Most would suggest playing AFL football is the plum gig. It can be the blue chip dream for young men across the country. While many might be good enough, only the best make the grade and only the elite have the aptitude and skill-set to the stay there.
It is widely recognised as one of the toughest sports to play in the world. The toil on the body is enormous, but when looking at AFL football as a profession and the impact on players’ emotions, tough doesn’t cut it – it’s brutal.
Every year approximately an eighth of the work force leaves the game, 100 come in and 100 come out, most never to return. While the path to the AFL requires years of toil, the average career is just more than six years.
Alarming statistics when compared to other industries.
Most players live and breath the reality that every time they take the field it could be their last, but when the end does come, this awareness rarely softens the blow.
Whether a player has spent one year in the game as a rookie or 15 as a champion, being told they have been sacked, or as it is better put – their services are no longer required – is devastating.
At the same time young kids are realising their dreams by having their names called on live TV at the draft, while behind closed doors in AFL clubs across the country players are being told their careers are over. This symmetry reflects the cyclical nature of AFL football.
Thankfully the brutal nature of the game is news to nobody; not least the players, who have a sharper focus on preparing for life after football than ever before.
Ensuring AFL footballers invest in a career beyond football and then transition out of the game with relative ease is a primary function of the AFL Players’ Association. The ‘PA collaborates with the clubs and agents to ensure a player’s exit strategy is in development from day one. When a retirement or delisting does come, the Player Development Regional Managers (PDRM) – there are four who service all 18 clubs – conduct an exit meeting to facilitate that next step.
aflplayers.com.au had the opportunity to sit in on some of these transition meetings and witness a side of AFL footballers never seen before. They were raw, unguarded and emotional– this is the untold story of the exit game.
Player One – Shock
After two injury-interrupted seasons this player knew his place on the senior list was in jeopardy. But when he returned from the off-season break and still hadn’t been delivered any bad news, his hopes soared. He had heard whispers it might be down to three players for one spot. When called into the club the day before pre-season training was due to begin, he knew what was coming. Arriving at the club he noticed the locker of a player who attended the same meeting earlier in the morning was still full. It was a short conversation – he was gone.
‘Too many midfielders’, they said. The player thought this season should be considered his first because of his injuries – the club disagreed.
The player describes his AFL experience as tough and says he learned a lot about himself, but not so much about footy.
When reminded he needed to return to the club for an exit medical, the player said it would feel a “bit weird”.
Despite the place still being full of his best mates, he felt he no longer belonged.
He wishes to get out of Victoria in 2014 in a bid to reignite his career. When asked what his work or study plans might be, he said with a tone of despair, “I don’t know what is for me”.
The player seems almost defeated. His life is just beginning, but at that very point it must have felt like the end of the world. Football had always been his ‘thing’ and the thought of looking for something else to do was something he hadn’t thought he’d be contemplating so soon.
Player two – Peace
Player two had the luxury of making the call on his own, despite being offered another season by his club. After eight years in the system across two clubs, he’d had enough. Such was the comfort with his decision he used his final year in the game to focus on his transition out of football and into the workforce. The player believes his decision to engage in work experience during the 2013 season was the “best decision” he’s made.
He plans to play in a state league in 2014 but a chronic injury is still holding him back. The PDRM talks him through his options and the obligation of his previous club to pay for medical treatment for the next 12 months.
Beyond this, all players are reminded to renew their private health insurance, something previously covered under their club policy.
Player three – First comes anger…
Player three expected the call to come, at times he even wanted it, but much to his frustration the club refused to share the news until after the trade period. The clubs are well within their rights to do this under the current rules, however the player reports the delay led to some heated discussions with the club about their unwillingness to “tell him the truth” and the experience ruined the end of his season.
The PDRM understands the issues the player is reporting and has received similar feedback from other players around the timing of delisting. “Unfortunately it leaves guys in limbo throughout their annual leave period and it is difficult for them to commit to their next step.”
The PDRM encourages the player not to “burn bridges” with the club and stresses the importance of maintaining relationships that will be useful later in life.
The player plans on using his football talents to secure a position in a Masters course at university this year. He is delighted to hear he will receive $2,500 towards his tuition fees and $500 for books.
Player four – Acceptance
It’s acceptance… but with a heavy heart. Player four highlights the fact that no matter what a player has achieved or for how long they’ve been in the game, it still hurts when time is called.
“I thought I had one more year,” he said.
His mind is willing; his body feels good, but with a breed of younger stars waiting in the wings, his club doesn’t need him any longer.
“In the football club he is a senior player, but at 29 and in outside life, he is a kid”
This discussion is a little different than that of players in the game for shorter and with less populated trophy cabinets.
His career options are plentiful; in fact he has already started his new job when this interview happens.
The player is happy to sit through the presentation and nods in approval of the various services on offer – wellbeing, financial advice, education grants, and career development and transition programs – despite the reality he will never have to utilise them.
The most popular topic of discussion in these meetings was around their Player Retirement Accounts (PRA). Players accumulate payments for every year in the game and begin receiving money 12 months following their exit. The balance accumulates compound interest and for this player, who served more than ten years in the AFL, he can expect to receive more than $300,000 during the next 15 years.
On the eve of the NAB Challenge and with the season just more than one month away, while football fans are obsessing over which new kid on the block should win the last spot in their Dream Team, spare a thought for those footballers learning to live in the outside world.
Fox Sports recently screened a feature on Hawthorn premiership defender Josh Gibson. With a number of businesses in development, Gibson is a player well prepared for life after football, but when asked about what lies beyond the boundary for Gibson, a close friend of his said, “In the football club he is a senior player, but at 29 and in outside life, he is a kid.”
AFL football gives one plenty to offer the outside world, but these skills still need to be fashioned into a career beyond the boundary and the AFL Players’ Association insists this begins on day one.