AFL 2023: From brown paper bags to David and Goliath, why AFL players fight to be heard


HomeHome / Blog / AFL 2023: From brown paper bags to David and Goliath, why AFL players fight to be heard

May 19, 2023

AFL 2023: From brown paper bags to David and Goliath, why AFL players fight to be heard

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time. From brown paper

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

From brown paper bags of cash, to the union muscle of Bob Hawke, scandals and the fight against racism, there has been much the AFL Players Association has dealt with in its 50 years. And despite the way the game has changed over that time, the union is still locked in a "David and Goliath" battle over pay and conditions.

This, and more, is addressed in a new documentary, Fight for the right: The story of the AFLPA, to be aired on Fox Footy on Tuesday night.

Former Bomber Simon Madden was among the players asking for more money to play on Sundays.Credit: The Age

Led by players Geoff Pryor (Essendon), Gareth Andrews (Geelong and Richmond), David McKay (Carlton) and Des Meagher (Hawthorn), amid the social change of the mid-1970s under then Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, and later directly helped by the gregarious Hawke, the future prime minister but at the time the feared president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, what was to become the players’ association was formed.

"Footballers just weren't respected, in fact, almost disrespected," Andrews, who played in the Tigers’ ’74 premiership side, said of the time. Andrews, living in Melbourne, hitchhiked to and from Geelong training, such was the lack of club welfare.

Superstar Bomber ruckman Simon Madden was a key figure in the rise of the AFLPA.Credit: Fairfax Media

Said four-time Blues premiership defender McKay: "Back then, the club told you what you were going to be paid. I played over 200 games and I ended up with just over $3000 at the end of my career. The wages were pretty basic at that stage."

Change was afoot, but more often than not the bid for better pay and conditions was slow, as recalled in a lighter tale told by Simon Madden, the former Essendon captain, and premiership great.

The Bombers were to play their first VFL-AFL game on a Sunday, against the Magpies, prompting Madden and Magpies counterpart Peter Moore to seek a special Sunday raise from their clubs.

"I actually received a brown paper bag of cash on the Thursday from a supporter because … our president, he said: ‘What do the players want?’. I said: ‘I think the players want an extra $200 each to play on a Sunday’," Madden said.

"He said: ‘All right, I’ll get you ... what about $100 each cash, and a $100 into the player trip fund?’

Madden replied: "I think I can take that to the players".

The early player requests were relatively tame, from free car parking and a crèche for their children on game day, before morphing into injury payments and, years later, a collective bargaining agreement.

The documentary details the arrogance of league and club officials and their reticence of dealing with growing player power through the ’70s and ’80s.

"We don't recognise the players’ association as a negotiating body," then VFL general manager Jack Hamilton said in an interview with Seven's Sandy Roberts.

There were threats of player strikes, the galvanisation of players at a key meeting in 1988, including stars Gerard Healy, Dermott Brereton, Paul Roos, Stephen Silvagni and Simon and Justin Madden, when they demanded of the league "serious representation". Under Carlton great Justin Madden, the AFLPA took greater shape, before this intensified under new chief executive Andrew Demetriou, then a former North Melbourne player, who would go on and become the AFL boss.

The documentary also features an interview with Brendon Gale, the former AFLPA chief and now long-time Tigers CEO. Gale recalls the introduction of testing for illicit drugs in 2005, a policy that again is under review.

"I think when I was a footballer we were just steak and eggs footballers," the former Tigers ruckman said.

"We would just play footy and that was it. But I reckon there had almost been a ‘celebrification’, footballers were increasingly becoming entertainers, disposable income was increasing, which was great. But it led to risks, so the transition from the game, out of the game, and the risks involved with that were more acute. And, for the first time, there was the issue of illicit drugs," Gale said.

On the policy now, Gale said: "It's still controversial. Drugs polarise, drugs are our society. But I feel it's been a really important and meaningful measure."

The Adam Goodes racism case, the Essendon supplements scandal, and league expansion are also addressed.

Some things, however, don't change, for AFL Players Association chief Paul Marsh says players are again fighting a "David and Goliath" battle in their pay stoush with the AFL.

The impasse between the league and its players over a new collective bargaining agreement continues, with players for the first time attempting to secure a united deal for the men and women.

AFL chief Gillon McLachlan has said a joint deal would "make sense", but the league has yet to agree to the players’ bid to share in 32 per cent of the game's revenue, up from the current 28 per cent, which was for men only.

The AFL wants a nine-year agreement, but the players want four, arguing there can be great change in revenue streams, including technology, even within four years.

"The board made it very clear to me that they wanted a significant outcome from the next collective bargaining agreement. They had been fighting for a revenue share model. It's a model that pays the players on the actual revenues of the industry," Marsh, who brokered the $1.84 billion CBA in 2017, said.

"The way I am built is that there is still more to do, so we are not sitting here thumping our chests saying: ‘We have done it all’. But this is hard. You are one out against the industry. It's David and Goliath in many respects, and we get there because our players care, our staff are amazing, so I am really proud. None of this stuff has been easy, but I think we punch well above our weight and that's through passion and caring about the future of our players and also the game."

Keep up to date with the best AFL coverage in the country. Sign up for the Real Footy newsletter.