O’Brien a square peg in footy’s round hole

Tom Heenan and David Dunstan
David Dunstan and Tom Heenan

by Tom Heenan and David Dunstan

In the insular world of AFL ‘Aussie Rules’ football, Collingwood’s Heritier ‘Harry’ O’Brien stands out. Born to a Brazilian father and Congolese mother and raised in Western Australia, he is the league’s first Brazilian-born player. No slouch as a defender, he has been prominent in the club’s best-and-fairest counts. For a game with global and multicultural ambitions one would have thought his role model appeal pure gold.

But, sadly, Harry O’Brien’s days as an AFL player may be numbered. It seems that he doesn’t fit in with the overly stage-managed and carefully scripted public pronouncements required of players by AFL clubs today. His treatment by the game’s elders and dependent media bears some examination, especially when contrasted with that meted out recently to another, seemingly more favoured son.

O’Brien’s sins include speaking out frankly about personal problems and harsh and disturbing experiences of life in places other than Australia.

The press were able to approach this young man without the usually ever-present media-savvy club officials in sight. Freed from officialdom’s protective strait-jacket, O’Brien vented his personal battle with depression and the disturbing experiences that have seemingly triggered it. Was he wise to do so? In retrospect, probably not.

O’Brien’s outburst came on the back of an article by Herald Sun footy writer, Mark ‘Robbo’ Robinson, after the player’s tiff with Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley. O’Brien took time-out in Sydney and, on returning to Melbourne, was met with ‘Robbo’s’ Herald Sun rant about ‘harden[ing]-up’ and not letting his ‘issues…compromise the footy club.’

‘Robbo’ remained unrepentant, declaring on Fox Footy’s AFL 360 that he stood by his story. In doing so, Robinson was stating implicitly that he stood by a culture that valued conformity to the team and club ethos, and loyalty to its brand, over individualistic outbursts such as O’Brien’s or any other considerations.

O’Brien’s pre-training retort won praise from mental health groups and support from his teammates and many commentators. At a press conference, Buckley spoke eloquently of O’Brien’s battle, but warned that like the rest of the club’s staff the player had to realise that Collingwood paid his bills and he, in return, had to fit in with the club’s culture.

The disturbing aspect of the story is how easily and quickly O’Brien was turned into a victim.

Maybe he was becoming too much of an individual for the liking of the code’s marketers and administrators. Hence the ‘poor Harry’ noises.

Harry O’Brien, despite his scintillating runs off half-back and his honest, heartfelt talk is dispensable in the modern, neoliberal sporting environment. It is a world that enshrines conformity not difference. To fully understand its power we need to understand the role of the compliant media.

Harry O’Brien is not one to conform. He is no media-manufactured drone, mouthing quasi-managerial footy-speak in the blokey and worldly culture. He has travelled and spoken on human rights and health issues. He has more worldly experience than most of his compatriots and many of the game’s administrators. More recently, he criticised his club president and footy maestro, Eddie McGuire, for his utterly reprehensible ‘King Kong’ comment. In a work culture that demands loyalty to ‘the playing group’ and ‘the brand’, O’Brien’s brave voice has been a refreshing cut above the media-managed ruck.

The problem for O’Brien, Collingwood and the game’s dependent commercial media is whether ‘footy culture’ can tolerate the difference he represents. Despite the AFL’s weekly parade of stylised community promotions, only the fittest survive at the playing level. Drafts and salary caps attempt to equalise the competition, and clubs and the AFL spin the line of footy’s role in nurturing social and cultural unity. But clubs and the AFL operate in competitive markets for their slices of the media and sponsorship pies, and on-field success and a winning brand are essential ingredients in staking the game’s claim in Australia’s crowded neoliberal football economy.

As with all professional sports, it seems that players, coaches and even administrators must conform and perform or be cut from the system. Nathan Buckley’s terse reminder to O’Brien was that he, like all club staff, still had to pay his dues and the club’s bills. It was a coded caution that the player O’Brien was expendable.

Similarly, Robbo’s rant emphasised to the public that actions adversely impacting the club’s culture would not be tolerated. To paraphrase, Harry has to ‘man-up.’ ‘Robbo’ was simply stating the brutally obvious: once O’Brien’s off-field issues begin to outweigh his on-field ‘hardball gets’, he’ll be cut. Sadly, it’s true. For many Collingwood supporters, Harry’s ‘hard ball gets’ are far more important than his work for UNICEF or the Burnet Institute.

But by the end of the footy week, the Harry O’Brien story was off the back page. One of the game’s serial headliners, Stephen Milne, was back in bold print and in the St Kilda side. Facing rape charges, his inclusion split the community. But St Kilda remained steadfast in its decision to play him against Carlton. He was not just an important part of their side, but the ‘heart and soul of the club’ and innocent until the court ruled otherwise, according to coach Scott Watters and media chorus.

The Milne and O’Brien stories contrasted tell us much about contemporary footy culture and why one is in and the other is out.

Notwithstanding the grave seriousness of the charges levelled against him, Milne is a player who is part of the culture, being a long-serving clubman, champion player and more conventional ‘role model’. He was a problematic figure for a brief period after he was charged, with the club ruling sensitively that he should stand aside for the women’s round. But the next turn of the politically correct wheel of fortune was in his favour and by multicultural round Milne was back, conforming and performing for the club jumper and sponsor’s logo.

Paradoxically, it is the individual Harry O’Brien who is depicted by the football culture as the more problematic proposition.

Though not confronting criminal charges, his actions of the past few weeks suggest Harry may be wearying of footy’s conform and perform regime. Though his on-field performances this season have been to a high standard, O’Brien’s outburst against Buckley and his unauthorised public disclosure of his battle with depression suggest a growing impatience with both the club and the game’s conformity code. If so, his days at the top may be limited.

It is something of a paradox that we have a game that can tolerate an alleged rapist, Stephen Milne, as he is a good clubman, but it may not be able to live with a Harry O’Brien, simply because he is a fine, honest and independent thinking person.

Dr Tom Heenan and Dr David Dunstan lecture in sports studies at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies.

This article originally appeared on Backpagelead.

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