The Red and the Black – more than being in the red or the black

michael+long+1993

Like many younger siblings, I never really had a choice about which footy club to support. My older brother told me that we were the Bombers and from the age of three that’s what I was; a Bomber. Choice and footy clubs aren’t concepts that usually meet – you have a tribe, you are told you are part of the tribe and it remains that way until you die through career changes and relationship break-ups. My tribe is Essendon FC. I’ve never been one to hate. I don’t hate other clubs or tribes. For me hatred is a foreign country I’ve never felt comfortable in – whenever I’ve accidentially wandered there I’ve always wanted to get out quickly. When I encounter the emotion in others, pending their relationship to me and what their hate is directed towards, it’s either likely to make me feel confused and hurt, diminish my respect for someone or sense a weakness in an opponent.

I had an isolated childhood. I grew up in Melbourne but I was always geographically isolated from most of my family. At school I was never great at sport – the type of little kid who would stay home and read. I was an outsider in my own family. I was an outsider in my own community. I was also the type of kid with a single parent where I could easily get away with not going to school. From this I learned there is nothing more embarassing than charity, especially when you see the pity in someone’s eyes. Footy provided an escape from the shame.

Essendon FC in the early 90s was a tribe coached by a plumber and captained by a sparkie. It played with fluidity and power. There was a certain unpredictability that could frustrate and excite – often in the same game or even passage of play. The team could play flat for one, two or three quarters and then suddenly spark into life to clinch a game. In 1992-3, the whole identity of the club had taken human form and his name was Derek Kickett, which is why Sheedy’s decision to drop him for the 1993 Grand Final to this day remains contentious. I remember, however, unlike Kickett being lucky enough to go the 1993 Grand Final and watch Michael Long burn across the turf taking four bounces and kick one of the all time great goals – the flag was won at the moment in the first quarter. Long may’ve almost run too far without bouncing the ball and whether Silvagni touched it on the line probably depended on whether he had cut his nails that morning but that’s what made the Dons so great – spectacular failure was always milimetres away.

This was 1993 – the UN year of indigenous people and Essendon had an Aboriginal flag in the cheer squad. Kevin Sheedy, the genius plumber, ended up helping to lay the groundwork for showcasing Aboriginal achievement (in sport at least) probably because it was the most direct route to building a successful team. We won because we didn’t let racism get in the way of success. Reconciliation became the first social issue I really cared about – the club allowed me to start on a journey of justice and equality. Social justice values enabled Essendon success in the long 90s.

But somewhere that was lost. For me the news that Paddy Ryder is going to Port Adelaide represents the low point. Here is a decent young man and a genius of a player who needs to find a new home because he feels that the club has endangered the long-term welfare of his family. We were a success when we were the club that treated our players with dignity and believed in them even when they were “babies” and now we are lost because we treat our players as commodities – to be tested, sliced and spliced for the utlimate winning formula. I can’t tell you exactly when Essendon went from being a club to a corporation, however, I think 2007 should’ve provided a large warning. When the Essendon board were deciding between Damien Hardwick and Matthew Knights as the next senior coach, it was reportedly unimpressed with Hardwick’s assessment of the club’s position and strength relative to the rest of the league. A favourite son came back to us, told us some hard truths and we rejected him.

Now we have to face those hard truths. Essendon FC can no longer be run like Toll Logistics. A club is a community not a corporation. A footy club build values in the community. A corporation sucks value out of the community. Success isn’t about wringing the most profit you can out of your people. Success comes from building a community that people want to be a part of. A top-down approach does not allow a whole team to take enough responsiblity and initiative to win. Success in the private sector today largely comes from being able to avoid responsbility. If a club, however, does not take responsbility then neither can its players. We injected our players with some strange shit that has uncertain long-term medical implications. We consciously endangered their health and safety. It pains me to even have to write this but Essendon FC has to stop fighting ASADA – we owe it to the players to assist them as much as possible from taking the full consequences of what was a failure of leadership but inevitably suspensions will come and we’ll have to cop them. Paul Little and James Hird have to go.

We need more than a change in personnel though. The club needs a change of culture and we should use the long night of the ASADA suspensions for positive change. Let me suggest a few:

  • Let’s drop the poker machines – it’s a blight that this club and so many others rely on poker machine revenue. Surely we are better than one-armed bandits sucking money up. Surely we are smart enough to find better revenue sources than one which ruins the lives of club members and fans.
  • Let’s properly run the club along cooperative lines – one player, one vote and one member, one vote. Reaching the nadir of looking after our players should help us to find a way to once again to see social justice values driving success. For example, the AFL already has a salary cap – we could have a simple pay classification: one level for new players, a regular rate for senior players, and two higher tiers for great players and elite players. The players and coaching staff could come to a determination each season as to which grade a player fits into. Playing for the respect of your peers is inbuilt into the pay structure. Play for the jumper or pay. The only players that we would lose for salary cap reasons are those who want to go elsewhere to earn more money, and the overall coherence of the team would be protected.
  • Let’s start a process that involves meaningfully the whole Essendon FC community about the finances, priorities and culture of the club. The ideas and passion of the supporters is ultimately the fundamental resource of a footy club. In the wreckage of the suspensions a participative process of planning for the next 10 years can heal us and help us find pride once again.

We need to go through a process so we can once again find pride in our tribe, in our club. To all those engaging in schadenfreude about Essendon’s plight I simply say this – true footy fans don’t join other tribes. We wander lost in the wildnerness and fringes of the game. And when one tribe is lost it diminishes the rest of us.

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