Football (AFL) Nepotism

In the AFL there is a rule called the Father Son rule which has been around for a long time. This has allowed for players such as Tom Hawkins and Matthew Scarlet to come to clubs like Geelong for free in drafts where they otherwise would have gone much higher. The rule has been tweaked now so that clubs have to bid for players, so if a player is particularly great there is some compensation and lost draft picks – using the Tom Hawkins example, a club would have to say they were going to take Tom Hawkins first, and then Geelong would now have to act like they had the first draft pick and give up a whole bunch of picks to use their father son rights to get him. Confused? It is confusing (and what is the point of governing bodies other than to make things harder to follow?). But they could still get him in a context where any other player of the same talent they could not, purely because his dad played for Geelong back in the day. Football nepotism. This is a confusing state of affairs for a league that prides itself on fairness and even competition.

In my view there are issues with drafts in the first place, because we are forcing players onto teams they don’t (necessarily) want to go to and incentivising losing. I understand there is an argument here, and it’s hard to deny the AFL is relatively even competition with all clubs legitimately having the ability to one day win a premiership if they make the right decisions. So given that there is a draft and with the assumption that is here to stay, I will look at the father son rule more closely.

In a tightly controlled league, if there is one thing that is not tightly controlled it has the ability to distort the competition. As it currently stands, the system works to prioritise kids who want to play for the team their father played for. It gives the son a choice, they can activate the father-son rule, or they can not. If there are multiple clubs their father played for (provided he hit the eligibility mark of XX games with that club), they can choose which one they want to be picked by. I am relatively pro this part of it, as it actually gives the players some choice (who wouldn’t choose Hawthorn over Brisbane or the Gold Coast). But leaving that aside, is it an option that makes sense? The AFL has decided that we should not allow players to have choice based on the club they support, the town they grew up, the club with the best chance to win, the club with the best chance to get playing time, the club with the best support structure, the club that doesn’t have a lot of their players going off the rails. These are all elements that a young player is explicitly not allowed to make a choice on.

When you are a great player and you are 18 looking to enter the AFL, if you are lucky you might get a choice (I support choice). But the choice you are given is not based on any of the above factors, that seem to me to be reasonable factors in deciding where you want to spend potentially 10-15 years of your life. Instead, the one choice they might get, is to choose a club that the only connection they have is their dad played for them back in the day. They might not even like their dad – they certainly had no input into where the dad played and whether (20-30 years later) the club their dad played for back then is any good now. So we are banning choice, UNLESS your happen to have a dad that played for a team back in the day, in which case you can choose to go there if you want. Hmmm.

One of the problems here is the distortion of incentives. What on earth are the incentives of the Father Son rule? To pray that any player who plays enough games for your team finds a lovely partner and they happen to have a fertile partnership that results in some able bodied sons? I actually remember a good friend of mine being excited that a great player of their favourite team had produced 4 sons. Pretty absurd that the fertility of players is actually worth following.

The biggest problem this confronts is this nostalgia for “back in the day” times. I have specifically used that term, because it best describes the nostalgia for a time that was actually arse, it’s just that people look backwards with rose coloured glasses because it is nice to be able to do that. That time back then was when the stadiums were terrible, the football was never on TV, and players regularly fought with each other. Sure the biff was kind of funny, but given what we know about head injuries and brain damage, it wasn’t that great. What people always fail to recognise when they look back on these past era’s is that the quality of football was terrible. Guys that were unfit, slow, and relatively unskilled (they often had other jobs). The league has professionalised and it is for the better for everything. (The only thing it is for the worse – well there are many things but this is the main thing – is the clubs no longer feel like a community with all the corporate crap). The father son rule allows people to fantasize that this past was meaningful and related to the current game. It isn’t, it is a long way off and that is fine.

If we are going to keep this “no choice” mode the players, at least go the whole way. Don’t make the only choice based on their genes.