There’s talent aplenty amid the rookies recruited at last week’s AFL draft. But can the realities of professional footy live up to their dreams? By Luke Ablett.

The highs and lows of being drafted into the AFL

Darcy Moore, at left, and Nakia Cockatoo sign footballs in their new team strip during the AFL draft on the Gold Coast last week.

Last Thursday, 76 young men’s names were read out in the 2014 AFL national draft. For many, if not all, this had been a moment many years in the making. From the age of 15 or 16, most would have been tested, prodded and examined, their personality traits, physical limits and emotional stability all put under the microscope. Blessed with natural talent, they would have worked hard and impressed the clubs’ scouts. Draft day is one they will remember for life. 

I still recall the day my name was read out at number 24 in the 2000 draft. Because some people at the AFL thought I might be drafted, I’d been asked to attend. I declined. The potential embarrassment of not being named was too great. The home phone rang constantly throughout the day, and when I wasn’t talking on it, I was with friends outside, enjoying the beers they’d brought to the family home to celebrate. 

When I look back at that day it is with a sense of fondness, and an acknowledgement of my innocence and complete lack of understanding as to what would come next. 

Draft day 2014 is very different to what I experienced. If my situation were replicated now, I would’ve had articles written about me prior to the draft, I would’ve been forced to attend on the day, and I would’ve been interviewed by my new coach, in my new team’s colours on live television.

The draft has now become its own phenomenon. The AFL dedicates a page to it on its website, complete with player profiles and phantom drafts – experts speculating on the draft order – and the event has its own sponsors. Newspapers assign journalists specifically to cover the entire process and diehard supporters speculate on online forums about who’s good, who’s not, and who their club needs. Top prospects are courted by major apparel companies and many have signed a management deal by the time the draft occurs. Most of these talented youngsters are about 18 years old. 

While the opportunities and privileges that are afforded these young men are undoubted, the dreams of a long-term career, let alone superstardom, will, for many, never be reached. According to the AFL Players’ Association, the average career length today is about six years. This means that while the capacity to earn big money is real (the average salary in 2013 was $265,179), most players don’t even come close to this.

Many people don’t feel much sympathy regarding the difficulties that current and former players face. And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t either. They are paid well, adored by millions, and get to kick a ball for a living. But there is another side to the glamour.

Like millions of people, I’ve been listening to Serial, the latest podcast from the team behind This American Life. It examines the story of a young man convicted of murdering his former girlfriend – a crime he may or may not have committed – and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. In episode nine, the narrator explains why Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer, hasn’t found prison too difficult. “He [Syed] pointed out to me that he’d never been independent anyway. First a ward of his parents, then a ward of the state.” 

While the life of an AFL footballer is largely incomparable to that of someone serving a life sentence, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Syed and the young men drafted into the AFL. As with Syed, footballers can become institutionalised, whereby a lack of individuality and independence mean that you crave the routine, the systems, the guidance. Many commentators argue that the removal of elite sports’ structure explains why many retired players struggle to transition from athlete to non-athlete. 

Chris Judd once called the land of professional Australian football “make-believe”. It’s hard to disagree. Clubs, including coaches, football managers, leadership groups and player welfare managers, control almost all aspects of a young player’s life. It is true, there are almost more staff dedicated to improving players than there are players themselves. To many, the football industry is run by people trying to justify their jobs. 

This leads to a situation where players don’t have to think. They have themselves and the game to concentrate on, and almost everything else is taken care of. Every morning, players are asked how they slept, how they ate, about their stress levels, their hydration levels, their soreness levels. They are reminded of when to go to their weights session, their training session, their public appearance. Their life revolves around the club, and their entire sense of self is inextricably linked to their status as an athlete. The obligation imposed on them to their club and their teammates is overwhelming. 

Football is both a job and not a job. Technically, it is. You do it, you get paid, you pay tax on that salary. But it’s also more than a job. It’s even more than a lifestyle; it is your life. Every waking moment is somehow linked to your career and, more specifically, to your body. 

A former teammate once said that to be a good footballer, you don’t make sacrifices, you make choices. His point was that making sacrifices was just part of being a footballer. If you don’t want to make these decisions, if they’re too hard, don’t do it. Many people in my club seized upon this statement as the kind of attitude all players should have. But I couldn’t. To me, they were sacrifices. In my nine years as a professional athlete, I missed countless birthdays, births and weddings, as well as my adolescence. My two youngest sisters were little girls of 10 and 12 when I moved to Sydney. When I returned, nine years later, they were young, strong women and I didn’t know them. Without question, I’d made sacrifices. 

But more than the personal sacrifices, you make life sacrifices, without even realising it. The average six-year career will generally take a young man from 18 through to about 24. While most of their friends have travelled, completed a trade or a degree, and had five or six years of work and life experience, the average footballer belatedly enters the real world, often completely ill-equipped. 

In these six years, few clubs provide legitimate opportunities for players to pursue other education or employment interests (though I hear it’s improving). “They’re here to play footy,” is the most common counterargument to the idea that clubs have an obligation to prepare their players for retirement. Earlier this year, St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt told the AFL Commission that, anecdotally, only one in four of his former teammates had found satisfaction in retirement due to a lack of personal and professional development while playing. There are many privileges to being an AFL footballer, but they are short-lived and often short-sighted. 

This week, young men will be travelling across the country to begin their long-dreamed-of careers. They will be nervous and excited, scared and homesick. They will be judged by their new peers, their new coaches, and by complete strangers. They will make good money and live the life of a celebrity, and they will be tired, run-down and sore. They will live a life that is judged to higher standards than most, yet will live a life of prolonged youth and extreme privilege. Thousands of young men would, in an instant, trade their current existence for this life. 

Most elite footballers, however, will not reach the heights they’d hoped for or attain the career they dreamed of. When their expectations are not met, life can quickly become lonely and disappointing. The AFL may be an institution that lives on promises, but for many, it delivers few.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Caught in the draft".

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Luke Ablett played 133 games with Sydney Swans from 2002-2009, including the 2005 premiership.