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How Kids See Footballers

Last night on Foxtel’s ‘AFL 360’ Mark Robinson made a valid and overdue point – we’ve got to remember what footy means to our kids. Newly appointed AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan touched upon it too.  In the context of our game becoming truly representative and inclusive in future: how our children perceive the game and its people matters… a lot.

Children as young as seven were identifying traits including generosity, prudence, integrity, and perspective.

The collective reputation of AFL footballers is of obvious interest and relevance to the Players’ Association. How do people feel about footballers as a whole?  What assumptions do they hold about footballers as a group of people?  And what’s driving those assumptions?

As someone who works in football it’s easy to see the unique strengths and different characters at play. The individual stories of footballers are no more or less important than anyone else’s, but can so easily get lost among the stereotypes and clichés that fuel a voyeuristic society.  It’s a ‘shadow side’ of the industry, and indeed any industry that has many upsides associated with the limelight too. So beyond the rumour mills and social media, the judgments and the assumptions… what’s left?  A good place to start is by asking kids.

After inviting children to illustrate on a postcard what they think of AFL players; I was surprised, entertained, inspired, and if I’m totally honest, a little relieved. The themes were overwhelmingly positive. They were also reflective of a much broader selection of human character strengths than I was expecting from such young minds.  I thought we’d be inundated with postcards reflecting the most obvious themes such as teamwork, courage, and loyalty; all of which are wonderful traits, and as expected, were well represented.  But many other human character strengths popped up too.

Children as young as seven were identifying traits including generosity, prudence, integrity, and perspective. In came images depicting disciplined thinking, hope, leadership, and connection.

Twelve year old Josh drew what he called “united fronts”, while Cailtin depicted “mateship”. Liam sees the playing group as “risk-takers” and “gutsy”.  Ashleigh chose to share that players are “remarkable”, “inspiring” and “exciting”; while Songkran included words such as “principled”, “open-minded”, and “thinkers”.  An anonymous postcard from the Northern Territory depicted the Indigenous flag with two simple words: brave & committed.

After the postcards came the phone calls; from teachers and principals who were appreciative of the project and spoke with enthusiasm and even surprise at how engaged, passionate and inspired the children had been. Sharing human stories and smashing unhelpful stereotypes are highly regarded here at AFL Players – so this was never just a community art project for us.  This was about uncovering character and celebrating the full spectrum of human strengths that come to play in our industry.  We hope you enjoy just some of the art that captures what little eyes see in those who currently are, and have previously been, AFL players.

Anna Box is a consultant psychologist at the AFL Players’ Association.