AFL media’s mental health hypocrisy

Polarising Adelaide Football Club player Taylor ‘Tex’ Walker recently stepped down from his role as captain of the club. He had held the role for four years and led the team to a grand final appearance in 2017.

Walker cited a key factor in his decision to resign as his ambition to “focus on enjoying [his] footy,” something which had fallen to the wayside with the amount of stress and scrutiny AFL media has put him under.

The AFL is increasingly attempting to tackle the mental health issues of its players, and the surrounding media is known to immediately rally around players who are known to be struggling.

But is the way this same media criticises and scrutinises players and identities within the game counter-productive? It sure seems that way.

During Walker’s time as captain of the Crows, coach Phil Walsh was murdered by his own son; ruckman Sam Jacobs lost his brother (also a close friend of Walker’s); midfielder Hugh Greenwood lost his mother; Rory Sloane’s son was born still; and Walker and his wife Ellie suffered a miscarriage.

Yet through the hurdles, he captained his club with authority, led them to a grand final, and performed at a consistently strong level.

This makes up part of the reason he was acknowledged by AFL players as the best captain in the league in 2016 and 2017.

The Adelaide cult figure was rated by Champion Data as an elite, top 10% forward in the competition this year despite receiving significant criticism from some of the most highly regarded figures in football media throughout the season.

Despite these successes, the media has been unrelenting in its scrutiny.

Walker had already received his fair share of criticism before the 2017 grand final loss to Richmond, but it increased significantly following the Crows’ losing performance.

Outlets immediately jumped on his brief losing grand final speech, marking the beginning of a dangerous media storm.

Walker’s performances were constantly criticised over the next two years, with his ability as captain repeatedly called into question.

Upon Walker’s resignation from the role, it became apparent the weight on his shoulders had hindered the captain’s enjoyment of the game.

This didn’t stop an onslaught of criticism, with many saying it was the right decision because of his “poor” season and Sportsbet even discrediting his tenure in this tweet, which was soon removed due to backlash.

Although most people in the AFL community and media are in favour of protecting the mental wellbeing of players and staff, their level of criticism can work directly against this – bordering on plain hypocrisy. The treatment of Walker underlines this.

Walker isn’t the only player to struggle with the high pressure and intense scrutiny.

24-year-old ex-Western Bulldogs player Tom Boyd retired this year, pointing to mental health issues as the main factor. Two years of injury struggles prompted the media to attack one of the most promising young players in the league.

As The Australian’s Richard Guilliatt says, “commentators labelled him the biggest bust in the AFL,” the Herald Sun conducted a readers’ poll asking “is Tom Boyd worth the $1 million?” and Bulldogs veteran Luke Darcy suggested he should “refund some of his salary.”

Boyd also received significant criticism from social media. But AFL media – which so often extends sympathy to players enduring mental struggles – clearly influenced his decision to  leave the game.

When Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge emotionally spoke about his player’s retirement, he focused on the media and those who had attacked him, saying they displayed a “lack of conscience and [a] drive to be nasty.”

Lack of conscience is correct. The media seems unaware  – or at least unwilling to accept – the hand they play in a player’s wellbeing.

This is an issue of high importance, with an increasing number of players disclosing mental health issues.

Lance Franklin, Majak Daw, Jesse Hogan, Adam Treloar, Dayne Beams and Alex Fasolo are just a handful of notable cases.

The players are aware of this and the AFL Players’ Association has invested nearly $1 million towards better support for players.

However, it’s also time for the media to become more aware and conscious of the impact such criticism holds.

All of this isn’t to say the media should refrain from being critical, after all, its role in sport is to analyse teams and players and criticise accordingly. However, there’s a moral line.

Is there an excuse for badgering a player as often as they did Walker, without really looking at statistics or putting into context what he and the club had been through?

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any media personalities who’ve advocated for the forward.

With the increased amount of coverage through the calendar year, paired with the prevalence of social media, players now go through their careers under more scrutiny than ever before,

While it’s part of their job to be critical, those in the media need to recognise the weight of such criticism and toe the line between warranted and over-the-top.

It’s hard to see how the situation can be changed. The AFL can’t – and probably shouldn’t – stop commentators from voicing their opinions.

But perhaps if those with a spotlight were more aware of their impact, they might actively limit the amount of negative coverage they give a certain player or topic, or at least refrain from making ignorant or exaggerated comments.

Maybe then the media can make inroads, begin to shed their hypocrisy and actually help to prevent mental health problems in the AFL.

Image by Ben Neale

sports editor