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Say goodbye to old-school: Nothing soft about AFL’s new masculinity

We’re seeing a new kind of masculinity in the ranks of the AFLM. Each generation evolves from the one just gone, but this change in culture is as stark as any I can recall.

In 2000, St Kilda’s warrior Max Hudghton emptied the contents of his drink bottle on his face to hide his tears after the Saints were narrowly beaten. The culture of that time was to hide emotion from the opposition and the outside world, because it was seen as weakness to be used against the team and the individual. I think we can assume Max may have also been ashamed of sharing that level of emotion so publicly.

Times have changed. Might we now see Max’s tears as the release of tension from a player who had just exhausted every bit of himself on the ground for the jumper he loves?

An emotional Max Hudghton after a loss in 2000.

An emotional Max Hudghton after a loss in 2000.Credit:Pat Scala

The leaders in the playing ranks of current AFLM clubs are now commonly no longer afraid to lay themselves bare in front of their teammates. It’s not an absolute, but the trajectory is shifting towards players who now use their drink bottles solely for a drink instead of a mask. This is a huge cultural shift, especially when we consider the nastiness that permeates our modern world, particularly online.

I watched this shift from inside the walls of my old footy team when Luke Beveridge arrived at the Western Bulldogs, and saw how the Tigers took the torch and made it their own under Damien Hardwick and Trent Cotchin and a similar spirit almost took Nathan Buckley’s Magpies all the way. No doubt there’s others, too.

From a different perspective now in the media, I see it and hear it all the time. I’ve spoken with captains and leaders of last year’s finalists, and heard in their voices a warmth and tenderness that was unthinkable when Max Hudghton was running around.

As outsiders from clubland we occasionally get a glimpse of this new kind of footballer. Jack Watts’ emotional post-game interview after the Power’s stirring round-one win was just the latest example of this evolving masculinity.

Jack Watts gave a powerful interview after his round one match.

Jack Watts gave a powerful interview after his round one match.Credit:AAP

Jack gave us a brief insight into his recent turmoil and hinted at the scarring of his much-criticised career. It was raw, and left observers feeling that we might be witnessing the football redemption of the former No.1 pick, and not a sign of a soft underbelly – a knock that Jack has endured for a number of years.

Which brings us to the point. The old school, I expect, will rail against the tears and hugging as evidence of “players gone soft”, or maybe worse. But this emotional maturation might in fact prove to be the exact opposite.

The toughness required to play and survive in this competition is as fierce as it has ever been.

Vulnerability is now one of the buzz terms to bring a team of young, male footballers together quickly to form special bonds and a winning culture. It is not softness or whimsy, but armour for the battle. There is a strength in vulnerability not to be underestimated.

The best teams converse with one another in meetings and locker rooms about their fears, hopes and, dare I say it, dreams. It’s a leap of faith – one that needs to be supported by the senior coach. Once a group of players has made the leap and feels safe within the pack, they will fight harder for the cause.

It’s not a green light to live or play without consequences. This is another misunderstanding. The modern footballer lives under a constant microscope and suspicious eye – on and off the field. No wonder they’re anxious.

Yet the modern footballer as a pure athlete is something to behold. The game requires speed, strength, endurance and durability. The training techniques, facilities and equipment available to players of all clubs has reached a point where the difference in physical advantage is perhaps as small as it’s ever been.

This new type of masculinity is gaining momentum not just because it might be a healthier way for young men to live, but it helps bring out the best athletic performance. Once that happens, follow-the-leader culture kicks in and we see which clubs can create this environment better than the rest.

A football season was often described to me as a roller-coaster. Physically, but more pointedly emotionally, you will dip and swerve in all sorts of directions. In just one round we’ve seen some sharp differences in fortunes. It’s too early to tell what was real and what was not, but there’s already blood on the tracks. Who will thrive and who will be left behind?

One thing round one showed us – there will be tears along the way. And that’s no bad thing.

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