AFL affairs scandal: There’s been a rule change at boys’ club
To understand a woman’s lot in football, go to one of the AFL’s big functions: a season launch, the Brownlow Medal, the All-Australian dinner. See her in the headset, rushed off her pump heels? She’s the hardest working person in the room.
At the end of the function, a fleet of courtesy cars will arrive to take highly paid AFL executives back to their big houses in Toorak and Malvern and Armadale. These are the private school and university educated, amateur football playing blokes — and yes, they are nearly all blokes — who rule the AFL.
Where is our friend with the headset? She’ll be among the last to leave, along with the girls — yes, they still call them girls — in events and promotions and public relations; the feminised parts of football that don’t come with big salaries or bonuses or the promise of more senior jobs.
As the blokes step into their chauffeured cars, the girls are left standing at the kerb, trying to hail a cab on a busy Melbourne night.
Simkiss had just been promoted to the executive team and Lethlean, as general manager of football, occupied the second most powerful position in the game.
Each had worked for more than 10 years inside AFL House, rising alongside the man now in charge, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan. Lethlean is one of McLachlan’s closest friends in football. Until last week, Lethlean and Simkiss had the full and unwavering support of the boss.
That the AFL accepted the resignations of two of its brightest administrators and publicly shamed them for conducting illicit affairs has drawn condemnation across the warring tribes of Australian public life. It is a rare issue on which conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt and Ross Cameron find themselves in agreement with labour lawyer Josh Bornstein.
Yet if McLachlan is, as he says, serious about dismantling the AFL boys’ club culture and genuinely opening all aspects of the game to women, he couldn’t stick with the league’s tried and true method of ignoring or concealing problems in its workplace.
As one former AFL insider puts it: “It was a big step for the AFL. Although it wasn’t a fair outcome, I’ll be buggered if I can see another outcome.’’
Senior figures within the AFL had known for nearly two months there was trouble with Lethlean. The Herald Sun had been making inquiries about his affair with Maddi Blomberg, a younger woman who worked part-time for the AFL in Sydney organising Auskick clinics. Blomberg’s WAG status as the girlfriend of rugby union star Kurtley Beale meant Sydney journalists were also sniffing around the story.
Until Monday last week, when the Herald Sun published a story about an unnamed AFL executive carrying on an extramarital affair, McLachlan believed his friend could survive the scandal. Blomberg was not a direct report, didn’t work in the head office and when the affair began last August, she had already tendered her resignation to the AFL.
For the most part, the pair had been discreet. Their affair had ended and thus far had not caused any consternation among other AFL staff. Lethlean’s fate would be decided by the strength of the public fallout if and when details of the affair were published.
All that changed on Monday. Within hours of publication of the Herald Sun story, a flurry of text messages about the affair flew among AFL staff, and between staff and journalists. Not Lethlean’s affair with Blomberg, but Richard Simkiss’s affair with Ali Gronow, a lawyer who works at AFL headquarters.
Simkiss and Gronow had been anything but discreet. They would disappear together in the middle of the day to go running. They would eat lunch together in his office.
Simkiss angrily denied the affair when confronted about it by a friend of Gronow who works at the AFL.
Their relationship became the stuff of office gossip and, eventually, toxic for Gronow, who more than once was seen crying in the corridors of AFL House.
It also represented a serious breach of Simkiss’s professional responsibilities. Although he was not Gronow’s boss, Simkiss prior to their affair had become a mentor to her and other women in the organisation. He was McLachlan’s Male Champion of Change delegate: the person responsible for attending the group’s meetings and applying its gender equity principles across the AFL.
He was now exposed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The hypocrisy was rank.
Once McLachlan learned of Simkiss’s affair with Gronow, he knew his organisation had a significant problem — one that went beyond merely managing the public image of the AFL.
Lethlean, a married father of four children, returned to work from a family holiday on Thursday last week. By that afternoon, McLachlan had secured Simkiss’s resignation and had a long, difficult discussion with Lethlean.
