AFL docos would be perfect antidote to coronavirus crisis

 Collingwood's Scott Pendlebury looks dejected after the 2018 AFL Grand Final match between the Magpies and the West Coast Eagles. Photo: Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images
Collingwood's Scott Pendlebury looks dejected after the 2018 AFL Grand Final match between the Magpies and the West Coast Eagles. Photo: Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images

Australian Rules football is a sport with a rich 160-year history and a lengthy catalogue of amazing achievements and memorable moments.

But it hasn't always necessarily been that good at documenting them.

Until the last couple of decades, there had existed a paucity of quality literature surrounding the game.

And when it came to newer mediums such as film and television, still it lagged behind many foreign sports, even a few locally.

It's an imbalance which only gradually has been addressed. But that gap always seems a bit wider whenever quality cultural offerings from other codes are on display.

There's been universal praise over the past week for the just-released The Last Dance, a chronicle of the all-conquering NBA team Chicago Bulls during the 1990s and its stars, the calibre of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.

Indeed, there's been a relative avalanche of tremendous insider-type perspectives on various professional sports flooding the marketplace of late.

All Or Nothing: Manchester City followed the once "noisy neighbours" turned English Premier League behemoth during their successful 2017-18 season.

Sunderland 'Til I Die, in complete contrast, followed the big club from the north as it started life in the Championship after having been relegated from the Premier League.

The disastrous season which ensued, during which the club was again relegated, this time to League One, the third tier of English football, certainly made compelling viewing.

The United Kingdom and the United States are of course running professional competitions on the sort of financial scale by which Australian sport pales in comparison.

But it's not like we're completely incapable of doing something similar.

The Test, for example, followed the Australian cricket team's struggle to regain respect after the disgrace of "Sandpapergate", culminating in that thrilling Ashes battle against England last September.

So what about AFL football? Well, if we're getting there, it's still pretty slowly. One outstanding recent example was Collingwood: From The Inside Out, which followed the Pies through their dramatic 2018 campaign and eventual heartbreaking grand final loss to West Coast.

We saw the likes of coach Nathan Buckley, and players Adam Treloar, Brodie Grundy and veteran Jarryd Blair reveal so much more of themselves than football has been accustomed to seeing.

Former Hawthorn player and filmmaker the late Robert Dickson was something of a pioneer in the pursuit of quality football documentary before his tragic death in 2009.

And his work was succeeded brilliantly by his brother Peter Dickson with series like The Final Story, looking in detail at several memorable grand finals of years gone by, The Final Draw, about the tied 2010 grand final, and two versions of The Chosen Few, which went inside the lives and minds of the AFL's coaches and captains.

All were works of genuine quality, lapped up by fans of the game. Yet there also seemed at times an ambivalence by various TV networks and arguably even the AFL itself about their value, screened in strange timeslots and too often without enough fanfare.

If that has been one obstacle to Australian football creating the same sort of historical legacy fans of big overseas sports routinely enjoy, you can't help but feel sometimes there is another in the sort of "insider bubble" which has existed around the game.

For at least the last 30 years, football media in this country has had often justified gripes about the difficulty of access to the game's key players, coaches, players and officials.

There has been ridiculous levels of paranoia from clubs about giving up what they see as key information, but what has in reality often been useless scraps of trivia which their rivals knew anyway.

You can have far more difficulty organising an interview with an AFL player than you might a global sports star.

And as clubs have developed their own media arms, that access has become even more problematic. It's paranoia which filters through to the players, too.

This week, Hawthorn player Chad Wingard wrote a column for the AFL website in which he waxed lyrical about The Last Dance and the sort of personalities it showcased.

"I loved how the documentary did a great job of humanising the players, while also allowing them to speak their minds," he wrote.

In the same breath, he also noted that "as a player, I would want to have control over what is put out there. (Players) would rather have as much control as they can over their personal image and what they believe in and stand for. We've all got personal brands to look after, no matter who you are".

The contradiction is obvious.

Humanising the players means seeing a full picture, warts and all, the disappointments and frustration which go along with those moments they'd be happy to release for a promotional brochure.

"Looking after a personal brand" doesn't seem to equate with the realities which make good insider sports documentaries such compelling viewing.

The game is capable enough of creating the type of rich cultural and historical legacy that those big American and European sports have as a byword.

But to do so it needs media partners and administrators capable of understanding the importance of that big picture rather than forever dwelling on the next shiny new toy.

And it needs insiders who can recognise that what they call a brand is for most of us at the end of it all still just another game.

This story AFL drops ball as fans miss out first appeared on The Canberra Times.