Just how much responsibility does the AFL have concerning the wellbeing of its players?
The recent situation concerning Majak Daw that has reportedly left the emerging star of the game with fractures to either his hip or pelvis has effectively ended his 2019 season, and perhaps his career, but the ramifications of the incident are far more concerning than just how many games he will miss.
Had Daw landed differently, we could be sitting here today reading about and discussing an absolute tragedy. As it stands, he is in hospital, but alive.
Daw has faced intense scrutiny during his time in the AFL. The first Sudanese player to pull the boots on in the league, Daw stood out immediately. Whilst we preach equality, the fact that Daw was different could not be denied, and whilst we celebrated his achievement as a step forward for multiculturalism in our game, the celebration itself cast a spotlight on Daw that others simply did not have.
In the name of equality, we treated Majak Daw differently. Its strange, but true. The intentions were pure, but as a result, he was probably spoken about more than was warranted.
He became a source of ridicule to some, with several taking great delight in pointing out his failures and missteps during his early years in the game. He lacked a bit of poise, and was guilty of not reading the play as well as he could’ve. I watched. I saw.
But in 2018, Brad Scott moved Daw into defence, and things started to click. En route to establishing himself as a defender, Daw started to have a big impact on contests. The old saying that “big men take time” was kind of bypassed when it came to Majak. He did take time, but my guess is that North supporters thought his 2018 was worth the wait.
At 27 years old, Daw was finally developing into the player North Melbourne wanted him to be. He was crashing packs, and opposition players. His hit on Jordan Lewis early in the season brought the crowd to its feet, and sent Lewis to the turf hard. Majak Daw seemingly had a footballer’s brain catch up with a footballer’s body last season. Things just started going well for him. The strides he took in 2018, highlighted in a spectacular clash with Sydney’s Aliir Aliir, made headlines for all the right reasons.
As we headed into 2019, Daw was rated as ‘elite’ at his position by Champion Data. For all intents and purposes, things appeared to be on the up for Daw, and by proxy, the Kangaroos.
But mental health can be fleeting.
As expected, mental health advocate, and founder of Puka Up, Wayne Schwass, came out swinging against the AFL. In a tweet this morning, Schwass implored the AFL to take the matter of mental health more seriously.
Schwass knows first-hand what it’s like to battle mental health demons, having dealt with them for much of his adult life, but I find it difficult to believe that the AFL, and clubs are not already well aware of the effects of mental health. I also find it hard to believe that they’re not already doing something to combat the effects. But are they doing enough?
I work in an industry where clinical supervision is something most staff utilise at some point or another. My workplace has an Employee Assistance Program – an anonymous service that staff can access to aid them in dealing with work or personal matters. Either on the phone, or in person if you prefer, you can engage a qualified professional to help you deal with matters that may be troubling you. If the AFL or the individual clubs have something like this, at what point does their duty of care cease?
My experience tells me that other than monitoring someone day and night, there is no real way to be sure that someone is “OK”. The fact is that some people are just incredibly good at faking it. We’ve all seen the clip from When Harry Met Sally, right? Hell, I wouldn’t have known if Meg Ryan was faking. I would’ve been pretty impressed with myself had I got that kind of reaction from her. Some people are actors, and can convince you they’re being sincere, even to their own detriment. Sometimes you take them at their word.
I’ve known people who are high-functioning professionals, seemingly on top of their game in regards to performance and self-care, yet they’ve fallen in a heap and had a breakdown at points where their resolve has simply failed. These people didn’t access the services that were available to them, and didn’t seek help. They were there, and they were aware of them – they just didn’t. When I’ve looked at it objectively, I have wondered what else my workplace could’ve done to help them?
And in the case of Majak Daw, I’m wondering where the line is for football clubs, and the league in general?
The AFL comes with a set of pressures I’ll never experience. These men, and now women, ply their trade in front of tens of thousands of people every week. Their every move on the field is scrutinised and picked apart. There are entire TV channels, radio shows and websites such as this that are here entirely to discuss, analyse and report on their performances.
They are put up on a pedestal when things go right, and summarily knocked off when a mistake occurs. It must be harrowing to have everything you do in a professional sense covered to the point of saturation. It must weigh heavily on your mind to know that not only did you make a mistake that cost those who are relying on you, but also that everyone is aware of it, and everyone is talking about it.
If the AFL or clubs themselves are not working through these issues with players, they bloody well should be! And if they are, the conversation now turns to what else they can be doing.
As if that’s not enough, the pressure at a football club does not come just from the outside. Internally, spots are up for grabs on a weekly basis. As the pre-season kicks into gear, imagine coming off a foot operation and having to sit on the sidelines rehabbing as a different player starts to excel in a role for the team. Now imagine it’s your role he’s excelling in…
It might be enough to make you a little anxious.
Majak Daw’s reasons for feeling he way he did prior to this incident are his, and his alone. If they never come out, that’s fine, but what is important right now is that there is a young man who is still with us, and still has the opportunity to get well.
Whether the AFL, North Melbourne, or any other club out there is doing what they’re required to do to aid their players is a moot point. If we could be doing more, we should be doing more.
To Majak, I wish him all the absolute best in a speedy recovery. My hope is that his future is filled with joy, whether that be as part of the AFL or not. I hope that the realisation that the end was so close is enough to highlight that which he would’ve missed.
To his family, friends, and supporters, this is not a terrible thing. It’s bad, but it could’ve been so much worse. You still have a young man in your lives, and he still has you in his. Make it worth living.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636