Far from offering thoughtful insight into the venerated career of Richmond full-forward Jack Riewoldt, his new memoir, The Bright Side, is a dull cover letter for future employment. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Jack Riewoldt’s The Bright Side
Ladies and gentlemen… it’s Jack Riewoldt, AFL legend. Recently retired after 347 games and 787 goals. There was just one club for our Jack, the Richmond Tigers, but with them came three Coleman Medals, three All-Australian selections, and three premierships.
In his 17 seasons, Riewoldt’s cheek and self-possession made him a pantomime villain. But he long resented public perceptions that he was selfish and self-absorbed. “It’s a real-life Truman Show really, when for two hours on the weekend [the fan] believes things about players, purely off the fact about the way they work or act in a highly emotive, combative game,” Riewoldt tells The Saturday Paper.
“You make all these assumptions off just this tiny bit of a week, like it’s literally two-and-a-half hours of a whole week. And all of a sudden people make up judgement on you. And some of it’s fair. But a lot of the time we peddle theories, and things are peddled about players that aren’t a true representation of who they are.”
It’s interesting, no? The way a man’s character might be both imagined and then publicly lampooned? But in Jack Riewoldt’s new memoir, The Bright Side, there’s no serious commitment to thinking through these things. He’s got an eye on what comes next.
After finishing an athlete’s ghost-written memoir, I often experience the sensation of having been mugged. In whose benefit was this jumble of anecdotes and old match scores committed to paper? Not mine, that’s for sure. And probably not the average reader’s either.
What would a media manager call this book? Brand consolidation? Perhaps. Certainly, it’s ideal timing: The Bright Side was published, on November 1, just two-and-a-half-months after Riewoldt announced his retirement. And if it might seem to you like poor manners to badmouth a man’s book, then it seems to me worse manners to pretend to you that quality has been preferred over this book’s timeliness – or that it doesn’t appear as a lengthy and privileged cover letter for future employment.
Jack Riewoldt tells me he shares plenty of traits with his old teammate Dustin Martin, but you can be sure that a reflex to describe his sporting career and club’s history as a “journey” is not one of them, nor a fondness for “working in the leadership space”.
The once great rebel, larrikin and passionate showman – whose memoir is fond of reminding us that he always said what he meant – is now pivoting to a public life post-footy, and has produced an insipid and hypercautious book to help secure it.
Is this hypocrisy? Or just maturity? If so, maturity makes for a terrible memoir. Here it becomes a tactical avoidance of substance, shrewdly committed in the name of Jack’s brand. We read of his idyllic childhood in Hobart, raised by two loving parents, both teachers and each of them once gifted athletes. We learn that Jack loved soccer above all and dreamed of becoming the next Harry Kewell. That he went to Bellerive Oval and sought signatures from the cricketers; that he privately idolised his older cousin, the St Kilda star Nick Riewoldt.
We read that he never lacked confidence, or love, and that many along “his journey” considered him obnoxious. We read, repeatedly, of his frustrations with being misunderstood, while also reading that he shared the mobile phone number of one critical footy commentator with several friends, along with the encouragement to publish it online. Cheeky.
We read of a demoralised Richmond Football Club when he’s drafted in 2006, as we read his gentle criticism of then coach Terry Wallace, under whom some players “were victims of culture”. We learn of his distaste for “leadership guru” Gerard Murphy, recruited from Geelong and who instituted a program of intense – Riewoldt says destructive – peer feedback. To his credit, he admits that under the program he could be defensive about others’ criticism, and vindictive in his provision of it.
And then, in 2016, he received a call from Gerard Whateley at Fox Footy. Would he replace Bob Murphy as Tuesday night’s recurring player guest? Well, of course he would. “It felt like the perfect forum for me to correct the record, to explain myself – to show people I was more than a heart on a sleeve, a grin after a goal or a pout after a loss,” he writes. “The way the role was described to me, the more it felt like a chance to offer perspective and nuance, and to remove myself from the vicious cycle of one-liners and hot takes.”
A recurring theme in Riewoldt’s book – and a justified one, in my opinion – is the general parasitism, shallowness and hot, reactive stupidity of the footy press. Which is not unusual for a man who once shooed off the paparazzi’s vultures from his cousin’s funeral, or who was once chased down the street by them after a curious media conference.
