Posted on August 25, 2012

You don’t have to go far to find someone that reckons Australia’s footballers are overpaid slackers. It’s a common enough cry; heard every time yet another footballer is brought into the public glare for his alleged distasteful behaviour.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in Inside Sport]

A decade after the dawn of truly full-time professional era, where footballers no longer have a job, all our football codes are still struggling to rein in the off-field antics of some of their players.

Despite the daily sooth-saying skills of our media commentators, none were seemingly adept enough in the mid-1990s to recognize what was ahead and warn us.

If only we had some inkling, our football administrators could have avoided some truly horrendous days, our children would never had been exposed to some awful realities about their football heroes.

The tragedy is we were warned, but the advice was delivered way to early, coming a century ago with the birth of rugby league – Australia’s first professional football code.

The league’s formation was centred upon the staunch refusal of the NSWRU and QRU to breakaway from England’s RFU – a body whose overriding principle was that of the “gentleman amateur”, where rugby should be played merely for its enjoyment, and not financial gain.

The most any footballer could expect to be paid was a 3 shillings-per-day travelling allowance when away from home. While the 3s limit was of practically no consequence to “the silver-spoon fed sons of the nobility” in England, the majority of Australia’s rugby footballers were tradesmen, labourers and miners.

Footballers were forced to draw on their own savings (if they had any) to go on a tour, even though they were representing their state or Australia.

The 3s also did nothing to look after footballers’ families while they were on tour, or, most disconcertingly, if they were injured and unable to work. Some, feigning injury or work commitments, dropped out of representative teams rather than admit to not having enough money.

With rugby riding a wave of popularity in the early 1900s, Australia’s rugby union bodies began to accumulate vast sums of money from the gate-takings at inter-state and Australian matches.

Unsurprisingly, players increasingly felt that it was unfair that they were out-of-pocket and putting their family’s financial security at risk.

Australia’s rugby union bosses refused to go beyond the 3s allowance – while to do so would automatically breach the RFU’s laws against professionalism, there was also a seriously held belief that NSW and Queensland rugby players would simply “get on the bung” (booze) with the extra money.

In effect, the 3s limit was a means to control the standard of behaviour of the team while away inter-state or overseas.

The principle may well have been sound. In 1898, when a mere four regional teams from country NSW visited Sydney for a week, the NSWRU was left with a hotel bill for an astounding 626 drinks.

Almost every time the 3s allowance was criticised by the players, drinking rated a mention. Many NSW Waratahs players pointed out that while in Brisbane they had paid away their 3s in just one pub shout, adding “A man could not take a drink – if they were worthy of the name of ‘men’ – without reciprocating.”

Newtown’s Harry Hammill, a front rower in the Waratahs team of 1906, complained to anyone that would listen: “I’ve been here almost a fortnight on this three-bob-a-day racket, and, after a couple of rum-and-milks in the morning, I’m broke!”

The disquiet amongst the players turned into a full revolt, and in 1908 professional rugby league teams formed in Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle.

The league announced that players would be given an allowance of 8s, medical insurance, free medicine and doctor’s visits. Gate-takings from club matches were also to be divided up amongst the footballers, representative players would be given match payments, and those fortunate enough to go on a Kangaroo tour to England would each get an even share of the profits (expected to be in the hundreds of pounds per man).

No team sport in Australia had ever been so brazen as to openly pay its players.

While the footballers saw themselves as getting a fair reward from their labour, anyone signing with rugby league (denounced as “the professional viper”) risked being publicly scorned as a “professional” or “mercenary”.

Rugby league, it seemed, was opening the door to an era where a footballer could earn his entire living from his sport.

While this had not been much of an issue for the community with individual “professionals” in boxing and rowing, the sudden thought of dozens of young men living the high-life off their football money startled many.

“It is obviously undesirable that any large number of young men should devote themselves to sport as a means of getting a livelihood,” was one of many concerned newspaper editorials. “Footballers get paid a large sum of money – for what?” asked another. “For playing an hour and half per week of their favourite game. The professional footballer simply has to keep himself trim for one football match per week.”

Public order was evidently at stake. The air was full of an apparent looming terror that if rugby league became established, professional footballers would soon be running amok, and “their idleness and easy money would inevitably lead to temptation, decadency and ultimately their demise”.

No doubt it would soon encourage younger men to emulate their “football heroes”, and they too would choose a football career over a responsible trade or vocation.

At a Manly rugby union club meeting wild applause erupted following the pronouncement by one man that “he would rather see his son dead at his feet than have him playing professional football.”

There was also concern that “cash-chasing footballers” would only be “out for gold, not glory”, and thus could not be trusted on the field.

The Sydney Morning Herald, horrified at the mere thought of professional football, found it inconceivable that the Australian public would ever embrace it: “We can cannot believe that in this country the performances of men hired for the occasion will ever rival our local (amateur) football for public interest.”

Newspaper editors argued that any young man who devoted his 20s – his most productive years – to playing football, instead of learning and improving his trade, was failing to fit himself for the rest of his working life.

They pointed out that other younger players would soon arise, and their football career would be over as quickly as it had begun. “Their proficiency soon comes to an end,” explained one newspaper. “The players of this year will be outshone by the players of a year hence, and if they have no other resource their fate will be almost as pitiable as that of the discarded politician.”

The reality was that no footballer, not even Dally Messenger, could live off his football earnings unless he signed with an English club.

The warnings were sound, but they were 90 years too early.

Footballers and alcohol continued to be linked throughout the century, but it largely remained out of the newspapers. By the end of the winter of 1910, rugby league had usurped rugby union as the preferred football code in NSW and Queensland.

With professional football up and running north of the Murray, the VFL followed in 1911. Remaining on the outside were the amateur footballers of rugby union.

The captain of the 1908 Wallabies, Herbert “Paddy’ Moran, astutely observed that footballers will always remain “public figures” and that “it would seem a good suggestion for a list of the minimum requirements to be drawn up” for the players concerning their off-field standards.

When speaking of critics of footballers though, Moran thought that many “minor evils” in footballers should be overlooked.

He argued that football is meant to “be vigorous and a little dangerous”, and the men who play it are not all perfect. “When men have a difference, let us settle it quickly and get on with the game” he said.

It would seem the media commentators of the mid-1990s didn’t foresee the problems full-time professionalism would bring because they themselves hadn’t yet established a new benchmark of acceptable behaviour.

Moran, in words that no doubt would find support amongst today’s footballers, said “We are judged by severer standards than they use for themselves.”

“Above all,” he added, “let us beware newspaper sleuths, who expand misdemeanours into serious crimes in order to satisfy the vicious appetites which they themselves have created.”

[originally published in Inside Sport]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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