I spent half of my life in the locker room of an AFL footy club, and over that time I observed American sporting culture seep up through the floor like Texas tea.
In the early days, the locker room was filled with chatter about the antics of Richo, Kouta and Co. But as the wheels of time turned the talk began to lean more and more towards what was happening Stateside. By the time our renovated football club had installed flat screen televisions everywhere you looked, it was the NBA or the NFL that was in vogue.
From there, it was an unstoppable locomotive towards players and staff forming fantasy teams as the conversations were soaked up by the fallout and fortunes of the Patriots, Pistons and the Cavaliers.
Culture shift: LeBron James and the NBA have changed the conversation in AFL locker roomsCredit:AP
I sat back, unable to contribute much. Sometimes I would stir the pot by injecting that LeBron James was a poor man’s Dominique Wilkins, let alone a challenger to MJ’s GOAT status. But that was just a petty attempt to be a part of the banter. I often found myself thinking more deeply about how this cultural shift within the AFL playing ranks would manifest itself on the game and the league over time.
Soon enough, free agency was green-lit by headquarters and stitched into the great quilt that makes up Australian Rules football. It would be here to stay, and we all had best get used to it. A more business-savvy athlete emerged as a result. A growing number of players suddenly had a heightened interest in building a brand to sit alongside their football CV.
There was some resistance from within playing ranks, but this new, flat-peaked-cap footballer was now in the majority. Full disclosure: I was a part of a resistance at the time, I guess I still am. I was offended by anyone who would tell me, “Football is a business and you just have to look after yourself.”
In my final years in the game, I knew it was time to leave because my body started to give out under the strain. But my teammates warming up in oversized headphones was also a timely signal that it was probably time to step away.
Truthfully, those of us within the “resistance” were simply trying to delay the inevitable. Buying time. We know we’re going to lose the war. It’s a generally accepted view now that we should try to emulate how the U.S codes are run. That’s not always a bad idea, but it ain’t always good either.
When Josh Kelly recently signed a two-year contract with an option for six years, those of us in the corps considered hara-kiri. This was a significant moment in history. The battle had been officially lost, or so it seemed. One of the game’s brightest young stars, a darling of football observers, was carefully hedging his bets – or so it seemed from our headquarters.
Hadn’t Josh just signed a two-year deal a little while back? And what triggers the follow-on six years? If the Giants win the flag in the next two years, does that mean Kelly stays or goes? If the Giants go belly-up between now and 2021, does that mean he’s headed south for the big dollars?
New deal: Josh Kelly signed a two-year contract with an option for sixCredit:AAP
For my comrades and me, it was all a bit too much to take. Could we blame LeBron James for this in some way? Our basic accounting could only work out that for Josh Kelly to be a Giant for life, they might have to finish between second and fifth in the next two years. Blimey, that’s a small window.
I couldn’t help but wonder to myself that Josh Kelly is also vice-captain. Did any of his Giants teammates still staunchly hold the resistance line? Is it even conceivable that, in 2019, a league footballer might harbour some tiny morsel of a grudge, or in a moment of weakness might pose a question to one of the leaders of his team: Are you in or are you out?
With the sun setting on the battlefield, surrounded on the flanks by a powerful opposition of Yankee Doodle progress, one brave, lonesome soldier walked to the front line and raised his sword in defiance. Patrick Cripps turned to us and spoke about wanting to stay. That he’d endured the tough times and wanted to share in the glory that he believed was in the Blues’ destiny. He wanted to build it from the ground up. Right at that moment, our small but inspired army of stubborn luddites looked each other in the eye with renewed inspiration.
But then we hesitated.
Kelly and Cripps are both 24. One is a co-captain, the other a vice-captain under co-captains. Neither has played in a premiership and both have the “go home” factor at their disposal. More than that, both players have signed healthy contracts that conveniently expire when the new jumbo CBA will be renegotiated. On the surface of it, things look very similar, but they feel very different.
We buried that moment of hesitation deep in our gut, pushed Cripps another step or two forward, helped lift his blade up towards the heavens again, ignored the fact that he might not fight for us anyway and raised ours too with a mighty roar.
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