As socialism was teetering on its last legs in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the AFL was just joining the show. The introduction of the salary cap in 1985 and reverse order picks and the national draft in 1986 were getting underway as Gorbachev started to introduce Perestroika to the Soviet Union.
Starting at opposite ends, both were heading toward a mixed economy girded by socialist principles. One never quite made it.
Today, only the most rusted-on, cold-war warriors would maintain that the AFL’s socialistic model has failed. Not only has the competition evened out — with Adrian Anderson recently reminding us that every club has made it to a Preliminary Final since 2000 – indeed, the general level has been raised.
What is strange though are the bed-fellows that the AFL’s socialist model has attracted to its’ side.
When the AFL conceded this year to the AFL Players Association (PA) a limited form of free agency — to take effect after eight years of service — it was the arch individualist and champion of political liberalism in 1990s Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who took up the cudgels and warned of the dangers of opening up the game to player autonomy and money chasing.
“You wait ‘til you see how this bloody plays out,” warned Jeff. “Where (will) that lead? The weaker clubs are going to get weaker.” While the AFL used the cover of free agency being a component of other professional sports, Jeff wasn’t having a bar of it.
“They forget one very important point, all the codes they are quoting are commercial operations, they are owned by individuals, or groups of people or businesses,” opined Kennett.
“AFL football in Australia is a community game, owned by the community, and the AFL’s proposal puts our unique game at risk… of commercial failure by some clubs.”
The weak getting weaker through free trade? Community? We can’t imagine the Iron Lady — who once famously insisted “there is no such thing as society”, just a multitude of free-floating individuals — would have had much time for her erstwhile, Antipodean acolyte’s views.
Then again, Jeff was never a big fan of organized employees either, of which the PA is one. Perhaps it was the idea of the tail wagging the dog, that rankled Jeff’s managerial feathers. Headmasterly Jeff seemed to have shaded out individualist Jeff is an internal power struggle.
Or maybe we have to take him on his word, that Jeff simply had a road to Damascus conversion, a pragmatic volte-face when thinking of how free agency might actually create an intractable division of super-rich clubs versus the stragglers: a farcical situation that grips the English Premier League, where clubs become ego extensions of uber rich billionaires.
But Jeff surely isn’t Robinson Crusoe in his ambivalence toward the benefits of football socialism. The ski-bunnies and cognac swilling patricians that crowd out the Melbourne Football Club must be battling their own inner demons.
For a club that for a period refused to accept working-men in their team, the spectre of socialism presumably elicits a grave internal sense of confliction.
The salary cap, the priority picks — the whole concept of positive discrimination and welfare, which now puts Melbourne in an enviable position for a top 4 assault in the next little while — must be instilling the most exquisite, bittersweet stirrings. The red and the blue are coming together, and must be sending a few purple. But like the post GFC (that is Global Financial Crisis) bail-outs for incompetent and irresponsible company directors, hand-outs are something you evidently can learn to deal with.
For me, Jeff and the Melbourne Football Club toffee apples get off a little too lightly. A recanting of free-market voodoo economics and an admission that socialism rocks football and their personal worlds must be a pre-condition of any future assistance.
Just say it Jeff, just say there is such a thing as society, that a helping hand is always better than an iron fist, and a little bit of socialism is no bad thing. This individual would pay a fair market price to get a ringside seat to that admission.
*originally appearing in Crikey