The now former Essendon footballer Conor McKenna is from what AFL recruiters like to call a “non-traditional football background”.
This is the catchphrase for the diminishing number of players who were not identified by private school scouts playing for their local under-12s, awarded scholarships aimed at promoting lavish sports programs then drafted a few months after skolling their first legal drink.
Those who undergo this process are groomed from an early age to adhere to, and publicly advocate, the expectations that come with their apparently privileged and lucrative position.
This includes a relatively strict behavioural code, the contractual obligation to go to the club that picks them rather than one they might favour and a tacit agreement they will become public property subject to the harsh judgement of fans and the constant scrutiny of the media.
This is why McKenna’s uncomfortable experience in the AFL this season and his strident sentiments upon retirement were significant. Occasionally, it is illuminating to see what we have come to take for granted through the eyes of an outsider.
McKenna, a 24-year-old from County Tyrone, Ireland, grew up playing Gaelic football, which is the subject of obsessive media coverage and ferocious fan debate despite not offering the same substantial wages available in the AFL.
So when McKenna came to Australia he was at least partly prepared for the constant thrumming media noise created by the AFL in the heartland states.
Unlike his “traditional pathway” teammates, however, McKenna did not expect to be subjected to the kind of public vilification that occurred when he had the audacity to record what turned out to be a false negative test for COVID-19 in June.
That McKenna’s test led to the postponement of Essendon’s game against Melbourne saw him portrayed as an almost comic book villain in some sections of the media, particularly after it was revealed he had visited his former host family while in quarantine.
McKenna’s advocates believed there was a strong case this visit was valid on compassionate grounds, given his isolation and homesickness.
But he accepted a one-week ban that allowed the AFL to demonstrate it was taking a tough stance on quarantine infringements to the various states with whom it was negotiating about hubs.
Yet even allowing for what was, at worst, a minor infraction and the ongoing concerns for his health, McKenna was subjected to scathing criticism, constant intrusion and false reporting before, and even after, his negative test was revealed.
‘Why would they change?’
Some more obsessive elements of the AFL media, in the now popular guise of the amateur epidemiologist, literally studied the saliva as it came from his nose at a training session.
This experience clearly left the already homesick McKenna rattled and disillusioned; although his beef was not with the right of the media to report on his case but the lack of integrity by a section of it.
“No matter what job you have in life there are always repercussions, but the way the media works in Melbourne there doesn’t seem to be,” McKenna told ABC reporter and Offsiders panellist Catherine Murphy this week.
“There’s just a free-for-all to say whatever you want. If there are no repercussions, they’ll just continue to do that and treat players like a piece of meat.
“If there are no repercussions, why would they change? I think it’s something that the AFL should look at.”
The idea that the AFL might fine journalists for intrusive, unflattering or even misleading reporting is obviously far-fetched.
As much as some reporters like to consider themselves part of the “football industry”, they work for their media companies, not the game.
Then there is the AFL’s complicity. By seeking to dominate every conceivable date on the sports calendar it has encouraged and even driven the frenzied reporting of the competition without apparent consideration of the less fortunate implications for players.
McKenna’s playing brethren were also complicit, with North Melbourne’s Luke McDonald mocking the Irishman’s plight by raising his hands over his face as if wearing a mask, a gesture for which he later apologised.
But McKenna’s parting words still make it worth considering how the proliferation of AFL reporting has contributed to the sometimes-punitive coverage of the stars of the show, and the consequences for their wellbeing.
“The reality of it is I had a deadly disease … but people were more worried about the AFL being put off than my actual life,” McKenna told Murphy.
Significant boundaries now exist between athletes and media created by clubs fiercely guarding their “messages”, some outlets adopting a “get it first even if you don’t get it right” approach and the sheer size of the media itself.
The result has been a steady decline in the amount of meaningful personal contact and a subsequent lack of mutual understanding and empathy. The athlete is that “piece of meat” and the media the predator.
This is not to say there is no place for reasoned and even harsh criticism of those athletes who might compromise an entire season by seriously and wilfully breaching COVID-19 protocols — rather than merely by apparently suffering from COVID-19.
But you can’t help feeling McKenna is making a wise decision to return to Ireland, at least for a time, where his performance for County Tyrone will be fiercely debated but not his very motives.