Richmond's Chris Knights (left), the AFL's first free agent, is "the pride of South Australia" no more
Photo: Getty Images
Monday was "a sad day for football", according to former Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos.
The beginning of free agency will, Roos said, mark the beginning of the end for equality. It will usher in an era of "better clubs getting better and lesser clubs getting attacked". "I think we're seeing what we suspected," he remarked, after Port Adelaide lost players to Fremantle and Richmond. "How are the lesser clubs going to replace the good players?"
This is a very good question, of course, but we should remember that it's far from a new one. Way back in 1994, for example, the struggling, soon-to-be-extinct Fitzroy Football Club lost a very good player to the Sydney Swans. In fact, they lost their captain. That player was a seven-time All Australian and five-time best and fairest winner who had been at the club for some 13 years. His name was Paul Roos.
Yep, the football commentator who fears for the "loyalty (that) has always been the cornerstone of AFL" is the same footballer who, 18 years ago, calmly ditched his club for a better one.
The point we're making, all fun aside, is that what might good for football is not always good for footballers. And maybe their interests should count a bit too. With its tight salary caps, complicated draft systems and generous financial support for lesser clubs, the AFL has gone all out in recent decades to make football a socialist paradise, and it's clear that they've done very well. Not for us the English Premier League, where the trophy basically belongs to Manchester United or one of their few cashed-up rivals.
No fewer than eleven different clubs have won premierships since the AFL began its equalisation policies in 1990. And 16 of the 18 clubs have played a preliminary final. On just about every measure of popularity that you can imagine – profitability, TV ratings, crowd numbers – football is in better shape than ever before.
Perhaps it's now time to help out some footballers. Why should a player who has served eight or more seasons at one club not enjoy the opportunity to look elsewhere? The right to choose your own employer is pretty much a given in any other industry. Nobody's ever said that a McDonalds employee should be denied the right to work at KFC.
Let's not forget that very few footballers are able to choose their club in the first place. Every year at draft time, dozens of teenagers discover that, if they are to live their dream, they'll have to live their life in another state. It's goodbye to friends and family, and hello to a bunch of strangers that they may not like all that much. For all their superhuman skills, footy players are just people. Why should it be such a scandal if some of them would rather live near their mums?
"But it's just about money," the naysayers splutter – and we say "So what if it is?" Anyone should have the right to get what they can for their services, especially if they can only provide those services for a very short time. The average AFL career is roughly four years, and despite the poster boys in the media and the wealthy property developers and pub barons, the average post-AFL career is ordinary at best. Football skills aren't exactly what you'd call transferable. Can you picture Brendan Fevola in an office 10 years from now, brow furrowed as he examines a spreadsheet? Nope, me neither.
And one last little point about loyalty, this supposed "cornerstone" of the AFL. Why should it be demanded of players when it's clearly an optional extra for clubs? Every year each club puts all sorts of names on the trade table, and every year they ruthlessly clean out their list. "Football is a business," is the line trotted out to the unlucky players whose top-flight dream has just been ended.
Well, the clubs are right. It is. And now it's time for the players to enjoy some more of the spoils.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
Follow BigPond Sport on Twitter: @bigpondsport