Why we need to rethink player ‘loyalty’

There is a quirk in the AFL, compared to non-athletic professions, that the most in-demand candidate for a position, a conscript, is “rewarded” with a job with the weakest, field-performing organization.

To this end, the current situation of young rising star and esteemed recruit Jason Horne-Francis in North Melbourne presents an interesting case study. Signed to the club on a standard two-year rookie contract, there is growing speculation about his future.

As Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, become the league’s main demographic, we may need to change our thinking when it comes to workplace culture, labor mobility and players looking to switch clubs.

By zooming out of the microcosm of the AFL industry and taking a broader look at society, the Foundation Of Young Australians’ New Work Order series found that career paths for young people look very different from those of their parents.

Research found that “rather than a few jobs in a single career path, it is estimated that a young person will have about 18 different jobs in six different careers in their lifetime.”

The Australian research organization McCrindle consolidated this trend and found that “the national average length of a job today is 3.3 years (three years and four months).”

Furthermore, recent ABS data, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, showed that 1.3 million Australians (9.5% of those in work) changed jobs in the year ending February 2022. This was the highest annual labor mobility in ten years.

So what does this have to do with the AFL and current and future conscripts?

Gen Z is characterized as ambitious, self-reliant, pragmatic, entrepreneurial and empowered, but the AFL model they are pushed into doesn’t necessarily offer the same synergies and alignment.

British consultancy Deloitte suggests that “Gen Z will have the opportunity to demand more personalization in the way they pursue their careers.”

To address this, they suggest, “Attracting and retaining the best and brightest of the generation organizations requires a different mindset.” The AFL is an organization that benefits from such adjustments.

Despite little freedom of choice or autonomy early in their careers, these young athletes, who are still in their teens, are thrown in at the deep end and thrown out of their comfort zones, often out of the house and the highway, away from friends and family, and the transitioning from a full-time high school education to a full-time job – football, at a rapid pace.

There is no question that they are generously compensated for the privilege of playing football full-time at well above the national average wage. SANFL chief of talent Brenton Phillips told SEN last year that picks are 1-20 “on a base salary of $105,000 per year,” as well as “a bonus on top of that in terms of $4,000 per game.”

But sometimes the income does not match the outcome.

On top of the future job insecurity, there are also the long-term injuries, blows to the head, broken bones, knee reconstructions and torn ligaments.

Add to that the public scrutiny, social curfews and the higher professional demands placed on players.

The time of a player at the highest level is finite. Research by the AFL Players Association found that “about one-eighth of the workforce leaves the game each year,” and the average career length of an AFL football player was about six seasons.

Since the majority of players enter the profession at the age of 18, this means that many will leave the league before they even turn 25.

Tom Boyd is one such example. Drafted as the number one pick in 2013, Boyd played just 61 games before retiring at 22 due to the intense physical and emotional toll. “I just don’t have the desire to play or the fun of the game I used to have,” he said in a press statement at the time.

Tom Boyd

Should the AFL do more for players like Tom Boyd? (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

It’s time to change our collective mindset.

The AFL media and fans should ensure that they have the same empathy for mental health and wellness issues as they do for players’ respective futures, as the two are often intertwined.

Yes, contracts exist, but with a professional, amicable and negotiable conversation, they essentially become non-binding. In the long run, the swings and roundabouts of the draft work both ways and the way clubs treat their players, their most vital employees, shapes the culture of the organization.

It is often suggested that the main reasons people leave their employers is because they want change, based on poor working conditions, for more opportunities, better alignment of values ​​or for family reasons. One could argue that Horne-Francis could very well fit into all the above categories.

But it’s not up to us to project moral decisions.

Football is more than ‘passing the time’, ‘just relaxing’. In the case of Horne-Francis and the many in his future situation, they must put themselves, their health and happiness and their future first, and make the decision that suits them.

It will take courage and inevitably backfire, but in the long run, their careers, their field performance and, ultimately, their lives will improve. We as fans cannot begrudge them that.

If we want personalities in the AFL, it’s time we humanized players and that can start by treating them as members of society.

After all, football is just a part of their lives.