Holding the man: anything to keep Bailey Smith playing the AFL’s game

Anyone seeking evidence of the AFL’s dangerous need for a culture shift need only examine the Bailey Smith news cycle it rolled out this weekend. But as insidious as it was, you have to admire the stage management, the choreography.

Western Bulldogs mid-fielder, 21-year-old Bailey Smith, spent a month on the Gold Coast in the off-season last year and did some drugs. In a series of “water is wet” press releases, the Code and the Bulldogs proceeded as if they expected a serious national clutching of the pearls.

“An AFL player did drugs on the Gold Coast in the off-season?! How will we ever recover as a nation?!?”

Bailey’s eventual statement is worth applauding. He owns his role as a major public figure and a potential role model, and he takes the impact of drugs on young people’s lives seriously. One tweens weekend frolic in Surfers is another’s gateway to years of painful addiction.

It’s the operation of the AFL corporate machine that deserves more attention here. It follows a well-trod path, rendered stark because of the player involved. Bailey Smith has all the hallmarks of a gamechanger, and not just on the field. There’s been enough pixel ink shed from the corporate desks of the AFL, the Bulldogs and even the sporting press gallery to make it clear the elders of the game are terrified by him, or at the very least bamboozled.

Monday morning’s Australian noted this “scandal” will liven up an already nerve-wracking contract negotiation for Smith, rumoured to be valued at up to $800,000. The paper doesn’t suggest the incidents are connected. It barely needs to. The AFL chatrooms have that, and all other angles of gossip covered.

The decidedly sudden release of images and then video footage of Smith with a bag of white powder on TikTok on Saturday morning was covered off using a familiar PR formula. The Bulldogs’ first response said they were investigating if the images were real. Articles then appeared in the Herald Sun confirming Smith’s principal sponsor Cotton On was sticking by their young headliner no matter what and urging the AFL and the club to do the same. The language as the press coverage piled up was deliberate. This was a Major Transgression and only the Code could give Bailey Smith the support he needed for it not to affect his oft-discussed mental health and his game.

Almost every single article published (especially by News Corp and Nine) mentioned Smith was out of contract.

Smith’s Cotton On billboards scattered about Melbourne over the Summer ran with a golden boy image the AFL has long tried to cultivate for its players, whilst rarely, if ever, examining the cost.
Image: Bandt

By Sunday night, Smith had apologised and the Bulldogs were adamant they would give their young charge every possible support, even as he accepted a drug strike on his record and a potential two week suspension. Come Monday morning, Smith’s exclusive, post-scandal tell-all interview was on the front page of The Herald Sun where he carefully ran through a well-scripted list of talking points about drugs, the game and mental health. He also mentioned the support of his girlfriend, a first.

His off script talking points are what should have been the headlines. Smith was so depressed following the Bulldogs’ Grand Final loss last year, he didn’t eat, get out of bed, or talk to anyone for days. Once recovered, he hit the Gold Coast and partied for a month before a mental health crash in December which saw him take time off the field.

Smith tells the Herald Sun he “can’t live without [AFL]” and pays tribute to Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge and his team psychologist as vital support. For Smith’s family, the alarm bells ringing in his language should be deafening.

In this situation, the AFL have managed to look like nothing so much as Hollywood under the studio system. Young Bailey Smith has taken on the part of Marilyn Monroe being told off by Zanuck for being too publicly imperfect. In the meantime, infrastructure around the star is patently tightening to ensure whatever is necessary to keep him on brand and on the field happens, quietly and efficiently.

In one fell swoop, the Code has been able to tailor the actions of its biggest and most unpredictable star exactly to its liking. The gay rumours have been quashed (for now), perceptions of his mental health issues have been defined as a more on-brand commodity, and Smith has been placed in a position where bending the knee isn’t just good business, it’s survival.

Bailey Smith could be one of the greatest AFL players of his generation. He could also redefine what it means to be an AFL star in the 21st century. Over the last 72 hours, the Code has made it clear just how far they’ll go to ensure control of their player, and their product. Anything to keep him playing ball.

This destructive culture must change. Fans must begin to demand it. They should start with Bailey Smith.