A lot of AFL fans, journalists, CEOs, coaches, players, owners and various other stakeholders have been very critical of Gil McLachlan, in his six years as AFL CEO – including this writer. Since he has come in, the AFL has seen a breadth of changes from Gil in order to attempt to move the game forward.
Under Gil’s watch we have seen: the creation of the AFLW, the creation and destruction of the very short-lived AFLX, the mid-season draft, the removal of the sub rule, changes to the interchange system, the removal of the MRP to the one-man MRO, different interpretations of existing rules such as high tackles and knocks to the head – among a host of changes as Gil and the AFL have strived for change.
Gil has not always had universal agreement for any of his decisions. Though the introduction of the AFLW has been relatively praised for its promotion of women in footy, certain decisions have come under scrutiny. When Geelong and North Melbourne brought their women’s teams for the AFLW in the lead up to the 2019 season, those in charge changed the format of the season to six games plus two weeks of finals, rather than the previous season’s seven games and a week of finals. Gil’s aim was to introduce a semi-final and a preliminary final, while still fitting within the eight-week timeslot, but not all players were impressed. Daisy Pearce, a star player for the AFLW and also a media personality for Fox Footy, said that it’s being made a “gimmicky tournament”, disagreeing with the changes made by Gil.
Last year, in 2019, the AFL and Gil came under fire again for a response to fan behaviour, where there were several instances of security reprimanding and kicking out fans, cases that many believed were not warranting of a security interference. McLachlan stated that the league hadn’t changed its stance on responses to crowd behaviour – but the evidence suggested otherwise as fans were getting trouble for so much as ‘cheering on’ their team. Like the other cases, this response came under scrutinty and criticism, as many fans and supporters, as well as cheer squads, felt that their ability to come to the footy and vocally cheer for their team was being taken away from them.
The above two instances were just a small portion of the challenges and criticism that Gil McLachlan has faced. But his response during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his decision to eventually suspend the AFL season, was nothing short of brave.
As the COVID-19 virus spread well beyond its initial borders, many were unsure how it was going to affect sporting leagues around the world. The Serie A in Italy had to repeatedly postpone itself, initially due to the prevalence of cases in the Lombardy region, before the outbreak got out of control in the country, leading to a suspension of all sporting competitions in Italy and a full lockdown of the whole country. Soon after, football competitions in Europe began to fall. The UEFA Champions League and Europa League had some matches behind closed doors, before effectively postponing the season until further notice. The Ligue 1 and other French competitions followed suit, as did German and Spanish leagues. The English Premier League and EFL competitions were a bit slower to the party, before finally suspending the season until further notice. The UEFA Euros and the Copa America also were postponed until next year, creating havoc in the footballing world – especially as a number of footballers were confirmed to be carrying the virus, such as Paolo Dybala and Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta. The NBA and America were next to fall, as Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz both tested positive, prompting a swift suspension of the NBA until at least May, with more players contracting the virus including Kevin Durant and two so-far unnamed LA Lakers players. The F1 Australian Grand Prix had to cancel at the last minute, due to team McLaren pulling out over one of their team members contracting the virus. All of this happened within a week.
As it stood last week, on the eve of AFL’s Round 1 fixtures, only the AFL and the NRL were left standing in the entire world of sports. The Olympics still remain a mystery, although Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ordered the AOC to not send any athletes over to Tokyo for the Games.
Thus, in the build-up to Round 1, Gil McLachlan was left with a tough decision: not go ahead with Round 1 and suspend the AFL, or to go ahead with it. On Wednesday the 18th of March at 7:45pm AEDT, the AFL reached its decision to go ahead with Round 1, albeit with changes to the season. The season would be stripped down to 17 rounds, with no bye round and no bye week between the last round and the finals. Games were also shortened, with quarters down to only 16 minutes plus time on. The AFL also said to expect instances of teams playing potentially ‘three or more’ games per week. The matches were also going to be played behind closed doors, to enforce the social distancing that has been recommended due to the pandemic. All of this was assumed to account for any potential lost time due to a suspension if the virus got out of hand. Ultimately, Gil’s decision to continue was met with a lot of praise, with many fans happy that they at least have something to watch. The AFL’s players, in particular, were overjoyed to play as the AFLPA pushed hard against the AFL to continue the season. In the end, Gil went with what the people wanted.
So, Round 1 went ahead, and it was a fun weekend. Carlton nearly pulled off an unthinkable comeback against the Tigers, Nat Fyfe’s eye turned into a plum and North Melbourne won a nail-biter on the back of Ben Cunnington’s heroics.
However, on the Sunday afternoon at 4:30pm, the news that no one wanted to hear was broken: the AFL had officially suspended the season until at least May 31st. The AFLW season was also to be cancelled immediately.
A tired and worn-down Gil McLachlan faced the media and laid down the situation. It was tough to see and tough to hear, but it was the right call to make. For the first time in his career, Gil McLachlan made a decision that was universally praised.
Alastair Clarkson, who was coaching his Hawks to a win over the Lions when the news broke, commented that it was “the reality of the situation,” and that it was “inevitable.” Chris Fagan of the Lions also chimed in, sympathetically stating “they didn’t have a choice.”
Mark Robinson, in an emergency broadcast of AFL 360, with the decision, “It very quickly set upon me that I love footy but there are more important things in life,” he said on Sunday night. “Everyone’s worried about their parents — has every single person watching at home rung their parents in the last 24 hours, said ‘whatever you’re doing don’t go out’? That’s more important that footy. I’m not sad. I worry for the clubs and I worry about the AFL.”
It seemed that everyone agreed with Gil McLachlan’s unfortunate decision to stop the AFL for the foreseeable future. Credit has to be handed to the AFL’s CEO – not one person would’ve envied his position over the past week. McLachlan has handled himself with poise and grace, as he tackled and continues to tackle what is being called ‘the biggest crisis in 100 years of AFL.’ As Mark Robinson said, the biggest concern is what will we happen to the clubs financially, and to the AFL as a whole. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on that, for we do not know – no one does. What we can say, is that this is not the time for playing the blame game on any sporting executives or politicians. Now is the time for people to unite and remain patient, as those in charge make the necessary decisions to combat this pandemic and contain the spread of the coronavirus, while the sporting executives make their impossible decisions on how to proceed further.
From all of us at Sporting HQ, please remember to stay safe, stay at home, stay clean, and the best of luck as we all, as Australians, look to get through this battle stronger than we were when we entered it.