That evening, the AFL Commission, led by Wesfarmers managing director Richard Goyder, met McLachlan and endorsed his view that Simkiss’s conduct warranted removal and Lethlean’s job was untenable.
The next morning, shortly before McLachlan fronted a press conference to announce the dramatic departure of two senior lieutenants, Lethlean offered his resignation.
For Goyder, a man who manages people across a huge conglomerate, it was just another business decision.
Increasingly, corporate Australia is not willing to excuse the personal failings of executives on large salaries and in prominent roles. The “good bloke’’ defence no longer withstands the scrutiny of diligent boards.
QBE boss John Neal found this out last year, when he was docked $550,000 from his annual bonus for failing to disclose that he was having an affair with his secretary. At the height of the Amber Harrison imbroglio, Seven West Media chief Tim Worner was fined $100,000 by his boss Kerry Stokes and was publicly shamed off the board of the Sydney Swans. Seven is an AFL broadcaster and Worner is McLachlan’s friend.
The office affair is not dead. There is, however, a growing acceptance that to mitigate the risk of conflicts of interest, bias and perceptions of bias and fraudulent use of company expenses, workplace relationships must be declared.
Such transparency is difficult if you are screwing around behind someone’s back.
For McLachlan, a person who has spent nearly all his working life at the AFL, it was a far more significant decision. It is easy to mouth platitudes about respect and responsibility, but something else to stand against the blokes of the ruling club.
Under McLachlan’s predecessor Andrew Demetriou, AFL executive meetings could be rough-and-tumble affairs. The prevailing mood was competitive rather than collegiate. A former senior AFL staffer recalls the atmosphere. “It was a very alpha male environment. It was very blokey, no doubt about it. Demetriou liked playing them off against each other. There was a lot of one-upmanship and who can speak the loudest.’’
Commercially, it was a successful formula. Culturally, it was problematic, reinforcing the notion that serious decision-making in football was an exclusively male domain.
At any given time, there was usually just one woman executive, a token inclusion invariably given responsibility for HR: a portfolio well down the AFL order of priorities. Sue Clifford, a commander in the Victoria Police force, spent nine years at the AFL working diligently to improve football’s culture and attitude towards women. She was never promoted to the executive.
Outside the executive bear pit, the women of the AFL worked hard in mostly low-paying jobs with limited career prospects. The executive men had no such doubts about their own career trajectories. Male breadwinners with wives and children at home found it difficult to understand the motivations of working women. When it came to hiring or promoting people into big jobs, they favoured candidates who looked and sounded like themselves.
If there were complaints against AFL executives, they were dealt with behind closed doors and with scant adherence to proper process. When in-house grievances against the workplace conduct of Andrew Catterall, one of AFL’s most talented commercial executives, reached fever pitch towards the end of the 2012 season, Demetriou took him took him to lunch and Catterall never came back.
The AFL issued a press release saying that the senior executive had taken extended leave, in part to plan his wedding. Nearly three years later, it emerged that the AFL had settled a bullying claim against him for $200,000.
Catterall says he was never given the opportunity to respond to the claim and that he first learned of it when he read about it in a newspaper.
The AFL under McLachlan took a different approach towards last week’s executive crisis. McLachlan, his HR manager Sarah Fair and communications manager Liz Lukin were all involved in gathering information and making a recommendation to the AFL Commission. The commission, reshaped since the departures of three influential directors in Demetriou, Mike Fitzpatrick and Bill Kelty, came to a unanimous view.
The former AFL staffer says: “If Andrew and Mike were still running the place this wouldn’t have happened. They would have just waved it away.’’
McLachlan was groomed by Demetriou to run the AFL in his image. When he assumed the top job, no one doubted his ability to further the AFL’s financial and commercial interests or to land the big deal. The question inside AFL House was whether he could separate himself from an executive team he had spent so many years working with.
Does he want to be the boss or remain one of the boys? Two empty chairs inside the ruling club suggest change is under way.