Ross Lyon has called on the AFL to give clubs more money to spend on their football departments, warning that more players could run into off-field problems due to a lack of support staff in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
All 18 clubs had their soft caps slashed due to the financial impact of the pandemic last year, with many roles made redundant as a result, heaping pressure on senior coaches and a reduced number of assistants in the wake of the cuts.
Speaking in the wake of Eagles star Willie Rioli pleading guilty to drug possession after being caught with 25 grams of cannabis in his pants at the Darwin Airport in April, Lyon urged the AFL to give its clubs a better chance of supporting their respective young players.
“AFL clubs are really asked to do what the legal system struggles to do (and) what the education system struggles to do,” the ex-AFL coach told Nine’s Footy Classified.
“They’re held to such a high account, but to do that and to get beyond just training (players) for football and putting them out on the field and hoping the rest of their lives and their conduct is of the standard that we all require, you need resources to deliver that.
“That’s the first thing (with financial cuts), I think you’ll start to see a flow-on effect for lack of pastoral care, support education, time with them mentoring, and we’ll see more incidents because they’re young men growing up in the public spotlight and we know the media is not going to miss anything.
“From a coach’s point, the burden of cuts in the game and financial adjustment has fallen squarely on the coaches and it does seem unfair.
“There might be some fat in areas, but what clubs will do now is say, ‘Well ultimately, we’re here to win games so we’ll get them to play good footy and we’ll train them up and get them fit’, but the development of the whole person will fall, there’s no doubt about that, and that’s the concern.”
When questioned over whether the Eagles should give Rioli another chance, Lyon answered: “100 per cent, a million per cent”.
“He’s been embarrassed, he’s been humiliated, but in the context of what you can do in your life and how you can break the law, in my view, it should be partial care, (arms) wrapped around him and supported as best you can,” he said.
“I understand it’s sensitive for the Eagles if you look at their history with Ben Cousins and they’ve done a lot of work on education to turn their club around.
“I think they’ll be hyper-sensitive to it, particularly the optics, but he’s a very talented footballer, let’s bring him into the fold, help him and support him.
“He’s got to get back to being the best version of himself. He’s a premiership player, he stood up and he’s committed, went from the WAFL to an elite small forward in the AFL and he’s clearly got some strong character.
“He needs support to be balanced back up to get him to be successful both on and off the field.”
Lyon’s view was echoed by former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, who said the Rioli case was evidence of a complexity brought about by WADA suspensions, whereby a player is not allowed to be at their football club for the duration of their bans, as Rioli has been.
McGuire touched on his on experience at Collingwood, where Josh Thomas and Lachie Keefe were banned for two years after testing positive to a banned substance in 2015.
“What we really needed to do was get around them, get with them and maybe drug test them every day and do other things,” McGuire told Footy Classified.
“They came to my house and sat down with their manager and poor old Josh was sweating profusely. As soon as we went through it and given the ‘dad’ talk, it was like, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to stick by you’, and the sense of relief from these guys was palpable. They were never going to do anything wrong again.
“The thing was, we then had to let them go for two years and had to converse via carrier pigeons. It would’ve been nice to get them and put our arms around them.
“With Willie Rioli, if anything could happen now, you’d like to be able to go to the West Coast Eagles to get support, get psychological support, maybe go into a clinic if he’s got an issue with marijuana dependency or any other sort of situation, and see if we can save this guy.”
Essendon great Matthew Lloyd also believed that the best place for Rioli to rehabilitate himself was his own club, but put the onus on the 25-year-old to repay the club’s faith.
“Football clubs are absolutely amazing and I think Willie is more of a chance of rehabilitating and getting his life back on track by being a part of the West Coast Eagles family,” he told Footy Classified.
“I think he’s got to give back to them. They’ll support him, but he’s also got to show a bit of commitment back to them to say, ‘I’m serious, I want to be an AFL footballer’.
“I’d be interested to know even his body shape. Has he got a personal trainer? All these things that can help him rehabilitate himself.
“I think they will seriously be looking at that with Willie Rioli and saying, ‘We also have a list spot that we’re giving you and we want to give you that opportunity, but you’ve also got to show us that you want this position’.
“I don’t think it’s all about babying him and cuddling him, it’s also about telling Willie Rioli what they expect of him if he’s wanting to come back and play AFL football.”
While Rioli’s suspension is lifted in August this year, it remains unclear whether the Eagles will bring the talented forward back into the fold immediately.