MICHAEL WARNER The Boys’ Club: Power, politics and the AFL. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
Michael Warner doesn’t hold back in this examination of the scandals that have beset the AFL over the past two decades.
In professional sport teams compete not only with each other on the field, but also off the field for fans, sponsors and players. Despite this overarching rule of competition, teams need to cooperate. Decisions need to be made about fixtures, contracts with stadiums, broadcasters and sponsors; about the allocation of costs and distribution of revenues, and relationships with governments and regulatory bodies. What is the best way to make these decisions?
One model is for the clubs to run the league, with each club having a representative on a governing body. This was the model traditionally employed in Australian sport, as was the case with the Australian Football League. It was found to be inadequate in the 1970s and 1980s, when a number of clubs experienced financial problems. The major criticism was that the clubs were unable to arrive at decisions for the league as a whole; members of the governing body would only agree with proposals that would enhance their individual club and/or weaken rival clubs. In the early 1980s, a judge described the league as ‘a confederation of sworn enemies’.
In 1985, the then Victorian Football League (which, with the expansion of the game into other states, became the AFL in 1990) decided to form a commission that would make decisions for the league. The clubs, though, had the power to veto the Commission’s major decisions. This changed in 1993 when the clubs’ veto powers were taken away.
Following this, several commissioners took an active, hands-on role and worked closely with Wayne Jackson, the AFL’s CEO from 1996 to 2003. When Andrew Demetriou was appointed the AFL’s manager of football operations in 2000, he asked the Commission to ‘step back and cede greater control to the AFL executive team’, which was agreed to.
Demetriou went on to become the AFL’s CEO from 2003 to 2014, when he stepped down and was replaced by Gillon McLachlan. Mike Fitzpatrick became the AFL Chairman in 2007, a position he held until 2017.
Investigative journalist Michael Warner provides a critical and searching examination of the operation of the AFL during the two-decade reign of Demetriou, McLachlan and Fitzpatrick.
Much of the material contained in The Boys’ Club is based on interviews Warner conducted with various members of the AFL Commission, club presidents, lawyers, whistleblowers and others in the AFL’s orbit, some of whom wished to maintain anonymity. He also draws on internal documents and email trails that became available many years after issues were ‘settled’. At a minimum, he provides an absorbing account of controversies and scandals which have engulfed the AFL over the last two decades. He maintains:
The national competition is controlled by a ruthlessly entitled Melbourne-based executive, given close to free reign by a commission that long ago lost its oversight or will to intervene. A lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making, jobs for the boys, bullying and a string of blatantly compromised ‘integrity’ investigations have become hallmarks of the AFL administration … Deals are done and outcomes reached in almost every instance with brand protection (or defence of their own positions) the [priority] … There is no independence or due process in the AFL’s procedures. Worse, decisions are often made out of personal animus because they can be … The purpose of this book is to shine a light on almost two decades of questionable conduct; a system in need of reform.
The general picture Warner presents is one where, whenever a crisis or scandal cannot be contained and becomes public knowledge, the AFL executive works out what it regards as the best solution and then goes about imposing it on those in its orbit. Its basic aim is to protect those in The Boys’ Club, even if they are forced to resign. Despite such punishment, those in the Club will be allowed a job somewhere else at an appropriately distant time, either with the AFL, a club, or an entity involved with the AFL. When the misdemeanor is of a higher level that casts the AFL in a poor light and ‘spin’ alone will not work, someone will be sacrificed and thrown under the bus.
Two examples will suffice here. The first is the issue of ‘tanking’. The AFL operates a draft system for new players. Clubs take it in turn to select (draft) new players with the bottom club having first choice, then the second-bottom club and so on with the premiers having last choice; the process is then repeated several times. The AFL introduced a rule whereby a club that won fewer than five games in a 22-round season could receive a ‘priority pick’ to bolster its playing squad. It was alleged that Melbourne deliberately lost games (tanked) at the end of the 2000s, and that this was a club decision. Despite this, the club had to be protected and blame attributed to defuse the controversy. Warner examines how Melbourne’s coach was convinced he should take on this role.
The second example concerns the Australian Crime Commission uncovering the alleged use of prohibited drugs by Essendon (and Cronulla in the National Rugby League). The AFL decided that the best course of action would be to convince Essendon to voluntarily come forward and ‘self-report’. Warner says:
Essendon’s decision to ‘self-report’ would permit the AFL to conduct a joint investigation with ASADA [Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority], giving the league control of and access to all confidential information. Demetriou and his men would know almost everything ASADA knew … players found to be innocent … Sanctions against Essendon … hold individuals accountable … [For this] to work, they had to have a patsy: a big scalp to prove the AFL took the injections debacle seriously. His name was James Hird.
Warner provides a detailed account of the various machinations of the scandal and how Essendon’s coach (and former champion player) James Hird was forced out and compensated for his removal from football. The campaign to protect players from punishment was thwarted by the World Doping Agency, which mounted a case against the players before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Warner muses on how other clubs that had also allegedly used prohibited substances escaped scrutiny, let alone sanctions.
Warner also examines the lack of funds and infrastructure support (such as adequate club facilities) for the expansion club the Gold Coast Suns; the handling of salary cap breaches; potential match-fixing (as when a player revealed his club’s game plan to his brother, who played for another club, before the two teams meet in a semi-final); sex scandals at head office; female staff at head office being denied opportunities for advancement because of the boys’ club culture; lack of advancement for Indigenous players in coaching and management; the AFL’s lack of support for Adam Goodes when he was booed by fans; conflicts of interest when awarding contracts, including gambling sponsorships; and relationships with governments and regulatory bodies.
Warner’s penultimate chapter is concerned with the negative impact Covid had on the AFL in 2020 and the actions it took to save the season. The AFL and the clubs were forced to rationalise their respective operations, resulting in substantial job losses and pay cuts (though not so much for AFL executives). Warner sees the shock of Covid providing a basis for an inquiry, the first since 1993, into the workings of the AFL. He maintains that any organisation should conduct such an investigation every 30 years or so to review and enhance its operation. His recommendations are:
- The review should be independent, with clubs determining who should conduct it;
- The executive should be accountable to the clubs;
- A stronger role for clubs in the selection of commissioners, potentially involving transparent elections;
- A corporate governance charter;
- Financial transparency;
- Proper tendering and procurement processes (and less cronyism); and
- Integrity investigations to exclude AFL executives, who in the past have performed ‘the roles of investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner’.
The Boys’ Club is an important book that casts a searching light on the internal operation of the AFL. The workings of Australia’s leading professional team sport should be of interest not only to followers of the AFL, but other codes and those with an interest in the governance of sporting bodies. It remains to be seen how those in the world of AFL will react to its contents – whether it is ignored, criticised, or becomes a catalyst for debate – and whether it will lead to the AFL reforming its operations and governance.
Michael Warner The Boys’ Club: Power, politics and the AFL Hachette Australia 2021 PB 384pp $32.99
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things. For over a decade he has been a member of the Australian Football League Players’ Association Player Agent Accreditation Board. He alone is responsible for the contents of this review.
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