Essendon players and the fight for justice

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John Passant explores the commodification of the AFL and proposes the Essendon doping saga should be treated as a workplace relations incident in which the players have the same rights as regular employees.

IN AUSTRALIA, the commodification of sport and the big money involved in broadcasting it is a recent development.

When Kerry Packer commercialised cricket he revolutionised other sports and their relations to broadcasters and the way the clubs came to see success. Winning the flag was no longer about individual and team excellence but about profit.

This has ramifications for club management and their relationship with the players. Given the difference in reward between winning the premiership and not, winning can become winning at all costs. As the Essendon case shows, this is translated into pushing the limits not only of physical excellence but also of the rules governing activity to improve performance.

Players in a team game like professional Australian football are more like workers than their sporting counterparts in individual sports like athletics. Football players sell their labour power – often well above its value – to a capitalist organisation, which then profits (or not) from the services the players provide. Media companies then profit from showing the games on TV and selling advertising to gain access to their large viewing audience.

World class competitors in individual sports like tennis and athletics are in many cases more like small businesses. They compete as individuals (often backed by a team of advisers, trainers, nutritionists and the like, at the elite level) for prize money, endorsements and other remuneration. They do not sell their labour power. Their rewards are a distribution of surplus value already created in productive industries.

This power imbalance is one reason why individual responsibility under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) doesn’t necessarily work for team sports.

Since Aussie Rules footballers are more like workers, they are subject to control by their bosses. That happened in the alleged doping case against the Essendon players. Their boss told them, in the course of their employment, to undertake a course of action that may or may not have involved injections of Thymosin beta-4 — a banned performance enhancing substance. There is no physical evidence they were injected with the proscribed substance. Certainly the Australian Football League’s (AFL) own anti-doping tribunal had cleared them.

Given the power imbalance between the players and their clubs in professional sports like AFL (and the National Rugby League), it is unjust to import guilt to players whose only fault was to follow the instructions of their employer. This same employer gave them assurances everything was above board.

To me, penalising the players for something the boss forced on them is like blaming building workers for deaths and serious injuries on building sites. The point might be to challenge the power imbalance by striking to stop the bosses imposing their will on the players in the future.

The use by the bosses of their power to impose this regime on workers is an issue that hasn’t be examined in detail. It appears to me to be a classic industrial issue worthy of classic industrial action. I recognise that won’t happen since there is no unity among the players around this issue.

Nevertheless, we have to ask how that power imbalance between clubs and players can be overcome?

I think the players’ association could consider arguing that all players go on strike – currently prohibited under industrial law – until all the scapegoated Essendon and other club players are re-instated. Imagine too the fear the government might have about prosecuting striking players and the players’ association.

Now, I doubt players at other clubs see the injustice as sufficient to potentially disrupt the season or even shut it down. The players also won’t understand in such an “us versus them” club atmosphere that an injury to one is an injury to all. Nevertheless, let’s get the idea of possible strike action to reinstate the players out there.

Some might say that this would mean withdrawing from WADA and this cannot be done.

It seems to me a militant players’ association with an empowered membership would say to their bosses and the government,

“If you want the AFL season to begin, then reinstate the players. Make it happen, otherwise say goodbye to the whole season.”

The government and the bosses would work something out.

I know such a militant players organisation does not exist and that the demands to reinstate the Essendon players are too localised to spark support among most players.

What about then mandating each unaffected club to provide one of their top three players from last year, after discussions with Essendon, to help Essendon through the season? Again, I know in the dog eat dog competitive world of football clubs, this won’t happen.

On top of that, the ideology of individual performance and betterment means the players will think of individual responses — suing the club for example.

Nevertheless, I know what I am saying about a possible players’ strike or transfers of other clubs top players to Essendon for the season are a pipe dream. But imagine.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

~ John Lennon

John Passant is a former assistant commissioner of taxation in the Australian Tax Office. He was in charge of international tax reform in the ATO. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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