Human cost of AFL purge

John White (right) has called for an independent inquiry into community football and netball. Pictures: STEWART CHAMBERS/SUPPLIED

By Russell Bennett

Since being unceremoniously dumped as an AFL Gippsland commissioner last week, John White has urged those throughout the region to recognise the human impact of the stunning development.

He said he’s been “horribly affected” personally by the ordeal, and has had real trouble sleeping.

“Without exaggerating, I spent one third of my day, every day directly involved with football and netball,” he explained.

“In my case, I’m passionate about operations within football and ensuring rules and processes are being followed.

“The life of a commissioner is hard work because you’re emotionally attached to football, but you have to disconnect on a smaller level so you can see the big picture.

“Where you have relationships with clubs and people, they simply have to become secondary to the decisions you make in the best interests of the whole.

“At the end of the day, a lot of people don’t like this – but hopefully they respect it.

“Yes, there’s a lot of personal animosity and friction that goes on, but beyond all of that we’re there for the same purpose.”

White said part of the reason the commissioners faced occasional animosity from the wider footballing public throughout Gippsland was that they were seen as AFL figureheads.

“They felt we were there representing the AFL, when the truth was we were trying to represent them to the AFL. Our whole focus was on the local region and what was happening,” he said.

“The thing about the commissioners is that, understand they come from clubland, they’re all either ex-players, current umpires, or have been former presidents of competitions, or committee members of clubs. They’ve had a long history in football, not only in this region but across the board.”

White said he expected a continued resistance to Region Administration Centres (RACs) by leagues right across the state “unless AFL Victoria addresses some serious issues”.

“That means they have to really look at their involvement in community football,” he said.

“AFL Victoria doesn’t understand the term ‘grassroots football’, and that’s become apparent to me by their actions of the past week.”

Moving forward, White is adamant that a divisional football model – of some kind – “is the only way some clubs will survive”.

“We’ve been in discussion with the Gippsland League, looking at a conferencing system where we invite a couple more powerful clubs in and set up a conferencing system which allows for Group A and Group B, that sort of thing,” he explained.

“In the context of other areas, there are solid foundations now where it could be divisionalised too – look at Ellinbank and Alberton, for example.

“If that happens, whoever is in charge will have to incorporate West Gippsland because West Gippy and Ellinbank, in proximity to each other, offers a really good opportunity to do that.

“We know Wonthaggi isn’t comfortable in the Gippsland League and is looking for a way out, and on the other side of it we have to consider the urban growth from Pakenham heading out is putting pressure on local football as well.

“There’s no doubt the south east will become part of West Gippsland, or in fact – reverse that. West Gippsland will likely become part of the south east.

“I like the thought of divisional football on the basis that you create some equality in the divisions to start with, and then you allow it to grow and develop organically.

“You’ll find it’ll plateau to a point within a particular division, so you can give clubs the option of whether they want to accelerate up, or stay down, until there’s some stability in the quality of the competitions.”

The Gazette has received a copy of a letter that White has drafted to state Sport Minister Martin Pakula, in which he calls for the Keysborough MP to appoint an independent body to carry out an inquiry into the relationship between AFL Victoria, and the support for community football and netball throughout the state.

“It is my view, and that of many other commissioners (as discussed at a recent conference conducted at Crown Casino involving commissioners from around the state), that the environment has changed dramatically and a new approach is needed to deliver a more forward-looking set of strategies to support community football,” the letter reads.

“Minister, this letter is not about sour grapes; this letter is about truly supporting the ‘grassroots’ of football by an organisation that generated a $50.4 million profit in 2018 (refer to their annual report). It is also about having AFL Victoria acknowledging their shortcomings outside of the Docklands stadium.

“I call on you to seek opinions from those who labour each and every day with the struggle of ‘holding together’ their communities and clubs.”

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