‘It’s all about culture: Why AFL football clubs are like army units’, is the striking title of an official Australian Football League (AFL) podcast in 2022. In it, the AFL Commissioner Simone Wilkie, urged on the teams by singing the praises of former head of the CIA and US Army General, David Petraeus.
General Petraeus is an odd choice of footballers’ hero. He served in Iraq, where in 2003 he used controversial ‘kill-and-capture’ raids in the bloody early pacification of Mosul, and in Afghanistan in 2010, where he was criticised for civilian deaths and for allying with corrupt and violent local security forces.
Petraeus’s career collapsed in a public scandal in 2012, after he had become Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His illegal leaking of highly classified documents to his biographer with whom he was having an undeclared illicit sexual affair, led to him being sacked, fined US$100,000 and sentenced to two years of probation. He is also believed to have leaked ‘top secret’ classified information to reporters.
He was one of the architects of the Iraq War about which Australian journalist Julian Assange exposed US army wrong doings, killings of innocents and what amounts to war crimes. Assange is being persecuted by the US. He’s being held in a British prison awaiting likely extradition to a politically motivated trial in the US.
The AFL Commissioner is a former Australian Army Major General who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in senior staff headquarter positions in Kabul. Major General Simone Wilkie was Assistant Chief of Staff to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War troop surge of 2007, and was awarded the US Army Bronze Star, although without the ‘V’ for valour device. Wilkie became AFL Commissioner in 2015, three years prior to leaving her career military job in 2018.
Wilkie retains links to the Defence sector by way of her Senior Advisor position with Lighthorse Group, a Canberra-based security advisory firm – however this position is absent from her curriculum vitae on LinkedIn. Fellow advisors at Lighthorse Group include the former Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt General Vince Stewart, along with former Australian Special Forces head, Brigadier Ian Langford, and Victoria Cross winner Mark Donaldson.
Major General Wilkie – the AFL still calls her ‘Major General’ even though she has retired – says her experience in Iraq under US General Petraeus ‘showed her the importance of leaders understanding the challenges faced by their people’. General Wilkie declares in the AFL podcast:
‘General Petraeus would regularly go out into the battlefield and talk to people and try and get those briefings so that he’d make the best decision on the information that he was provided. That, to me is really good leadership in an organisation which was scores of thousands of people from over 40 different countries.’
To take the footy analogy further, a retired Army General such as General Wilkie drawing lessons from US General Patreus, when they were both part of the losing side in Afghanistan, is like a footy coach of the losing side in the Grand Final giving players tips on winning.
The reason for the US and its ally Australia going to war in Iraq in 2003 was based on the lies and false intelligence reports that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed ‘WMD’, biological chemical and nuclear ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’.
The Australian military intelligence whistle blower who revealed that the Iraq WMD intelligence was flawed worked in the Defence Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. Andrew Wilkie went public before the war, to reveal there was no convincing evidence of WMD in Iraq – and hence no legal reason to invade. He has since become an outspoken federal Member of Parliament. At the time Andrew Wilkie’s army wife was Simone Wilkie.
Using the Iraq War as an example for leadership in Australian Rules Football is a nonsensical analogy – the invasion was, firstly, based on flawed evidence, was hence illegal, then became very bloody, the scene of many war crimes, and has since resulted in a fractured country.
Moreover, while AFL Commissioner, General Wilkie was from 2017 to 2020 a member of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue (AALD), a pro-US lobby group derided by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating for ‘bowing and scraping’ to the US and hindering the growth of an independent Australian foreign policy.
The linking of professional AFL football to the failed wars of Afghanistan and Iraq sounds like a clumsy and blatant Information Operation by the AFL on the Australian public to promote US militarism in Australia.
Declassified Australia sought responses from the AFL over its Americanisation policy but no response was forthcoming.
Australian Rules Football is a unique sport, a unique football code, a distinctive cultural marker of Australian-ness – for some it’s a quasi-religion. But the governing body of Australian Rules Football, the Australian Football League (AFL), paradoxically acts as if its spiritual homeland is not Australia, but a Corporate America heavily intertwined with American nationalism and United States foreign policy agenda.
The US knows that sport is a very useful tool to promote its foreign and cultural policy agenda abroad and in Australia. In essence to tap into Australian public opinion and shape it via Australian cultural institutions. In other words, to win hearts and minds!
