at times reckless bravery. In 1993, Stynes – a ruckman, the most physically demanding position in the game – had the cartilage of his breastbone severed in an on-field collision with a teammate, leaving his chest looking like a tent. Amazingly, and quite possibly stupidly, he fronted up the next week to play after passing a fitness test in which his coach, Neil Balme, pitted him against a few of the Demons’ hard men, one of whom was Rod Grinter.

Grinter was a known sniper, suspended so often for acts of on-field malice that satirical Melbourne band TISM (This Is Serious Mum) once namechecked him in the following lyric: “I’ve mixed heroin, cocaine and angel dust / I’ve played on Rodney Grinter, and been concussed”.

Balme put Stynes through his paces with Grinter knowing he’d face similar treatment (or worse) against the next week’s opposition. The session apparently ended with punches being thrown, although I find it hard to imagine Stynes hurling them, certainly not throwing the first. He was a scrupulously fair player.

All of this is impressive in itself. Now imagine this: Stynes arrived in Australia as an 18-year-old from Dublin in late 1984, having never played a game of Australian Rules in his life. He was in the vanguard of what’s become known in the game as the Irish Experiment, wherein young Gaelic footballers were imported to Australia on spec to play a different game.

It took until 1987 for Stynes to break in as a regular to the Melbourne side. The Demons, a former powerhouse of the competition, had been impotent for decades, but they were surging, and that year they made the finals. They would have made the Grand Final, too, had Stynes not given away a free kick in the dying seconds of the preliminary final – a technical rule breach of which he was unaware – that gifted Hawthorn a match-winning goal.

Stynes would never escape, or be allowed to forget his error. His side actually made the Grand Final the following year, only to be smashed again (by a then-record 96-point margin) by Hawthorn. Stynes was Melbourne’s best player on that day, but they never challenged for the premiership again in his career. Life is about taking your opportunities, and learning from your mistakes.

And that’s the lesson Stynes went on to prove, over and over again, after his playing career ended. In fact, it’s where his legend grows almost to the stature of myth.

A few years before his retirement, Stynes set up the Reach foundation. Broadly, it was aimed at teaching life skills to young people, particularly disadvantaged youth. This work, it transpired, was his real calling. He was a firm believer in the power of each individual to realise his or her gifts – but also recognised that often, they need someone else’s belief and love to help them unlock that potential. Here lay Stynes’ profound sense of social justice. Martin Flanagan recounted this quote in his obituary today: “What’s happening in this society is scary … We’re splitting into the haves and have-nots. A growing number of kids are getting caught in dark places.”

In 1997 he joined the board of Victoria’s Youth Suicide Task Force. He also took up a position as an anti-racism officer with the AFL, not long after Michael Long had brought the issue within the sport to a head. He resolved not to return to Ireland.

He became increasingly celebrated. He was named Victorian of the Year in 2001, and again in 2003. He was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2007.

Then, in mid-2009, he was diagnosed with cancer.

By that point, he had returned to his beloved, ailing football club as chairman. The Demons were $5 million in the red. Stynes, with his charisma, organisational skills and sheer bloody-mindedness, wiped that debt within three years, but his team continued to take a beating on field. After a horrible loss to Geelong in 2011 that saw the sacking of coach Dean Bailey, the toll on Stynes’ faltering health was clear.

What Jim Stynes did better than anything – better than his ability to run, kick, mark and jump – was connect. The football community and Australia is a lesser place without him, but we’re all better for the lessons and the legacy he leaves.