Frawley had first encountered mental health issues in the latter period at Tigerland, but it was the stresses of running the coaches’ association – when he confronted a gamut of issues, including the fallout for James Hird from rival coaches during the Essendon saga – that tipped Frawley over into a condition that required help.
Today, as paeans to the much-loved “Spud” were voiced, the AFL was coming to terms with what might become Danny Frawley’s final and most important legacy: a recognition of the unique pressures that AFL senior coaches confront, in an era of social media and saturation coverage of the game.
In their Monday night discussion, Hocking and Brayshaw talked about the AFL’s new prioritising of mental health and the appointment of two specialists, a mental health czar and a head psychiatrist, to deal with the burgeoning mental health issues that the AFL has faced.
Up until Frawley, the external focus had been largely on players, a considerable number of whom have gone public – Tom Boyd (now retired), Dayne Beams and Jack Steven among them – with their mental health demons that led to them stepping away from the game.
Frawley’s death has put the spotlight on coaches – particularly the senior coaches, who deal with a level of stress and carry a burden that is beyond anyone else within an obsessively followed sport. This has been especially evident in this season of four sacked coaches.
“What has surprised me, more than anything else, is the amount of stress in what I call the first 18 (senior coaches) are under,” said Brayshaw. “They do so under some part on behalf of their wives, parents and players – they take on a huge burden. All of that gives rise to an extraordinary high level of stress for the coaches.
“They say they’re well paid and they love the job … But there’s no doubt … the appointments the league has made have in part been made with coaches in mind.
“And I welcome that, and they can’t start soon enough.”
Rodney Eade, who coached Sydney, the Western Bulldogs and then Gold Coast, said the stresses had increased “exponentially” since he started at the Swans in 1996. “I don’t think the AFL understands what a coach goes through, what it’s like.”
Viewed as one of the game’s hardest of the coaching priesthood, Eade none the less struggled when sacked by the Suns. “You feel the football world’s turned on you.”
Social media, obviously, has intensified the siege. While older coaches don’t tend to read social media posts, their children and friends and family do. “I never read it, but my daughter would read it, my sons would read it,” Eade said.
Senior coaches, too, are typically hardened men, who personify masculinity, although Eade believes that younger coaches, as with the new breed of players, might be less resilient in dealing with the media’s bastard child. “It’s going to be endemic,” Eade said of mental health stresses on coaches.
Frawley’s death, in all likelihood, will accelerate a new consciousness around coaching welfare. The coaches’ association offers a survey to the 180 club coaches (about 10 a club) for their wellbeing and refers those struggling to a psychologist, Dr Mandy Ruddock-Hudson. Some 140 respond to the questionnaire.
Frawley, though, was a rarity among former senior coaches in that he was willing to go public with his struggles, along with Hird.
In an era when players sharing their “vulnerabilities”, as they did at Richmond in 2017, has become the new black, it could be that senior coaches, eschewing their justified armour of reticence, will find themselves airing their anxieties, too.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.