The cries of football fans demanding players return to the field under any circumstances have become shrill as the craving for lockdown distraction turns from stoical whimsy to rank desperation.
The major football codes are trying hard to cater for these demands and, especially, those of their media partners. You might even say they are pandering to them.
Pugnacious Pete V’landys continues to bulldoze the NRL toward the proposed May 28 start of a season that remains, without government approval, a figment of the fervent minds of those manning the endearingly optimistic Project Apollo.
Meanwhile, the once-cautious AFL is producing plans for isolation pods in luxury resorts so complex you wonder if they are intending to play a few games of football or gentrify the prison system.
Subsequently, the power dynamic in the relationship between supporter and athlete has been radically tilted.
Footballers once slavishly worshipped by adoring fans are now being lectured like distracted home-schooled children on their moral obligation to entertain a bored public and, at a stretch, even “save the game”.
NRL stars were immediately pilloried for their refusal to resume training on Monday until a pay deal had been settled, with Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith a popular target for his alleged recalcitrance.
This shift in supporter sentiment is even more evident in the AFL, where initial negotiations over the extent of pay cuts saw players accused of greed and self-obsession at a time when many club staffers had lost their livelihoods and the entire country was bleeding.
Now, it is the hesitance of some players to agree to enter hubs for extended periods that has caused some fans to turn on players they accuse of threatening their God-given right to watch the footy.
Footballers told to ‘suck it up’
The online and talkback vitriol spat at those such as Adelaide’s Rory Sloane and Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield, who questioned a hub system that could see them leave family for up to 20 weeks, could be summed up in three words: “Suck it up!”
“Everyone is hurting! Everyone is making sacrifices! Plenty of us would jump at the chance to travel to a resort with a golf course for a few months to make a fraction of what an AFL star gets paid!”
So, yes … suck it up!
Even Brisbane coach Chris Fagan uttered the “suck it up” mantra while also invoking the spirit of former star player and senior coach Neale Daniher, who has turned his personal affliction with motor neurone disease into a fundraising crusade, to suggest players do “what’s best for the game”.
Such belligerence from fans and the emotional appeal of Fagan represents a startling change in attitude toward AFL players who had previously occupied the most lavishly maintained mantelpiece in Australian sport.
Yet in weeks they have been demoted from feted heroes to mere court jesters whose role is to entertain without complaint the fans who now constantly remind them they “pay your wages!”
Or, as one tweeter put it: “Playing is a choice. They can stay home, sit in a warm blanky, sip decaf soy vanilla lattes with their families and watch their mates play footy. Just don’t expect to be paid, that’s all.”
But, despite the predictable and often irrational taunts, players didn’t “sign up for this”. They didn’t consent to a system that would take them away from their families during a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty.
So, the inexact comparisons with soldiers who went to war for years on end, FIFO workers or, from the tennis player Sam Groth, claims that international athletes endured far greater hardship, are hardly relevant or helpful.
(For the record, in his final year on tour, Groth’s hardship included tournaments in Budapest, Estoril, Rome, Paris, London, New York, Newport and Las Vegas, where there were no reported pandemics, travel restrictions or isolation measures that kept him from climbing the Eiffel Tower or visiting The Met with family.)
The ‘play or don’t’ argument doesn’t stack up
There is the obvious argument that those footballers reluctant to miss the birth of a child or a toddler’s first steps have a choice: “Play or don’t. Get paid or don’t.”
But even in these highly unusual circumstances, surely any system that demands multiple players make such a choice is flawed and matches played without even a small proportion of the best players will be devalued. It would be the return of footy, but not the footy.
Also lost on the most insistent fans and media is any sense of concern for the physical or mental wellbeing of players, although this is not new.
We are prone to fretting about those who have suffered debilitating head injuries while stoutly defending the violent aspects of our games that cause them; to shedding tears for those who suffer mental health problems while rubber-stamping the systemic problems at the heart of the issue.
The condemnation of NRL players who broke social distancing restrictions was telling. The concern was not that they might have spread the deadly virus, but that they might have hampered efforts to get the game restarted.
So, who is being selfish? Players who want to stay home with their families during a time of fear and uncertainty? Or fans who demand they light up our drab lives regardless of the cost?