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Rules on sex, drugs and life for AFL draftees

A combination of hard work and talent got them drafted at the end of last year. Across two days last week, more than 120 new AFL players, mostly teens, were instructed in the off-field skills needed to make the most of their time in footy – and, more importantly, ensure they don’t land in hot water for misbehaviour.

All first-time AFL draftees complete an induction camp jointly hosted by the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association. Now in its 15th year, it’s here that the mostly-teen draftees are given a crash course on how to manage the transition to being a full-time footballer – from staying sane amid significant public criticism to advice on sex and drugs.

“You get some of this stuff wrong and you may not have a long career” – Richard Champion

Day one of the camp at Etihad Stadium last week was run by the AFL Players’ Association, and addressed how the players could make the most of their careers. Day two was run by the AFL, where the stringent rules regarding gambling, anti-doping, illicit drugs, sex and racial and sexual vilification were detailed.

“The AFL is the biggest brand in the country… and they’re hell-bent on protecting that brand,” AFL Players’ Association staffer and former Brisbane defender Richard Champion warned.

“You get some of this stuff wrong and you may not have a long career.”

The first morning consisted of six workshops, including how players can craft a positive public perception of themselves, for reputation and financial benefit, and ignoring “trolls” determined to bait them on social media. Another centred on getting out of their comfort zone, first through a dance routine led by recent Dancing With The Stars winner David Rodan – it countered the expectation all draftees boast superb physical co-ordination – and another workshop involved completing a 30-second portrait of another player without averting their gaze from them.

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The session on financial ownership was taken by two financial advisers who know from experience the pressures involved in AFL and the potential for an abrupt end to it: Mark Porter, a ruckman who played just over 100 games, and Brad Wira, a defender who just failed to reach that milestone. Their warnings were not sugar-coated: the average career lasts no longer than six years, and at the end of every season about 130 depart AFL lists, most of them involuntarily.

When the string of questions began, about what each round’s draftees were to be paid and how much of it would be taken away in tax, one Melbourne player repeatedly answered them. That the player, Aaron Vandenberg, was good with money, was no surprise given he is 22 and had relinquished a job at the Royal Australian Mint to follow his footballing dream.

“I definitely took a financial cut to come down here and play for Melbourne, though I had the intent of looking past that first year and the situation I was in and thinking maybe in two or three years it’d repay itself,” he said.

Vandenberg also helped educate his peers that a fat contract was nowhere near as lucrative — immediately, anyway — as most expected it to be. When the draftees were asked about what the annual take-home pay would be for someone on a $700,000 contract after tax and superannuation, the Canberran was within a few thousand dollars of Porter and Wira’s estimate of about $376,000.

“For an 18-year-old kid it’s their first experience with money … they need a bit of help,” Vandenberg said. “It brings them back to earth, especially after a lot of these boys have been pumped up and been in the media for two or three months now and everybody’s talking about how good they could be. It does bring them back to reality, that if you don’t perform for one or two seasons, that could be it.”

The need for that help was why players were given an iPad on arrival. One of the pre-loaded applications enabled players to enter in which round they were drafted, and estimate how many senior games they will get for match-payment purposes, and be told how much money would end up in their account. The overarching message from Porter and Wira, who are retained by the Players’ Association to assist players, was that even 18-year-olds should not dither when it comes to their finances, and should seek advice immediately.

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Day one concluded with guest speakers ranging from the obviously relevant (decorated recent retirees Lenny Hayes and Luke Ball, complemented by Matt Spangher), the partly relevant (Winter Olympics gold medallist Steven Bradbury) to the seemingly irrelevant (former The Living End drummer Travis Dempsey) – and it was not just the footballers who delivered worthwhile messages.

As the AFL took the reins on day two, its education co-ordinator Luke Brennan emphasised that while day one was about making the most of their careers, “this stuff is about making sure you have a career”.

The first session related to anti-doping rules. Based on a show of hands, about 90 per cent of the group had already sat through a presentation on performance-enhancing drugs, but only 20 per cent had been tested after a match.

