Paul Salmon and Craig Bradley are rarities in AFL football. They have played on until their late thirties. Most players retire much earlier, their bodies and capacity to endure the physical punishment of games, year in and year, out forcing them to give the game away. We may well ask why players do not endure longer. When you look at the most recent draft some answers spring to mind. These answers also raise the issue of the future supply of young players to the AFL competition.
Western Australia this year had only one player who was chosen in the draft. He was highly regarded and was snapped up at Number 2. Where were all the others? Why can W.A produce only one player the recruiters think is worthy of picking up? What do they consider is the state of the game in WA which renders its young players unworthy of selection? And what should be done to overcome the problem?
I propose raising the draft age to 19. In other words, no player can be drafted until he reaches his nineteenth birthday. The reason for this is that at seventeen/eighteen young players are physically not mature enough to be thrust into the hurly burly and physical demands of both games and training. Too many injuries occur to young players too early in their careers when their bodies are still growing. Too many players retire too young as a result of starting too young.
Emotionally, too, seventeen/eighteen is too young for a draftee to leave his parents and friends. WA is a long way from the other centres of Australian football. It's a big wrench for a young lad to suddenly be thrust into the strangeness of an interstate city without emotional support. Clubs may be doing more these days to help the transition, but it is emotional support which is crucial to maturity. You don't have to look far to see even experienced players wishing to return to their home states to further their careers.
If the draft age was increased to nineteen, the WAFL competition in WA would become stronger because there would be more players to choose from. Currently, anyone drafted from WA tends to be drafted from the Colts (U18), with the result that the public in general have never seen them play. More young players would probably be considered for the draft.
In terms of the development of young players, there are some striking anomolies which need fixing. For example, the Colts competition in WA receives only $180,000 to $200,000 for development, whereas in Melbourne, the equivalent competition receives $2 million. The AFL administrators are unlikely to address the issue because they say they are strapped for money.
My response to this is get the Players' Association on-side, given that they are the ones who benefit most from the game in terms of recognition and especially money. Why not get the Players' Association to donate 5% of the Clubs' Salary Cap to a central body for the development of young players in competitions ranging from 16 year-olds to senior ranks? Then we might see some real development spread widely throughout the land (including country areas which have been denuded of support) instead of only the metropolitan areas.
If the AFL is interested in player development this would only enhance the programs they have in place, given that most development programs are short of funds.
Are the players interested in the future of the game? Maybe they should reflect on their younger years in football remembering the amount of work their parents did for them and, in particular, the volunteers of their club. People running those clubs raised money simply for their club's survival. Many clubs also folded - which effectively makes those who eventually become AFL players even more indebted to their supporters.
I believe both these items ( draft and development ) are of the utmost importance for the future of our game, which we would all say is "The Greatest Game of All".