By Seven Hours Behind
Trade week. Silly season. Whatever it's to be called it's the peculiar time of year. Media reporting reaches its lowest standards given anything is printable. The AFL even has 'trade week radio'; they're surely no longer able to take the moral high ground on player welfare during the horse-trading anymore. The science is pretty inexact: are picks in the 50's far more valuable than picks in the 60's? In a way one could be justified in feeling it's all academic: it takes 3-5 years to judge whether most trades and draft picks are worthwhile, by which time all the scouts and advisers have since moved clubs in the great merry-go-round of the AFL industry.
This year Fremantle had the jewel in the crown so to speak, or at the very least the most accomplished AFL player in the mix. While I'm personally undecided about the outcome of his situation, it has raised some interesting questions about player power, club power and (as always) the role of the agent. The usual caveat is required. I like Chris Tarrant: I've never met the guy but he seems nice enough and I thought he gave a good account of himself in his four years for the club. Things didn't start well but he toughed it out, took on the challenge of a new position and became a key defender. The argument in this blog is not solely about his actions per se but the machinery around him.
Firstly, our club's perspective. In 2006 Fremantle gave up Paul Medhurst - a proven AFL small forward with 50-goal seasons to his name - and (it's often forgotten) draft pick 8 (that's right, 8!) used by Collingwood to collect one Ben Reid. That Reid is a tall, big bodied defender and now a premiership player in his early twenties is noteworthy. Collingwood thus traded hard (as they always do) and offered up a previous All-Australian forward who was no longer even key forward potential. In hindsight we shouldn't be surprised: Collingwood wouldn't have traded him were he not past his best in the position he played all his career (the Gold Coast should be duly warned with Josh Fraser). Fremantle had by all accounts offered something in the region of $350,000-450,000 per season and thus were obliged to make something out of him, which we did. Credit to player and coaching staff alike.
Secondly, Collingwood's perspective. They had the brief difficulty of parting with a widely popular player amongst the Magpie fan-base, but took a small forward in Medhurst which they used to good effect. It allowed Leon Davis and Alan Didak to roam further up the ground and become more typical playmakers as well as mobile half-forward 'goal-sneaks'. Players with flexibility are always harder to match up on and this small forward trio served Collingwood well for a few years. Reid will no doubt have a solid AFL career and develop into a decent player. Now with four years elapsed, Collingwood respectfully requested Tarrant back to bolster their key defender stocks in a premiership window, because he is a proven player in high demand and they can place him on their veteran list soon. And they wanted him for pick 55 (read: next to nothing). Come again?
As for Tarrant's perspective, he had the ignominy of being marched out of Collingwood - a club he clearly loved - but joined a team in 2006 who also coincidentally appeared to be in a premiership window. He battled injury and criticism to become a key defender and monster opposition forwards week after week. The very best in the game were held to modest performances by Tarrant; the pride he took in defeating opponents with or without reputations was clear. But - and it should be neither over-emphasised or completely forgotten - he was probably one of the five highest paid players at the club the whole time. Pavlich, Sandilands, Farmer (the years he played)... I wouldn't pretend to have spies in payroll but surely Tarrant came next. I'm not one to kick someone for their market value, but I'd venture to say not all (or any) of the other 14 AFL clubs would've offered the money and terms Tarrant got with us at that point of his career in 2006. It seems he was aware of this and was trying (it appeared) to get Fremantle something for his return to Victoria at the end of this season.
Enter Tarrant's agent: Paul Connors. Tarrant had nominated his preferred club of Collingwood, but that wasn't enough. In the middle of trade week Connors came out and effectively said Tarrant would retire if a deal with Collingwood couldn't be done; he would rather live in Melbourne and continue his property development business than go to Carlton or Hawthorn in the national draft. To say that 'intervention' in negotiations was unhelpful is almost being too polite. He is either a reckless agent or had Tarrant's tacit agreement. If it's the latter then the apparent 'goodwill' Tarrant had to help the club wasn't worth much. Either way our field of potential suitors went from three to one. Tarrant's demand (that is to say more than one party wanting him) was gone. Sure, all these positions are known behind negotiation doors but the point stands that Tarrant was still an asset - our asset - in a marketplace dictating terms (perhaps through his agent) in a far from discreet manner. Tarrant might be a wanted man but he isn't Chris Judd at 23. He is Chris Tarrant at 30. Call me old-fashioned or naive to the reality of the media cycle but I expected better from this episode.
