Western Bulldogs' example for the common good



The best writers on sport show that it is a metaphor for life. Perhaps that is why the triumph of the Western Bulldogs in the AFL Grand Final has been so ruthlessly milked for larger significance that it should now be put out to graze.

Western Bulldogs flags But I would like to exploit it once more because it illustrates the weakness of the liberal politics I discussed last week. To recap, the assumption of liberal politics is that the government should give priority to economic growth through a free competitive market. It identifies the national good with economic growth and effectively defines personal worth by the individual's level of participation in the economy.

It assumes also that all will benefit from the economic growth that unfettered competition between individuals yields.

The joy of the Western Bulldogs victory lay in its challenge to these assumptions. In the first place it was only possible because the clubs had realised that unfettered competition did not benefit all clubs. It increased the resources and success of wealthy clubs while threatening to leave poor clubs resourceless and unsuccessful.

The Western Bulldogs, a relatively poor club, recognised that its own success had been possible only because the competition between clubs was moderated by caps that limited the money that could be spent on buying players and on infrastructure, and by a distribution of revenue that gave financial and other support to poorer clubs, most notably to those in the rugby badlands.

The wealthier clubs, though with some grumbling, accepted this restriction on competition because they realised that in the longer term their own prosperity depended on ensuring the prosperity of all clubs, and especially the weakest.

They recognised that a competition in which most clubs were uncompetitive, their supporter base apathetic, and their games unattractive to watch, would lessen public interest in the game. This would affect the media interest and income on which their own prosperity relied. Unrestricted competition would undermine their own prosperity.

In the Western Bulldogs' premiership, too, economic factors were consistently set within a broader pattern. The club recognised the importance of many sets of relationships, all of which were important in the building of the club.


"In the search for success football clubs accept a responsibility to place individual competitiveness in a broader context. It leads them to encourage a player to miss a game at some cost to the team for personal or family reasons."


Those that aimed at profit, although crucial, were means to that end, not a goal in themselves. Relationships between players, between players and coach, those of the club with supporters, with board, with media, with community organisations, with the local community, to the state and national audience were not primarily economic. They were best described in terms of friendship, altruism, imaginative ownership, encouragement, pride and motivation.

Individual competitiveness, of course, is central in playing football. To be described as a fierce competitor is high praise. And premierships are famously not won unless the winning team's players are fiercest of all. But individual competitiveness must be tempered by altruism. The individual needs to cooperate with others to achieve a shared prize that transcends individual glory. Two of the notable features of the Grand Final were that players who missed out on the team responded so generously, and that the coach presented his own premiership medal to his injured captain.

For lasting success football teams need to build a culture in which competitiveness is further tempered. It is enshrined in the 'No dickheads' policy, more positively expressed in the concern for the full human development of players. It leads teams, for example, to encourage a player to miss games at some cost to the team for family or personal reasons. In the search for success football clubs accept a responsibility to place individual competitiveness in a broader context. It leads them to encourage a player to miss a game at some cost to the team for personal or family reasons.

They might also expect their players to visit hospitals and disadvantaged children, to behave responsibly in their recreation, and to develop leadership skills through which they will later contribute to the community. Teams look beyond competitiveness for personal or for corporate success to the presence of character — the quality that enables people to see what matters most deeply and to pursue it — and they encourage its development. On this ultimately depends both the sporting success and the economic prosperity of the team.

This example suggests that in order to build a prosperous nation the economy needs to be set within the varied broader relationships of human beings towards one another and to the world. Furthermore, even in the economy, the most critical relationship are not always those that are competitive. If the national good is to be furthered, the economy will need to be regulated to ensure the good of all, particularly the most vulnerable. This is particularly true in the relationships that are involved in globalisation.

Finally, the competitiveness of individuals, businesses and corporations need to be tempered and subordinated to the development of character. This is important for shaping good human beings. It is also the necessary condition for a healthy and sustainable economy. Just as it is necessary in a successful football club.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Western Bulldogs, AFL



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Existing comments

As a Sydney Swans supporter I know the feelings associated with the Western Bulldogs' win this year. The year was 2005. Most of all, a successful football club needs to be hungry. All the qualities mentioned in the article are very important in building character and integrity. No win can truly be celebrated without that.

Pam | 12 October 2016  

As a Cats man who was lucky enough to first savor footy just as the great recent Cats teams found their stride, I am no student of finances; but I am a student of how great teams find roles for all players, and play with a trust and zest and something like joy -- the Warriors in American basketball, the recent great Spanish soccer teams...

Brian Doyle | 13 October 2016  

In the never-ending competition between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-nots’, the ‘Haves‘ always seem blinded by esteem for what they have, and greed for more of the same. This seems why James Hird seemed surprised at being told he had helped bring the game he loved into disrepute, and also why various Bishops harmed the reputation of the Churches they had tried too hard to protect. Religions in general are still doing this by promoting themselves as exclusively having access to a pathway to God. Neo-Liberals likewise damage the economy when they push their ideology that effectively leads the rich to become fat, and the poor to become homeless.

Robert Liddy | 13 October 2016  

I agree with your article and I look forward to more responsibility and altruism being shown in the future. I was disappointed to see that the media understood that the players were too hung over to turn up to their party in Ballarat after the grand final. Only the coach could make it saying that the players had partied too much. The celebration was a little damp and they were not good ambassadors for alcohol moderation either.

Carol | 13 October 2016  

Compelling analysis. The good news doesn't extend much further unfortunately. A very large part of the largesse that the AFL spreads around struggling clubs such as the Western Bulldogs derives from gambling. Either from direct sponsorship of AFL by a gambling company (unbelievable), or most significantly from its colossal income from TV broadcast rights, which we know are predicated on gambling advertisements. The AFL makes such a song and dance about its leadership in issues such as racism, women, and homophobia, but the people (mainly the young men for whom team sport is supposed to be a formative life experience) who are tempted or tortured each time those gambling ads come up (including those in gamblers anonymous), and sometimes destroyed, are the AFL's dirty little secret. I heard Peter Gordon the otherwise admirable Bulldogs' President say on radio a while ago that the gambling situation was just too 'difficult'. (Most the clubs also have their additional pokie income streams of course.) Please AFL, seriously address this issue - for the sake of your own integrity, and especially of young men, as unfashionable as they are. (And has the Catholic church ever wondered how influential it could be in co-ordinating / facilitating parishes & parishioners to lobby against gambling ads on TV?)

David Moloney | 13 October 2016  

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