Reviled AFL boss is on the ball
Reviled AFL boss is on the ball

This comment piece appeared in The West Australian on February 17.

There isn’t dew on the grass. But the balls are back on the field. And the statistically minded are trawling over their fantasy AFL teams as another football season kicks into action.

Yet the numbers geeks don’t have the option of selecting the most important player in the league. He doesn’t get the chance to run through a cheer squad banner. Indeed there are very few in the league community who would offer anything but a jeer to AFL chief Andrew Demetriou.

It has been 25 years since Demetriou last pulled on a pair of boots in the expanded VFL competition.

However, he remains the most significant figure in the Australian indigenous game, albeit in a position in which, in public relations terms, he can rarely win. But he is just as important as Luke Hodge is to Hawthorn, Ross Lyon to Fremantle, even Australian of the Year Adam Goodes to a new generation.

While not renowned for his force in 106 matches for North Melbourne and Hawthorn during the 1980s, his fortitude at the helm of the AFL for a decade has been the league’s pillar of strength. In many ways he has underpinned the continued growth of the competition.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the game sees Demetriou for his successes. Like what befalls a field umpire, the focus on Andy D is regularly skewed to perceived mistakes. And just as the whistleblowers become whipping boys for fans irked by their team’s failure to get their own way, Demetriou is often public enemy No.1 for making a judgment call.

Demetriou and his colleagues at “City Hall” are often criticised for a dogged approach to protect the image of the game at all costs. But isn’t that the role a chief executive officer should take to defend his company? Also, the AFL isn’t a democracy. Many of the league’s rules would be deemed void in court. So it takes a ruler with a clenched fist to keep the competition in order.

Take Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former judge brought in to clean up corrupt US Major League Baseball in 1920. Like Landis, Demetriou has been brave and compelled enough to make the big calls needed to ensure there is enough integrity in the game to retain public confidence.

And he has shown great composure to withstand some brutal counterattacks.

How dare the league boss be part of the panel that rubbed out Essendon coach James Hird for a year for pushing his players into sticking God knows what into their arms in 2012? Any parent would be horrified at letting their son get into that environment, let alone the idea of seeking an unfair physical advantage. Hird might be the darling at Windy Hill (or Tullamarine these days) but that didn’t stop him getting a well-deserved shirtfront from Demetriou.

Hird’s vanity prompted him to deny he had done anything worthy of sanction. Whether Demetriou knew of the Australian Crime Commission’s supplements probe or whether he had helped devise a penalty to force Essendon to dissuade Hird from court action is akin to blaming a council for not stopping a trainer from employing a stablehand who didn’t lock the door to stop the horse from bolting.

Demetriou had an altercation with Herald Sun football writer Mark Robinson last year. After the incident, a split formed between the boss and the newspaper. Former AFL operations manager Adrian Anderson was brought in to mediate. The paper later reported, with Hird’s wife Tania as a source, that Demetriou knew Hird would be paid during his year of suspension even if the league stipulated in its penalty that he wouldn’t.

With the wave of an iron hand, Demetriou announced Essendon’s annual AFL payments, much needed by a club in mounting debt, would be withheld if the Bombers didn’t follow orders. The fact that Essendon brought forward Hird’s reputed $750,000 salary to December last year was another distasteful element for a club whose reputation has been sullied by its self-centred and grubby conduct over the past 18 months.

Demetriou and the AFL Commission had to act on Essendon’s “poor governance” to restore some faith in the Bombers even if some at the club have their standing in the league forever smudged.

If Demetriou had left it to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, or even Victoria’s Worksafe, the dirty saga would have tarnished the entire 2013 season. Enough damage was done anyway. And Hird isn’t involved in season 2014 while Demetriou, against the wave of attacks from the Bombers’ hangar and through the media, remains firmly in his seat.

A similar course of action was taken when the league deregistered West Coast midfielder Ben Cousins for his drug use. Cousins never posted a positive test but his demons had become abundantly clear and were damaging to player and league. It was best for both parties he be given space to try to sort out his issues.

The Cousins action wasn’t popular with Eagles fans. Neither was Demetriou’s call to move Fremantle’s first-round final last season from the MCG to Geelong. But it was the best decision in the circumstances.

Because of the congested schedule for the country’s premier arena, Simonds Stadium remained the only viable alternative. After all, the Cats, as the higher-placed team, had the right to a home final.

Landis became the major league’s first commissioner in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal in which Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to throw the 1919 World Series. Despite the eight offending players being acquitted in court, Landis banned them from organised baseball for life. It breathed life into a sporting organisation that was being choked by corruption and scandal.

Demetriou’s reign has recently concentrated on integrity. Impropriety is seen as the biggest potential scourge for the sport. Investigators have been given extraordinary powers to probe any hint of players or officials laying a punt on their code. Those that have transgressed, regardless of severity, have been hit with a very big stick.

The course of action is necessary. A scandal anything like the Black Sox saga would have catastrophic consequences.

In the meantime, during Demetriou’s 15-year tenure at AFL House, memberships, participation and funds from TV rights have soared.

Multi-culturalism has been embraced. A tough drug-testing regime is in place. The league has expanded into new markets and no clubs have gone to the wall.

So while many don’t exude confidence in him, be assured that his efforts, like those of Landis in the previous century, have ensured the community can believe in the biggest competition in the country.

The West Australian

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