How much of a life should AFL players -- and professional athletes more broadly, for that matter -- be able to enjoy outside of their chosen sport?
It's a debate that has again resurfaced after Ollie Wines' shoulder injury, which occurred while he was water skiing and looks set to cost him a large chunk of the remainder of his preseason, with at least one or two early-season games at risk for Port's likely next captain.
Injuries are a fact of life in professional sports, especially one as demanding as football. But when they occur outside of the crash-and-bash of a game, or during the almost year-round training schedule, many are quick to point the finger.
This week former Port champion Kane Cornes -- not shy to voice his opinion -- took aim at Wines' lack of professionalism. Cornes said Wines made a "terrible mistake," had "let his team down badly" and that it was "an embarrassing situation for the club's highest paid player".
Essendon legend Kevin Sheedy also questioned Wines' choice of off-field activities, drawing an analogy that it was unlikely someone like Roger Federer would be water skiing months before an Australian Open.
Many, however, disagreed with Cornes, Sheedy and Co. most notably AFL Players' Association president and Geelong star Patrick Dangerfield, who said: "It's ironic given some of the people that have criticised Ollie - I'd love to see what their extra-curricular activities were like when they were playing. You've still got to be able to have fun, go out and do the things we love doing. If you lose that within the game then we become robots."
I'm in Dangerfield's camp - within reason. For me, it's important players have an escape from the AFL bubble, and if that includes potentially risky activities like surfing or skateboarding, or, yes, water skiing, then so be it. Players have to have a life outside footy. Some study, some dabble in business, but every player needs to find an outlet.
Dealing with the all-encompassing pressure of being a professional footballer isn't easy. Yes, the perks are fantastic -- getting to live your dream while getting handsomely rewarded certainly beats most 9-5, Monday-Friday desk jobs -- but the pressure never leaves you, even in the so-called off-season. I say so-called because it's always really hard to totally switch off.
I remember having regular conversations with our coaching and sport science teams to map out my off-season plans - it's not really time off as you're constantly thinking about training, you're doing your own intense fitness program and you're doing all the one percenters to try to get a jump on your opponents for the next year. You're never really totally switching off. But having a mental escape is vital - you can see how important that is across all industries, not just sports. You have to be able to cope with the mental side of whatever you're working in and having a balance is critical.
Having that outlet also helps footy players to get to know themselves outside of the AFL bubble - there are so many players who retire and they don't really know themselves outside of their AFL persona.
However, all this comes with a caveat. A big one. As professional athletes, footballers need to find a way to minimise the risks of their activities outside of footy.
My releases were swimming at the beach or golf - pretty gentile activities but even any rounds of golf I could squeeze in were managed to the point of getting instructed to take an electronic cart around instead of walking because the sports science gurus didn't want me to be fatigued for the next session. But everyone's different; almost every offseason, Adam Goodes used to play cricket back in Horsham (he was a pretty quick opening bowler) while Isaac Heeney loves spear fishing (despite John Longmire always trying to put him off by saying stuff like 'I've heard there's been a few shark attacks around' or 'we can't have you thinking you're Bear Grylls all the time').
Clubs will do everything in their power to minimise any possible injuries to their players, and rightly so. I remember at the Swans, we used to have discussions with coaches and staff before every break, whether it be pre-season or if you had a few extra days off for a bye. We were always told "you're a 24/7 footballer - you're still representing us even if you're on a break."
And there's the fact that 'extreme sports clauses' are generally written into standard player contracts to prevent players from doing anything too risky away from the club. I dug up an old contract of mine recently and the exact wording is: "[A player can] not engage in any dangerous or hazardous activity, including but not limited to trail bike riding, professional boxing or wrestling, soccer, grid iron, karate, judo, hang gliding, parachuting, or bungee jumping, which, in the reasonable opinion of the AFL Club, may affect the player's ability to perform his obligations under this contract, without first obtaining the consent of the AFL Club, which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld."
So it's a delicate balancing act, for sure. Players need an outlet away from the game but the clubs need a way to mitigate any potential risks at times the players are enjoying some downtime.
It's also worth remembering the simple fact that accidents happen - some former teammates of mine have missed time after standing on sea urchins, others have required surgery from simply stepping out of a taxi awkwardly on the gutter, some have fallen off mopeds (or bars) while on holiday overseas. Then there was one night I tripped over our old German shepherd, carrying our newborn at the time - I had to take the brunt of the fall on my back and shoulder area to protect her. The following day, I had to get my shoulder checked out by the club doctor ... sheepishly I might add.
Footy players are human, and all humans make mistakes!
We also can't forget the fact AFL players are physically active young men - they can't be wrapped in cotton wool. These are men in the prime of their lives, generally with high disposable incomes - if they were banned from any sort of physical activities away from the footy field, then the risks of them getting involved with far riskier behaviour such as gambling, drinking or worse, would only rise.
It's a classic risk vs. reward situation. But the bigger risk would be looking to ban these young men from finding an outlet outside of footy.