Luke Ablett played 133 games for Sydney and was a member of its drought-breaking 2005 premiership side. His surname speaks for itself, a part of one of the game’s most revered families. But football never defined him as a person.
Which is why as the game grapples increasingly with the struggles of former players coming out of the system, he is in a good place. And literally, certainly a picturesque one.
Five years after his retirement from the Swans, Ablett is halfway through a 12-month stint in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. But this is not just a former player’s extended end-of-season trip.
Based in Port Vila, he is working with a small non-government organisation in areas about which he is passionate. Social welfare. The environment. And feminism, specifically education about gender equality and violence against women. It is about as far removed from the AFL bubble as a retired player can get, and Ablett is relishing it.
“I think I dedicated myself to football as much as anyone did, but at the same time I never absolutely lived and breathed it” – Luke Ablett
“I was really keen to get out of footy,” he says. “I’d been doing it since I was 18 and was really ready for a change. I wanted to travel, so that was another priority, but I thought instead of spending three or four months not really contributing to anything, I might as well head overseas and work somewhere. I found this job and I thought it would be interesting.
“I wouldn’t suggest for a moment I’m living a traditional life, but working with local people and understanding the way they think and behave has been fascinating. And getting involved with the issue of gender-based violence prevention, looking at the reasons men use violence. That’s what I want to do as a career.”
And Vanuatu, where violence against women is an even bigger problem than in Australia, has given him plenty of experience in the subject. Eye-opening, is perhaps the most diplomatic description of what he has found.
“They ran a study here a couple of years ago which showed 60 per cent of women had been assaulted by their partner or former partner,” he says. “It’s a serious issue. You see it in the way decisions are made and the justifications for certain behaviour. You see that real disrespect a lot more openly and a lot less unashamedly here. It happens in Australia a lot, but it’s so normalised here that people don’t even really take notice. When even women will say ‘I did the wrong thing and therefore I deserved to be hit’ it makes it hard to change perceptions.
“I’m working with younger men about 15-16, trying to make arguments that allow men to be more open to women making decisions. The theory is women having more say in the way life runs prevents violence, so that’s where my program is aiming to go.”
Ablett writes his own blog, a platform for discourse on politics, literature, music and feminism. He’s proud to call himself a feminist in a climate where enough women still feel uncomfortable with the label, let alone men.
“Even now I still kind of feel like I have to defend myself around it. It’s not always an easy tag to apply to yourself because for some people it’s still a dirty word.”
But working for several years post-career with the AFL and its then cultural strategy and education manager Sue Clark offered him many new perspectives of life beyond league football.
“I was always interested in social justice and social issues prior to working with the AFL, but Sue had a huge impact on me and that kind of stirred my interest in women’s issues and then gender issues men face as well,” he says.
This week’s controversial column in Fairfax Media by the “Secret Footballer” about the culture of group sex he found upsetting enough to respond to in his blog. It was as much the language used as the acts themselves he found disturbing.
“That idea of entitlement, of taking the spoils and what’s rightfully yours, I found that really confronting,” he says. “That definitely wasn’t part of my football experience, but then I think was I really just lucky to be in Sydney, where we weren’t in demand to be in those situations? I don’t want to be tarred with that brush, and that’s why I get upset, because it perpetuates this myth of what a footballer is.”
But even way beyond the more sleazy connotations of the word, Ablett in his playing days never fitted the stereotype. “I think I dedicated myself to football as much as anyone did, but at the same time I never absolutely lived and breathed it,” he says.
“You see someone driving a $200,000 Range Rover and wearing $500 Gucci sunglasses and complaining about the cost of living and you just think ‘You don’t realise how much you’ve got’” – Luke Ablett
He recalls often meeting his Sydney teammates for breakfast after they had travelled to Melbourne for a Saturday game. “All the boys would be talking about what happened in the Friday night game and I’d be asking ‘Who won’?” Ablett says.
“I’d have gone into the city for a walk, catch up with friends, do some writing, some uni work, go and see a band. All those things normal people do were always really important to me.
“This misconception exists, and I think players can fall into it, that football becomes mutually exclusive of everything else. I think players and clubs buy into this concept that you have to be an AFL player and nothing else. And I think that’s really unfair, because it doesn’t give people a chance to expand themselves or explore new things.
“What I’ve seen as a common thread with players who have struggled post-footy is their identity is so wrapped up in being a footballer that once that is taken away there’s nothing else behind it. I couldn’t wait to go back to Melbourne, to go to uni, to go surfing and to the beach. I was completely ready, but a lot aren’t prepared emotionally to let go that part of their life.”
Port Vila in Vanuatu is only the latest chapter in Ablett’s. He may stay on even after his 12-month assignment is up. He might live in France and study for a few months. He might return to Melbourne. But if he does come back to football’s heartland, he’s in no danger of losing perspective on life in general, let alone the goldfish bowl of AFL football.
“I was back in Melbourne a few weeks ago, and you see someone driving a $200,000 Range Rover and wearing $500 Gucci sunglasses and complaining about the cost of living and you just think ‘You don’t realise how much you’ve got’.”
Thankfully, Ablett does. And he’s even more thankful that AFL football has been just one part of much broader life portrait.
This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.