A vote of no confidence in the AFL in Tasmania

Paul Williams was one of the many AFL players from North Hobart.

Paul Williams was one of the many AFL players from North Hobart.

Speaking at the North Hobart Football Club last night, journalist and author Martin Flanagan had this to say about Tasmanian Football:

In 2013, the AFL forced a name change on the North Hobart Football Club, calling them Hobart City as part of a “rationalisation” of the Statewide competition. After four years of struggle, supporters have re-taken control of their club. Martin Flanagan today (Saturday April 14) addressed a function in Hobart celebrating the re-birth of the North Hobart Football Club.

In 1858, a new game appeared in Victoria. The colony was only eight years old and bursting with pride. Its residents thought they were a cut above the people from the old colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania because Victoria had not started life as a convict colony.

Victoria was rich, having just had a Gold Rush. It was confident. Four years earlier at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, for the first time in Australian history, citizens – as distinct from convicts - took up arms against the government of the day. A new spirit was afoot in the land.

The new game captured that spirit and soon spread from the private schoolboys of Melbourne, with whom it began, to the goldfields of Ballarat. From there it spread to other colonies and, in 1881, North Hobart Football Club was formed.

Your club goes back to that first chapter in the game’s history. You’re older than Collingwood. Your history is one of achievement, 27 senior premierships, 12 state premierships.

When I came to live in Hobart in the early 1970s you had a fierce reputation. A bit like Collingwood’s. Or, in South Australia, Port Adelaide’s.

 Or, in West Australia, South and East Fremantle’s. North were the tough working class boys who knew how to win. You are the oldest club in the south of Tasmania to still be playing at the top level, the second oldest in the island. Your name means something.

What’s in a name? If the answer is nothing, why not call London, Paris?

The reason we don’t consider calling London Paris is because each name means something. Conjures thoughts and memories that are unique to each place. Each has its own history, its own culture.

Most people would not want to call London Paris because they would understand something valuable would be lost. So, yes, names matter. Everyone’s.

And every football club’s, particularly a football club with a proud history dating back to 1881. I regard what was done to your club -  in having a name change forced upon you by the AFL - as being worse than needless.

It was utter folly. A club that had made a cumulative profit of $300,000 in the decade before the name change was left four years later with a debt of over $100,000, the number of its paying members having dropped by 75 per cent.

These changes coincided with an alarming malaise in Tasmanian football which is at last becoming apparent to people outside Tasmania.

There are many arguments to do with the origins of Australian football but on one thing all parties agree – the three letters, AFL, play no part whatsoever in the creation of the game.

The AFL did not create Australian football. Unlike the deeply underwhelming AFLX, Australian football did not result from a group of highly paid executives sitting around in an office, “brainstorming” ideas.

It appeared like rock n’ roll appeared in 1950s America, drawing its force from a series of cultural collisions that ended up creating a game that was fresh and exciting and a unique expression of the land it’s from.

Its appeal transcends class, gender, religion and race. Very, very little transcends class, gender, religion and race. Why does it do so? Because there is a genius to the game.

It demands athleticism of a high order and pulses with drama.

Tom Wills, regarded by some as the founder of Australian football, proposed around the time North Hobart was formed that Geelong and Melbourne Football Clubs go to England and America to spread the game.

As a code, Australian football is older than both soccer and rugby. But it didn’t happen, and, in the end, the game flourished in only four places on earth – West Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.

The first reason I fell in love with footy as an 11-year-old living in Burnie on Tasmania’s north-west coast in the 1960s was because schoolboy footy was so good.

Five boys I played with or against went on to play in the VFL/AFL. One of them was Collingwood legend Johnny Greening. As you all know, earlier this year, Burnie, no longer able to raise a team, followed Devonport in withdrawing from the Tasmanian Statewide league.

I also saw Brent Crosswell play as a schoolboy in Burnie when he came along from Launceston. Both Greening and Crosswell could have gone number one in a national draft, had there been one at the time.

I don’t have to tell anyone in the room that Tasmania has had only one AFL draft pick in the past two years. To quote a song from the 1960s, where have all the flowers gone?

Nor do I believe the problems now manifesting in Tasmania are confined to Tasmania.

In the course of writing “A Wink From the Universe”, my recent book on the Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership, I asked the then chief recruiter for the Bulldogs, Simon Dalrymple, a simple question:  “Is there more talent out there now or less”. He replied, “Less”.

I don’t believe the Hawthorn team that won three premierships in a row from 2013 was anywhere near as complete a football team as the Brisbane side which won three in a row ten years earlier or, for that matter, the great Hawthorn sides of the 1980s and ’90s.

