It's not easy being Gil McLachlan as AFL tackles virus dilemma

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan faces the toughest task of his career. Picture: Getty Images
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan faces the toughest task of his career. Picture: Getty Images

Anyone who's ever occupied the position of AFL chief executive has been an easy target for criticism, and Gillon McLachlan arguably more than most of his predecessors.

But you'd have to be a hard-hearted person indeed not to have felt even a shred of sympathy for the league boss over the past few days as he's dealt with and provided the public face for the AFL response to an unprecedented crisis.

McLachlan has looked tired and drawn, and with every right, not only because of the endless hours spent dealing with the dramatic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, but the fact this is the biggest hiding to nothing the AFL has faced.

Leaving aside the mind-boggling logistics of recasting not only the format of an entire season, but even the playing rules, ultimately, it's come down to the financial cost versus the moral cost, and the only possible result has been a loss or another loss.

Suspend the season, and the financial impact is clearly stark indeed. That massive broadcasting deal worth $2.5 billion over six years, of which there are still three seasons remaining, surely has to be renegotiated, given there's more than $400 million worth of scheduled games which wouldn't be played.

AFL clubs were bracing themselves for a massive hit even before the AFL announced on Monday that at best we'd have a 17-game home-and-away season.

They'd been told in some cases to attempt to find up to $10 million worth of savings in their budgets. Straight up, that meant huge job losses, shaved hours even for those who retained their positions, and the immediate cessation of future plans, for example, Hawthorn's new facilities in Dingley, years in the making.

... the growing push for genuine Tasmanian representation has been effectively quashed.

Previous club financial crises had been limited to a struggling outfit here or there, not across the board, and the broadcast booty and the AFL's Future Fund has provided a reassuring security blanket.

That has now been rudely snatched away, with obvious ramifications for the long-term health of developing football areas and franchises such as Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney, while the growing push for genuine Tasmanian representation has been effectively quashed.

So you can understand the burning desire to have got the 2020 AFL season at least underway, and to remain flexible enough to see it completed, whether it was in the traditional time frame, or, as unthinkable as it still seems, potentially playing a grand final even as late as December.

There will be ramifications for the long-term health of Greater Western Sydney. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

There will be ramifications for the long-term health of Greater Western Sydney. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Not that I think that has ever been the AFL's only consideration. The league takes its position as an important community representative seriously.

And its language about recognising the sizeable role the game plays in this nation's culture I don't think is mere hyperbole.

After all, we've only just started to get a taste of what life over the next months might look like. The shortages of essential supplies. The closing down or suspension of significant institutions, not only industrial, but those in the spheres of arts and entertainment. Not to mention the scary concept of social isolation.

Against that backdrop, I'm not so cynical I don't truly believe that the game of football could potentially play an even more important role than usual as the social glue which helps hold us all together.

But then, so is it valid to ask, at what cost? And this time, from a moral standpoint.

I'm not so cynical I don't truly believe that the game of football could potentially play an even more important role than usual as the social glue which helps hold us all together. But is it valid to ask, at what cost?

With so much still unknown about the extent of the health risks, the rates of transmission, the acceptability of different degrees of human contact, how, even having sought the best possible medical advice, can the AFL ever be truly confident it isn't exposing its most priceless asset, its players, to risks they shouldn't have to take?

You can guarantee that were the season to proceed for any length of time and players were subsequently diagnosed with the virus as a result of those fixtures, McLachlan, the AFL Commission and anyone associated with the league would be wearing the fall-out for the rest of their professional lives.

The moral cost may also extend to the question of integrity.

I think the prospect of an AFL premiership forever carrying an asterisk beside it given the compromised nature of both the games individually and the season as a whole would be more damaging to the image of the game long-term than some believe.

Could you take a flag won under current circumstances seriously? I could given only a shorter home-and-away season (after all, we had plenty of 17 and 18-game seasons). But added to reduced quarters, and an entire season played out with no crowds? That could be a bridge too far even for the most evangelical "footyheads".

For McLachlan and the AFL Commission, this has been by some margin the most thankless task of their administrative careers. And no matter the ingenuity of whatever best possible solution they could concoct, one from which no-one was ever going to emerge a winner.

This story No winners: Why it's not easy being Gil first appeared on The Canberra Times.