Before the ill-conceived and universally mocked AFLX was humanely destroyed the geniuses in marketing had one last bright idea.
At this year’s final ignominious outing players were encouraged to leave their team tracksuits at home and arrive in outfits that “reflected their personalities”.
This was an attempted homage to American sport where the entrance to the change rooms can resemble a catwalk as players strut into the sheds sporting designer fashion and outrageous accessories.
Inevitably the outfits some AFLX players chose no more reflected their own relatively mundane everyday existence than the soulless modified game format reflected the fiercely contested nature of real Australian Rules football.
Alex Rance’s white suit, Eddie Betts’ pink coat and giant headphones and the other tawdry attempts at match-day chic looked more like a first fitting for Mad Monday than anything you would find on the pegs in an NBA locker room.
But if this ham-fisted attempt at globalisation — both the game and the pre-game clobber — only heightened the feeling of Little AFL, there was something telling about the failed tribute to American athletes.
The AFL, once the runaway leader in Australian sports administration, has been adroit at identifying competitors and adopting trends.
In this case the AFL considered how large the image of the prototypical NBA star now loomed in the minds of young fans hooked on that league through both the game and the virtual experience of the colossally successful NBA2K video game.
So, the AFLX marketing gurus figured, let’s turn our players into mock versions of these mega-rich, ultra-cool, social media savvy global icons and compete for the affection of kids who identify with this new sporting hero far more than with the humble local footy star.
And then a real NBA superstar arrived in Australia — back in Australia, actually — and we found out how far some people are from fully embracing and, particularly, understanding the persona of the athletes they sought to mimic.
The treatment of Ben Simmons during his ambassadorial tour has been widely discussed, particularly since the Philadelphia 76ers star was initially denied entry to Melbourne’s Crown Casino.
Was this racial profiling as Simmons initially hinted? Or an entitled superstar failing to follow the protocols expected of everyone else as the Casino suggested?
Either way, Simmons became a lightning rod for criticism about allegedly cold-shouldering fans and — let’s get to the nub of this — for not being pitifully grateful to the usual parade of local media mouthpieces and ceremonial hand shakers who turned up to greet him during his Victorian Government-sponsored visit.
But perhaps the most pertinent reason for Simmons’ rough treatment by the Australian media was not his behaviour or attitude.
It was the gross underestimation of the layers beneath the fancy clothes NBA players, and other high profile international athletes, wear.
The same members of the local jockocracy who criticised Simmons for his supposedly aloof nature go weak at the knees when they talk about the superstars of the NBA in a distant, hypothetical sense.
They gush about the game-day access these players allow, how they display their real personalities, how “outspoken they are” and all the other aspects that distinguish these hugely paid performers from the notionally more “humble”, “introspective”, “team oriented” (and all the other euphemisms for boring you can think of) local Aussie footy champs.
What those looking from afar don’t appreciate is that the freedom of expression granted to American athletes is not usually limited to wearing a fancy hat or having snake around their shoulders when they walk into the sheds.
It gives them entree to areas of social consciousness and commentary that are considered taboo in Australia and also into a sphere of recognition and visibility that means they must sometimes retreat into a protective cocoon if they are to live any sort of life.
Speaking out spoils the party for sports stars
In that regard, it’s not a big stretch to equate the treatment of Simmons for merely suggesting he had been racially profiled with that of Adam Goodes who was howled down the moment he parlayed his football achievements into a platform to talk about the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians.
We welcomed Simmons the nine-figure contract holding, one-time Kardashian dating, Aussie flag-flying global superstar with outstretched arms.
We flinched when the same man uttered more than appreciative clichés, failed to perform in the choreographed media-opportunity manner expected of the “good Aussie athlete” or made a hasty exit from a function during a relentless schedule.
Inevitably some seized upon Simmons’ alleged transgressions to perpetuate the stereotype of the rich ungrateful athlete who had little time for fans supposedly “forced” to pay for autographs, regardless of his less publicised philanthropic endeavours.
But, more pertinently, Simmons’ appearance said more about Australia’s lack of preparedness to fully embrace athletes who act or speak in ways that don’t always make us feel comfortable and secure or fit our behavioural norms.
This does not mean you have to fully accept the notion of the “individual athlete in a team sport” entrenched elsewhere. You don’t have to agree Australian sport would be better without its team-first ethos — even if we continue to adopt draft/trading models that run counter to the local ideal.
But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t laud American sport for creating larger-than-life characters and praise from afar their charisma and outspoken nature, then flinch when we find their attitude is not infused with the homegrown humility we demand.