This week's AFL news has consisted mostly of one issue: AFL identities who feel they have something to say being pilloried for saying it. Jason Akermanis – by most accounts a good man, if a little too self-indulgently fond of the talky-talk – has played his last AFL match after collecting his pink slip from the Western Bulldogs, while coach Kevin Sheedy has been gagged by the brains-trust at the AFL's newest franchise Greater Western Sydney for his caustic assessment of arch-rival Mick Malthouse and successor Matthew Knights.
Both Aker and Sheeds have the cred. They've walked the walk over long careers: fifteen and forty-plus years respectively, and both are entitled to feel that they can and should talk the talk. But here's the trick: do we want to hear what they have to say?
I'm sure that these icons of the game will be remembered more for their on-field achievements than for their media (in)abilities. And they should be: Sheedy was the archetypal back-pocket plumber while Akermanis was nearly nonpareil as a sublimely skilled midfielder. Both are multiple-premiership winners and occasionally have had innovative and interesting observations about the state of Australian Rules Football. But on the whole, they like many of their counterparts have absolutely nothing new to say and we find ourselves assaulted either by boring, boring column inches or half-baked ideas (now known in the industry as “pulling a Grant Thomas”).
We cry out for articulate athletes. We desperately hope after a big match that someone snatches a mic and cuts a WWE-style promo: we love to see emotion as it comes out on the sports field because we identify with that joy, anger, frustration and despair. But given the climate of fear under which our sports stars now live, all we get is “We're just taking it one week at a time” or “We are focusing on our structures”; sporting banalities equivalent to the nod and mumbled “sorry” offered when you accidentally bump into a stranger on the street. You mumble “sorry” because you've been subconsciously programmed to do so but sports stars don't have the luxury of subconscious training. Under the instruction of team management, players say only what they are 100% sure will not be offensive, revealing or fuel-for-the-fire. Image Is Everything and this age of constant information in which we live means that nothing falls under the radar any more. Everyone has just enough information to draw their own half-baked opinions and, for better or worse, half-baked opinions aren't what generate commercial success. Any comment must be considered carefully or remain unspoken; it's easier and safer to spurt cliches so that's what athletes do. Better that than expose themselves to being hung-drawn-and-quartered in trial by media. The average athlete's media independence is now practically nonexistent and players are not the slightest bit empowered by clubs in their dealings with the press. We love truth as we love emotion, so we want to see unbridled superstars taking their chances when picking up a mic – the suits do not. The age of Akermanis is ending, and it may signal the media-empowered player is joining the flamboyant one on the AFL's endangered species list.
Should we care what these faux-journos have to say? I'd go as far as to say that unless someone writes something heinously or consistently offensive – and make no mistake, Akermanis' column on gays playing AFL was just that – then Aker, Sheedy, Grant Thomas, Bob Murphy and L'il Gary should be judged by exactly the same standards as those with journalism training. The ultimate test for an article, or indeed a column, is the response it receives: if it's crassly or poorly written then it should receive little or no response. Everyone now has voice and the most important thing now in the world is to be heard whether you have something to say or not. This is trap into which Sheedy and Akermanis have fallen – spouting what's on your mind just to be heard – and a trap into which the world, with it's MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is also rapidly falling.
I couldn't care less what most AFL players see fit to say. Take for example Li'l Gary. His column each week in the Sunday Herald Sun is possibly the greatest waste of four minutes reading time I have ever encountered. I have read lettuce with more to say on Aussie Rules than him. Each time I've braved his prose, I find myself thinking that my life could have been seriously enriched by reading four minutes worth of anything – the back of a chewing-gum wrapper, the contract for second-hand sale of a 1955 caravan to a new owner, Mark Latham's autobiography, anything – else. But fool me once, shame on me ... fool me twice and I deserve to pay the stupidity tax.
A few weeks ago I was stopped by two rappers in New York City. They shoved CD-singles into my hands and told me they were raising funds for a national tour or something. I should have given the CD back and kept walking but I didn't, and then came the request for money. There were two of them and one was nearly as big as I am, so I paid them $6 and chalked it down to the Stupidity Tax – I deserved to lose my $6 because I knew what to do and didn't do it. Reading Gary Ablett Jr's Sunday Herald Sun column is much the same: you pay four minutes as stupidity tax and think I'm never making that mistake again.
But Li'l Gary doesn't have much media training. He's not genuinely outgoing nor is he at ease with cameras or computers: his best talents lie in chasing around a lump of leather and air. He's been given a voice, but should not use it – he has nothing to say. Neither do Sheedy or Aker have much journalism schooling, it's all been on-the-job education. Nothing more is to be expected of all three other than what they've produced because they often pipe up when they've nothing to contribute. They are nothing more than a representation of the late-noughties' quest to be heard. What they must realise however, is that there's nothing wrong with keeping quiet when you have nothing helpful to say.