AFL, fans must not overlook players' mental health as resumption nears

AFL players are used to dealing with pressure but as the league gets closer to finalising a plan to resurrect the 2020 season, a different type of pressure has enveloped those who will grace the field when action resumes.

Last week it emerged the AFL was investigating the possibility of 20-week isolation hubs to get its season back on track -- a plan heartily endorsed by the footy-starved public desperate for the action to return in any shape or form.

But when news broke that some players had the audacity to question the idea of spending 20 weeks away from family and friends, many predictably turned on the players.

"Toughen up! You're living the dream -- get on with it!" the masses screamed to anyone who would listen.

- AFL closing in on June return
- Tennis stars slam AFL players' hubs stance

The desire for football to return after this unprecedented and frustrating pause is understandable. Anyone with any affinity with the sport feels the same way. But the public must not forget these athletes -- living many fans' dreams by playing at the top level and being extremely well compensated to do so -- can be affected by the same stresses, anxieties and concerns as the rest of us.

"I'm super torn," Melbourne defender Jake Lever told AFL.com.au this week after the birth of his first child, Jace, 10 weeks ago.

"I want to get back playing footy as soon as possible, and I want everyone to be able to watch footy on TV while in isolation at home, but, on the other hand, I have to look after the health and especially the wellbeing of my family.

"If that's locking them away for a certain amount of time in a hub, you look at that and go: 'Is that going to be the best thing for my family, to be away from me for that period of time?'"

Even one of the toughest and well-respected players of the modern era, three-time Brisbane premiership star Jonathan Brown, revealed he would have been hesitant to commit to a long stint away from home if he was in a similar situation to today's players. Brown's wife Kylie struggled with postnatal depression in 2009 after the birth of their daughter Olivia.

Speaking on Fox Sports, Brown said: "I think we [society] need to have an acceptance if players don't go [into the hubs]. I was thinking today with my situation [in 2009] -- would I go? "I probably would but you'd hope if I said 'No, I can't go, the family is having too many issues' then that would be accepted by the wider community.

"I think we're getting better at accepting guys with mental health reasons taking a break from the game -- this should be no different."

Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley was even more forthright when discussing the issue on SEN Radio.

"It would be incredibly difficult and I don't think it would be the right thing to ask of our people to be honest," he said. "It may well get to the stage where the leadership of the game needs to work out whether getting a season away in 2020 or asking our people to expose themselves to ... the worst case scenario, which one is going to cost us more."

Thankfully it appears the "doomsday scenario" of 20-week isolation hubs won't come to pass, with league chief Gill McLachlan confident the season can resume with either a fly-in, fly-out situation or shorter isolation hubs.

"In the most extreme scenario, in various forms, that's [20 weeks in hubs] an option but clearly in the same framework there's the possibility borders are being open for fly-in, fly-out," he told 3AW.

"If we end up having to be in high performance hubs for a period of time, all the feedback and all the consideration we'll be taken into account and we'll work through it."

McLachlan will have to draw upon his renowned negotiation skills to arrive at a decision that suits as many key stakeholders as possible, as well as of course adhering to health and government guidelines.

The mental health of those involved, including players, must be at the forefront of his decision-making process, although The Age's Caroline Wilson has reported some senior players have scoffed at the AFL's alleged primary focus upon their mental health and wellbeing -- with the priority instead putting money in the bank to insure the future.

But if a small percentage of players baulk at extended time away from home, the industry and fans must be mature enough to accept that. The game will go on, and the vast majority of players will still likely to be involved.

Perhaps now more than ever is an opportune time to understand these athletes -- who often appear superhuman on the field and on our TV screens -- are actually very, very human.