| Media

“Gill looked a worried man. I think Gill knows something we don’t.” Those were the words of Fox Footy’s Mark Robinson on Sunday night, just hours after AFL chief Gillon McLachlan fronted the press to announce the 2020 AFL year would be put on hold.

Robinson’s comments perfectly encapsulated the uncertainty and fear of the wider public, not just about the fate of our sporting competitions, but about the ongoing impact of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. It also highlighted the power of the AFL game; that for many Australians it had taken a league-wide shutdown for the gravity of the current climate to sink in.

Until Sunday afternoon, the AFL had bucked the trend of global sporting bodies, moving to proceed with the opening round of the season after days of careful deliberation between league executives, local and federal government, and health experts. The decision was made on the basis that playing games, particularly under modified conditions, would pose no greater risk to the safety of players or the wider community.

 

The initial reaction in football land was positive. Key media stakeholders like 3AW’s Caroline Wilson, The Age’s Jake Niall and former Fremantle coach Ross Lyon, were among those to endorse the AFL’s decision, labelling it bold and carefully considered – one that would provide footy fans with a sense of hope and normalcy amid mounting social and economic hysteria.

The players themselves were also pushing that message. Talking to Nine’s Footy Classified on Wednesday night, Carlton’s Ed Curnow took umbrage to the suggestion that players and clubs may be putting financial gain ahead of the safety of the wider community by insisting on playing. “We can see the hurt clubs and communities are going through. We feel like what we can do to help is play footy.” Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt echoed those sentiments the following night, saying he hoped the matches would give the public at home something to cheer about.

But in hindsight, proceeding with games may have had the opposite effect. If anything, the images of empty stadiums, of disinfected footballs, and players jokingly practicing hygiene-friendly goal celebrations, only served to accentuate the absurdity of the spectacle. Not only that, it risked trivialising the threat of the pandemic. Having begun in earnest as a curious experiment, the weekend’s games reinforced that the AFL was pushing the boundaries of community expectations and responsible public health messaging.

Commentators seemed to agree. Having initially implored the move to proceed with games, Caroline Wilson had changed her tune by Sunday morning in an appearance on ABC’s Offsiders. “I understand the medical advice, I understand all the precautions, but I had a feeling, sitting at the game on Thursday night, watching it on TV, sitting at pre-games, we’re fiddling while Rome burns.” Fellow panellist Waleed Aly agreed, suggesting the decision to proceed with live sport was sending the wrong message to the country. “The question really is does having this in front of us make us as a country not so serious about some of the measures that are necessary here, particularly the social distancing measures.”

Ultimately, the AFL’s hand was forced when the government imposed stricter travel bans and quarantining measures that intensified the logistical challenges for the league. Mark Robinson and Fox Footy co-host Gerard Whateley were philosophical about the game’s immediate future, suggesting a decision to forge ahead with the season would have forfeited the moral authority that the league is going to need in the COVID-19 “recovery phase”. 

The media scrutiny on the AFL and Gillon McLachlan in the last three weeks has reinforced the near-unparalleled power the league has in influencing social behaviour in the Australian community. And the AFL’s public messaging in the coming months will no doubt have a significant impact on the way the country approaches the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

 

All photos supplied by AAP Photos image library

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