Book Review: The Boys’ Club

Michael Warner, The Boys’ Club: Power, Politics And The AFL, Hachette Australia, 2021, PB, 376 pp, $32.99

Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

Sport involves competition between teams. Teams not only compete with each other on the field but also off the field for fans, sponsors and players. Despite this overarching rule of competition, teams need to cooperate if games are to be played and income derived. Decisions need to be made about where and when games will be played; contracts with stadiums, broadcasters and sponsors; the allocation of costs associated with putting on games; distributing revenues between clubs and the league, between clubs, between clubs and players and others and in relationships with governments and regulatory bodies. What is the best way to make these decisions?

One model is for the clubs to run the league. Each club has a representative on a ‘governing’ body. This was the model traditionally employed in Australian sport, such as the Australian Football League (AFL). It was found to be inadequate in the 1970s and 1980s, when a number of clubs experienced financial problems. The major criticism was that the clubs were unable to arrive at league based decisions; they would only agree with proposals that would enhance their club and/or weaken that of rival clubs. A judge, in the early 1980s, described the clubs as ‘a confederation of sworn enemies’.

In 1985, the then Victorian Football League (VFL, with expansion into other states the VFL became the AFL in 1990) decided to form a Commission which would make ‘league’ based decisions. The clubs, though, had power to veto major decisions of the Commission. This was changed in 1993 when veto powers were taken away from clubs. Following this, several

commissioners took an active hands-on role and worked closely with Wayne Jackson, AFL CEO from 1996 to 2003. Andrew Demetriou was appointed the AFL’s manager of football operations in 2000. He asked the Commission to ‘step back and cede greater control to the AFL executive team’; which was agreed to.

Demetriou became the AFL’s CEO in 2003. He stepped down in 2014, replaced by Gillon McLachlan in 2014. Mike Fitzpatrick became the AFL Chairman in 2007; a position he held until 2017. Investigative journalist Michael Warner provides a critical and searching examination of the operation of the AFL during the two decades of the reign of Demetriou, McLachlan and Fitzpatrick.

Much of the material contained in The Boys’ Club is based on interviews Warner conducted with various members of the AFL Commission, club presidents, lawyers, whistleblowers and others in the AFL’s orbit, some of whom wished to maintain their anonymity. He also draws on internal documents and email trails that became available many years after issues emerged and were ‘settled’. At a minimum, he provides an absorbing account of controversies and scandals which have engulfed the AFL over the last two decades. He maintains:

The national competition is controlled by a ruthlessly entitled Melbourne-based executive, given close to free reign by a commission that long ago lost its oversight or will to intervene. A lack of transparency and accountability in decision making, jobs for the boys, bullying and a string of blatantly compromised ‘integrity’ investigations have become hallmarks of the AFL administration…Deals are done and outcomes reached in almost every instance with brand protection (or defence of their own positions) the [priority]…There is no independence or due process in the AFL’s procedures. Worse, decisions are often made out of personal animus because they can

be…The purpose of this book is to shine a light on almost two decades of questionable conduct; a system in need of reform.

The general picture that Warner presents is that when a crisis or scandal cannot be contained and becomes public knowledge the AFL executive works out what it regards as the best solution and then goes about imposing it on those in its orbit. Its basic modus operandi is to protect those in The Boys’ Club, even if they are forced to resign for whatever transgression they have performed. Despite such punishment, those in the Club will be allowed a job somewhere else at an appropriately later time, either with the AFL, a club or entity involved with the AFL. When the misdemeanor is of a ‘higher level’ which casts the AFL in a poor light and ‘spin’ will not work, someone will be sacrificed and ‘thrown under the bus’.

Two examples will be provided here. The first involved the issue of ‘tanking’. The AFL operates a draft (selection) system for new players. Clubs take it in turn to select (draft) new players with the bottom club having first choice, then the second bottom club and so on with the premiers having last choice; the process being repeated (several times). The AFL introduced a rule that a club which won less than five games (in a 22 round season) could receive a ‘priority pick’ to bolster its playing squad. It was alleged that Melbourne deliberately lost games (tanked) at the end of the 2000s. This was a club decision. Despite this, the club had to be protected and blame had to be attributed to someone to defuse the controversy. Warner examines how Melbourne’s coach was convinced that he should perform this role.

The second example concerns the Australian Crime Commission uncovering of the alleged use of prohibited drugs by Essendon (and Cronulla in the National Rugby League). The AFL decided that the best course of action would be to convince Essendon to voluntary come forward and ‘self-report’. Warner says:

Essendon’s decision to ‘self-report’ would permit the AFL to conduct a joint investigation with ASADA [Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority], giving the league control of and access to all confidential information. Demetriou and his men would know almost everything ASADA knew…players found to be innocent…Sanctions against Essendon…hold individuals accountable… [For this] to work, they had to have a patsy: a big scalp to prove the AFL took the injections debacle seriously. His name was [Essendon coach and former champion player] James Hird’.

Warner provides a detailed account of the various machination of the scandal and how James Hird was forced out of and compensated for his removal from football. The campaign to protect players from punishment was thwarted by the World Doping Agency mounting a case against the players before the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Warner muses on how other clubs which also allegedly used prohibited substances as at Essendon escaped scrutiny, let alone sanctions.

Warner also examines issues associated with the lack of funds and infrastructure support (such as adequate club facilities) for the expansion club the Gold Coast Suns; handling of salary cap breaches (a maximum amount that clubs can spend on player salaries); a player revealing his club’s game plan to his brother of another club before the two teams meet in a semi-final (match fixing?); sex scandals at head office; females at head office being denied chances for advancement because of the boys’ club culture; lack of advancement for indigenous players in coaching and management; the AFL’s lack of support for Adam Goodes when booed by fans; conflicts of interest when awarding contracts including gambling sponsorships; and relationships with governments and regulatory bodies.

Warner’s penultimate chapter is concerned with the negative impact Covid had on the AFL in 2020 and actions it took to save the season. It forced the AFL and clubs to rationalise their respective operations which resulted in substantial job losses and reductions in pay (not so

much for AFL executives). Warner sees the shock of Covid providing a basis for an inquiry, the first since 1993, into the workings of the AFL. He maintains that any organisation should conduct such an investigation every 30 years or so to review and enhance its operation. His recommendations are

1. The review should be independent with strong input from clubs with clubs determining who should conduct it;

2. Executive accountability to clubs;

3. Commissioner selection, a stronger role for clubs potentially involving transparent elections;

4. A corporate governance charter;

5. Financial transparency;

6. Proper tendering and procurement processes (and less cronyism); and

7. Integrity investigations. AFL Executives to not be involved in such determinations to stop it performing ‘the roles of investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner’.

The Boys’ Club is an important book in that it casts a searching light on the internal operation of the AFL. It provides information on the workings of Australia’s leading professional team sport which should be of interest to not only followers of the AFL, but other codes and those with an interest in the governance of sporting bodies. It will be interesting to see the reaction of those in the AFL world to its contents – ignored, criticised, a catalyst for debate – and whether or not it will lead to the AFL reforming its operation and governance.

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things. For over a decade

he has been a member of the Australian Football League Players’ Association Player Agent Accreditation Board. He is alone responsible for the contents of this review.

(The book review is produced with the permission of the Newtown Review of Books)

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