I believe the future of Australian football is precariously placed and I no longer have confidence that the people in charge of the game know what they’re doing.

In February, AFL operative Stephen Hocking told representatives of the AFL clubs that as 65 per cent of the game’s income now comes from broadcasting rights the broadcaster’s interests have to be considered and that changes will shortly be made to the way the game is telecast.

I accept that there is a discussion to be had about the relationship between the broadcaster and the game, but it is a discussion to be had publicly.

But the clubs were also told not to talk about the proposed changes to the media. That is, you people - the football public - are not to be part of a decision which goes to the essential character of the game.

If I were to licence a psychiatrist to examine the AFL, the first question I would get that psychiatrist to ask the AFL’s leading executives is this:  do you think you’re a corporation?

Because you’re not. You didn’t create the asset. You say Tasmania can’t afford an AFL team but you invest $21 million a year into Greater Western Sydney.

The truth is you choose to invest in GWS in a way that you’re not prepared to invest in Tasmania.

The AFL clearly thinks it’s pretty good at what it does. In 2013, the AFL had 12 executives making 50 per cent more than the Australian Prime Minister in terms of salary.

No doubt, if challenged, the AFL would give you the old corporate line that to get the best people you’ve got to pay top dollar. I say the best people in footy are the ones out there doing it every weekend for nothing.

They’re the true believers, they’re the ones who carry the spirit of the game and make it available to the next generation. Whose opinions on the current crisis in Tasmanian football do I take most seriously?

Those of Thane Brady, president of North Launceston, John McCann, president of Glenorchy, Craig Martin, president of North Hobart. No doubt there are others, but I am speaking of those I know, those whose testimony I trust.

One of the AFL’s chief delusions over the past 25 years is that it is the Australian equivalent of the American NFL.  

Each year a train of AFL personnel have, at great expense to the game, travelled to America and attended the Superbowl. Australian football is not to be likened to American football for three important reasons.

The first is that America is a mass exporter of culture – we are an importer of culture. This means our game was always vulnerable in a way theirs never was.

The second reason is that the NFL is embedded in the American education system and rests on the platform of college football.

Our game used to be embedded in the education system but is not any more.

The third reason is that we do not have the platform of college sport. Our game has only two levels – the AFL and grass roots.

If Australian football dies at the grassroots, so will the game.

The AFL is not a corporation. Indeed, in the words of one Tasmanian club president, “If they were a corporation, and the product (that is, the game) wasn’t so good, they’d have gone broke by now”.

Nor is the AFL an elected government. If it were an elected government, it would have reason to fear the next election. What has happened in Tasmania over the past 30 years amounts to a degree of mismanagement that would make it a scandal were it to occur in politics.

Four years ago, at a time when the AFL was congratulating itself on its billion dollar broadcasting deal, the Tasmanian Statewide League did not even have a cash sponsor and the competition’s profile had dropped so low that clubs were finding it difficult to get sponsors for individual players.

The AFL has now requested that the Tasmanian clubs not take their complaints to the media but instead take them to the AFL.

I say the public has a right to know, for example, that the president of a major Tasmanian club who disagreed with an AFL initiative was told that he risked having his club relegated to a minor league and a so-called “franchise” put in its place.

This was a club, incidentally, that had contributed more than 20 players to the VFL/AFL.

Prior to the creation of the AFL in 1990 when the game was administered by the VFL, no-one called the game “VFL” – it was called Australian rules.

The fact that game is now commonly called AFL has fed the fatal illusion that the AFL is the game. What is the AFL?

It’s a big bureaucracy that imposes top-down solutions on what it perceives as problems, whether or not the problems exist.

A lot of people are now being paid a lot of money to interfere with the game. The best news for Australian football at the moment is women’s football.

That’s where the energy is, the growth. Sure enough, the AFL – again, at the initiative of the ubiquitous Stephen Hocking - wants to interfere with that.

I say to women footballers – you know in your hearts the game you want to play, women have known it for 100 years: don’t settle for less now.

And in the same spirit I say it’s an honour to be here today to celebrate the re-birth of the North Hobart Football Club.

You fought and you got your club back. Old North Hobart people rallied around to all but erase your debt. You’re back and you’re one of the best footy stories going - continue to inspire people around Australia!

And, on behalf of my family, can I say how deeply moved we were by the respect shown to my father Archie during the final decade of his life when he was North Hobart’s oldest living player.

That’s when we learnt what it means to be part of the North Hobart Football Club. Go North!