Here's a guy who'd probably made up his mind to go mid-season (or at the very latest when he did his foot injury), had the removal trucks ordered and going to Melbourne before our final against Geelong, and then had the gaul to confine our trading options to one club. Is it Tarrant's life to choose what he does? Yes. Do AFL players more generally exist in a perpetual 'restraint of trade' where they're mostly barred from positions of strength like this? Most certainly. But who became the sole loser out of Tarrant, Fremantle and Collingwood? Us. We paid him top dollar for four years, we resurrected his career and now we are left with a cluster of pick swaps well below Tarrant's worth. I can't hate Tarrant, he works in a system where he's viewed with a limited shelf-life. I could hate Collingwood, but more for the suite of disproportionate advantages that the AFL system allows them. I wouldn't hate Chris Connolly or our trade-brokers for the 2006 deal that got him on such big money: clubs almost always overpay for established players. For me this is a malaise at the feet of the agents.
My favourite moment for the public humiliation of sports agents came on the David Letterman show in the US some years ago. The agent responsible for Derek Jeter's record deal (some USD60.4 million if you don't mind) to play for the New York Yankees was being interviewed, and talked about his passion for 'the deal'. He was short, kind of bald, and that unusually confident dweeb who probably didn't have many girlfriends in high school. He was throwing his hands around, talking about how he was driven to get the very best deal for his clients (as though the audience would ignore the million of dollars of commissions he had just received). Letterman casually turned to him and said 'so my question is if you're so good at your job, why aren't you out there trying to get a better 'deal' for the teachers and nurses of America..?' The crowd erupted in spontaneous applause, and the agent looked about a foot smaller.
And it's a fair question.
They cry sympathy for the basic wages of the poor kids who never play 50 games: they should leave that to the AFL Players Association. They seek spots like celebrities on weekend radio in Melbourne to give their clientele some publicity; they follow this up with subtle 'club-bashing' statements through the media or give lectures about limited careers for the Ablett's, Judd's and others. All the while they think we don't notice the cut they get from every player on their books: the best to the bottom. It's a business for them, more so than it ever is for the players. The clubs themselves are castigated for letting players go at careers end in an unceremonious manner with little support - and it certainly happens - but the agents truly see this as a meat market. Every head of cattle has its price. It's partly the nature of business and sport but the agent cares little for the long term adoration of supporters and most for the short term dollars of his clients. At least everyone else - player, club official, supporter - can say they derive no added dollar in the trade and exchange of the game's most precious commodity.
Fremantle could have played hard ball, but Port Adelaide's bluff was called some years ago with Nick Stevens walking to Carlton for nothing as a free agent. The sky won't fall in but it doesn't mean it still isn't really annoying when your club gets the short straw. I respect Tarrant's 'personal reasons' argument but with the amount that footballers from other states pull the 'go home' card these days one wonders if it's a national competition after all? Tarrant - and all the others who've done similar - are professional athletes at the end of the day on salaries many times the average wage in Australia; working in another state is surely part of the deal. Pavlich has never said he'd spend the rest of his life in WA but he accepts this is where his gainful income lies in his football years; relocating to South Australia can be done post-career. You go where you get a shot at your AFL dream. The young draftee's hungry for any chance seem to have no problem with this.
The wider conclusion from the Tarrant 're-trade' seems to be there are two types of AFL players: (1) the precious few who will always have a market value and can dictate terms to some extent (Tarrant, Judd a few years back); and (2) those just trying to find a football club and keep their head above water (every other player in the trade week). I have broad support for the first category so they can maximise their time in the game and unconditional sympathy for the second category. For the venal agents who manage both and plead inconsistent arguments depending on what suits the moment, I have neither.