Fans Industry

‘The Players feel a deep responsibility to the game’

AFLPA chief executive Paul Marsh provides an in-depth look into the work that went on behind the scenes once the season shutdown period came into force, with the players taking on a key responsibility to get the 2020 season restarted.

As soon as the season was suspended in March a lot of effort went into supporting our players through this period of uncertainty and working with the AFL to determine how we could return to play while keeping everyone safe.

The players were at the forefront of those discussions, led by our board, our delegates, and the club captains working in close conjunction with our staff.

The process to get to this point has been incredibly complex with many twists and turns along the way, and it’s been vital that all of our players, both male and female, had an opportunity to participate.

Our organisation was formed for the players by the players and it’s incredibly important that our players have a voice in issues that impact them. That’s why collaboration and communication has been critical throughout this whole process.

Whether that was the 20 meetings the board has come together for in the last few months or the role the delegates and club captains have played to educate their teammates, our players have been invested in this process from day one.

We’ve also conducted three separate virtual club visits with our male players across the 18 clubs in addition to a round of visits with our AFLW members.  We have also had multiple phone hook-ups with the entire playing groups. Players have been kept well informed, despite some of the updates being difficult to deliver and equally difficult to receive. Notwithstanding this our players have turned up to these meetings en masse, have contributed to our direction and all have played their part.

Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 saw an abrupt and premature end to the AFLW season, which was very sad news to share given the effort the players put into the season. It was particularly tough for the clubs who were preparing to play in finals. While there wasn’t a premier in 2020, the competition took another big stride forward and we are proud of all our AFLW members continue to achieve.

In late-March the prospects of an AFL season for our male players looked grim.

In April this moved to a scenario where we were told that the only likely way to proceed with Season 2020 was a scenario where players would spend up to 20 weeks in hubs.

Many players were shocked and concerned by the proposal provided by the AFL, but it was important that players understood what was being planned as a worst-case scenario, given the AFL’s advice at that time was that border restrictions may remain in place until September thereby preventing movement between states for AFL teams.

As has been the case throughout the lockdown period, things have moved rapidly since then, and we’ve worked hard with the AFL to find the best possible model to allow the AFL competition to resume.

The players feel a deep responsibility to the industry to get the game going again and, as a key stakeholder in the game, they’ve made some significant sacrifices to get us back to this point.

Players committed to a significant pay cut for the last seven months of 2020, they are currently living under restrictions that the rest of the community has moved on from and four clubs will soon be leaving their homes to live in hubs for a period of time that is still up in the air.

Every male player, whether he has a family or not, has his own individual circumstances and responsibilities that mean the coming weeks and months will be challenging. It’s been a key focus of the AFLPA’s to put as much support around the players and their families as practical.

We’ve continued to work with our players and listen to them and in doing so have provided a range of support to players, both current and past, during the COVID-19 pandemic, including wellbeing support, we’ve run financial workshops, supported them through the hardship fund and we’ve advocated on their behalf through the development of the return to play protocols.

Player unity across the competition is very strong and it’s been heartening for our staff to receive hundreds of messages and calls from members thanking us for the role we’ve played through this period.

The messages that we’ve had to deliver to our members haven’t always been easy, but it’s been our responsibility to ensure the players have the full picture.

There’s a lot still to work through once the season gets back underway, most notably a review of the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement we will work through with the AFL.

For now, our male players are focused on a game of football they’ve been looking forward to for the past 10 weeks.

It’s going to be a different experience for players without being able to feed off the energy that a packed stadium provides, but they are excited for the opportunity to give their fans something to cheer for.