An ASADA representative explained the potential for them to be tested “any time, any where, any athlete, unannounced”. He gave players a series of multi-choice questions relating to anti-doping, such as who at their club was qualified to give them answers to anti-doping queries, and who to contact if they believed they had taken, even unwittingly, a banned substance.

AFL medical director Dr Peter Harcourt explained that after “a difficult couple of years” — there was no need for him to elaborate — the AFL had imposed restrictions beyond the WADA list of banned substances, by banning certain procedures and providers of those procedures. Dabbling in supplements was strongly discouraged, on the strength of an IOC study which revealed 15 per cent of supplements consisting of seemingly legitimate ingredients actually contained banned substances.

The sermons on gambling told draftees that not only are they forbidden from betting on football but also cannot:- have bets placed on their behalf; have any bets placed from their account; accept a share of winnings from someone else’s bet; be part of a punters’ club that bets on football; or give team-sensitive information to outsiders who could receive a betting advantage from it.

The focus then shifted to illicit drugs, and the voluntary testing regimen that aims to nip drug problems in the bud. Convenor Dr Harry Unglik, the AFL’s other medical director, lamented “despite the fact I’ve done this every year for the past 10 years guys still muck up”. He showed diagrams and photos reiterating the dangers of illicit drugs, such as the increased strength of marijuana compared to a generation ago and that ecstasy and methamphetamine were typically made by unscrupulous manufacturers who are willing to include dangerous additives in batches.

It was at this point the players were told about their one “get out of jail free card” if they transgress but immediately notify either he or Dr Harcourt to avoid a strike, but are still highly likely to be referred for counselling. Given players are drilled to back each other up on the field, Dr Unglik urged them to do the same off it and pull up a teammate if they see them partaking in illicit drugs.

The final session was about the respect and responsibility component. Often derided for its mere existence — “Oh, so footballers need to be taught not to rape women?” is a common slur — the session led by former Melbourne forward Russell Robertson actually tackled issues that many in their late 20s and 30s, let alone their late teens, would think of as grey areas.

“There’s no wrong questions … this is a safe place to ask questions,” Robertson said. But that reassuring comment was balanced by his regular mentions of “you’re wearing those tops now”, in relation to the club polos each wore.

“it’s impressive, for someone just coming in, to have all of this laid out for you” – Mason Cox

After starting with some of the most confronting issues facing women, citing statistics that one in three will experience physical violence and one in five, sexual assault, Robertson brought up examples of inappropriate behaviour, such as spectators wolf-whistling at a female boundary umpire. Players were required not just to explain that it was wrong to do so, but why.

Not all the scenarios were straightforward. One involved a young couple who had been together for a few months that had yet to consummate their relationship and the female, after drinking heavily at a party, told her boyfriend she was ready for sex. There were divergent views from the draftees on the appropriate course of action, but Robertson recommended that when alcohol is involved they “leave it alone as much as you can” because of its effect on decision-making.

While the topic once focused on preventing players offending, the expectation now is that they be “active bystanders”, something the former Demons forward admitted was not instinctive.

“Even at my age, 36, to say to someone, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ … you’re never taught to do that. You’re taught to just butt out,” he said. “I talk a lot about the hard things on the footy field being tackles, defensive acts, things like that … but a hard thing off the field you can do for your football club is to set the right example.”

Topics such as the legal and moral issues in exchanging explicit photos, and the need for an inclusive attitude to race and sexuality were also covered.

As a former elite-level college basketballer in the United States, giant Collingwood recruit Mason Cox, 23, was cognisant on most of the topics raised at induction camp. He nevertheless reckoned it would have been especially valuable for his younger peers.

“It’s a testament to the Players’ Association for putting this whole thing together … it’s impressive, for someone just coming in, to have all of this laid out for you. It gives you a solid foundation to go from there,” he said.

Given more than 120 players, mostly teens, are on an AFL list for the first time this season, it is statistically unlikely all will behave impeccably. But if any of them do transgress, they will not be able to plead ignorance.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.