The latter incident, in 2014, when Riewoldt was 26, occurred after he told reporters that, perhaps, the Tigers were too eager to mimic the playing style of the then supreme Hawthorn. As analysis it wasn’t crazy, but his indiscretion badly insulted his coach and wildly excited a media pack accustomed to artfully unrevealing press conferences. And they wanted more. “Something on this day – my bubbling hatred for the way my intentions and actions were being skewed and amplified and twisted by reporters and commentators and columnists – led to one of the silliest episodes of my career,” he writes in his memoir.
And so the media hung around, and from their panting clutches Riewoldt sought escape. “Once I was done for the day, wearing thongs and a Richmond backpack, I jumped the barbed wire fence at the Richmond station end of the oval, only to look up and see a reporter sitting in his car staring straight at me,” he writes.
“More reporters and camera operators came scooting around the corner, so I ran across Punt Road itself, ducking behind cars, trying to hide. I wasn’t thinking straight at all, and out of desperation decided to run up to the train station. I reached the gates and realised I didn’t have a ticket, and the cameras caught it all, including me shaking my head while I bought a myki card to get through the gates and onto the platforms.”
The “Richmond station incident” is still recalled today by footy folks and media – and even by Riewoldt himself – as a great humiliation for him, but the vast shame should be borne by the media. For one, it should not be thought sane, proportionate or of public interest to chase a panicked young man down the street with camera crews because he expressed an opinion about his team’s strategy. Second, if the media despair at the dull evasiveness of the footy press conference, then chasing a kid down the street and filming him struggle with an invalid train pass is a fucking weird way of discouraging it.
Therefore, one isn’t surprised to read the following in Riewoldt’s book: “Commentators know a few things, but they don’t know everything, and they don’t know half the things they say they do. We like to say that footy is an opinions game. It’s often a guessing game, too.”
Or this: “I was now deep into my career – a full decade, in fact – and my disdain for the media was well known. I found too many reporters predictable and tedious, too many columnists reactive and misleading, and too many commentators foolish and false.”
Fair enough, but for a book that often resembles the most deliberately soporific post-match press conference, it’s also unsurprising to later read this bit of crafted peacemaking from our media man: “Working in the media has given me a great appreciation of how the relationship between the clubs, the AFL and the media works,” he writes. “How reporters aren’t some homogenous mob out to get players. How no one would know anything about the game and how the players wouldn’t be paid well or watched by millions without coverage. How players and journalists are in a symbiotic relationship, reliant on one another to survive and thrive.”
Symbiotic is right and Riewoldt’s not dumb: he understands he’s on the other side now. There are not many media bucks to be had for a one-time footy rebel who keeps his middle finger up in retirement. When I suggest to Riewoldt the “Richmond station incident” was a matter of pronounced triviality, and any shame it generated should be borne by the people who chased him down the street, he responds with the same bloodless equivocation that characterises his book: “I think there’s responsibility from everyone, certainly on myself,” he says.
“Clearly there’s a strained relationship at certain times between players and media, just for the fact that, I mean, it’s not all beer and skittles, like there is things that have to be reported on at certain points of time that players aren’t going to like, or clubs aren’t going to like. And that’s just the nature of journalism, I suppose.
“It’s what gets reads or what gets clicks these days. I think there’s probably a middle ground there, and all parties probably need to accept some responsibility and start to move their way to that sort of central point where we get a great product on the weekend because it’s covered well, it’s played well and then it’s reviewed well.”
It sounds like Riewoldt’s interviewing for AFL chief executive here and I shivered slightly at hearing the game described as a “product”. Which of course it is, but then so too is The Bright Side.
Is this any surprise? The book’s very title suggests the crafted inanity within. In 2017, after Richmond’s first flag in its recent dynasty, Riewoldt jumped onstage with his favourite band The Killers and helped sing their mega-hit “Mr. Brightside”. A very nice moment for him, to be sure, but a weirdly frivolous source of inspiration for your memoir’s title.
Folks loved to hate Jack, and he struggled with that for a while. Me? I don’t hate him, only his book, and the expectation that it will be read as something other than a glamorously ticked box. He was a great footy player, and shrewd. And now with this book, he’s shrewdly shown his commitment to the “symbiosis” that once plagued him.
That’s fine. He’s earnt it. But if fans once pretended they knew him, I can’t pretend this ceaseless industry of parboiled, ghost-written memoirs interests me. And in writing this, I suppose I may be announcing my own retirement from ever receiving them again.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Peddling fast".
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