The AFL through its media and broadcasts are now converting many Australian sporting terms replacing them with American slang equivalents which traditionally do not belong to the game. US terms such as ‘turnover’ meaning loss of possession of the ball to the opposition; ‘line ball’ is another, meaning very close; ‘road game’, meaning away game; ‘thrown a curveball’, a baseball term meaning something difficult or unexpected; ‘big dance’ meaning the game; and ‘dee-fence’, instead of the Australian pronunciation of defence; and so forth.
Australian governments at all levels realise the importance of sport in shaping public opinion and therefore it comes as no great surprise their lavishing of tax funding of sports. On the AFL’s website it boasts of support from all of the two territory and all of the six state governments, and even the federal government.
‘I have watched Prime Ministers and senior ministers make their way through the room to (AFL chief executive) Gillon McLachlan,’ says leading football administrator Jake Parkinson. ‘Prime Ministers know how the public love the game; they understand the level of influence the game has in Australia.”
The Americanisation of the AFL has some of its early roots during the period of the Whitlam government. In 1974 the VFL invited the controversial US Ambassador to Australia, Marshall Green, to the VFL Grand Final between Richmond and North Melbroune. Interestingly, the ambassador attended along with Governor General John Kerr, and acting Prime Minister Jim Cairns.
Green has been described as ‘an imperious, sinister figure who worked in the shadows of America’s “deep state’, and he was known to be a Whitlam hater. Green’s nickname was ‘the coup master’ due to his covert interference in governments he had been appointed ambassador to, including Indonesia.
At the grand final VFL President Sir Maurice Nathan, a pro-American, conservative business figure opposed to the Whitlam Labor federal government, refused to have Advance Australia Fair, Whitlam’s choice for a new national anthem, played by the RAAF Band alongside God Save the Queen which was then still the national anthem.
The US State Department first got involved with the AFL (then known as the Victorian Football League-VFL) in August 1977 when it introduced the VFL General Manager Jack Hamilton to US sports officials.
We know this because of declassified US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. The AFL wanted to pick the brains of the governing body of American Football (Grid Iron), the National Football League (NFL) on how to run a modern sports administration. AFL fact finding missions to the NFL have been visiting the US ever since then.
A July 2008 US diplomatic cable leaked to Wikileaks refers to ‘Sports Diplomacy’. The document reveals that US State Department diplomats, with Australian help, used ‘sports diplomacy’, via the US top Basketball league the NBA, to push a favourable US political message in Indonesia.
The sensitive diplomatic cable, which requests intelligence sources be protected, reads: “The high profile of the NBA and an American player visiting Indonesia could open doors to other sports diplomacy initiatives.”
The cable notes that Australian diplomats are also involved in pushing the same US cultural message in Indonesia through Basketball: ‘Australia’s Embassy has successfully partnered with Dektesi (DBL, the Indonesian Basketball League) in the past, and Australian Ambassador Bill Farmer is expected to announce a trip by selected DBL all-stars… to play against high schools in Australia.
‘Similar youth exchanges with US would no doubt be welcomed and the American roots of basketball and prominence of the NBA globally make this a natural vehicle for effective sports diplomacy programs in the future.’ [Our emphasis]
Theories differ over the origins of Australian Rules Football: it developed from the Indigenous game of Marngrook and the Irish game of Gaelic football or it was simply invented by local British colonialists. Nonetheless, the formal organisation of Victrorian Football League (AFL’s predecessor until 1990) was founded in 1896 in the then British Empire’s Colony of Victoria by people who very much identified as culturally British and staunchly monarchist.
By the early 1980s as Australian Rules Football moved towards professionalism and slowly edged towards a fully national competition, the VFL was caught in a tight spot. As the big bucks started to flow into the game, some players wanted to leave their clubs and join others for larger salaries. The VFL feared a bidding war amongst clubs to secure the top players.
By 1983 the VFL’s reaction to the massive waves of change buffeting the competition was to turn to the US for help. This is revealed in the book, ‘The Phoenix Rises-the amazing story of the salvation of Australian Football’, written by Ross Oakley, AFL CEO from 1986 to 1996.
It reveals VFL President Allan Aylett had convinced the VFL board to hire ‘the world’s most powerful’ US public relations consulting firm, McKinsey and Co, to professionalise the promotion of the game. McKinseys has been long a consultant to US intelligence agencies, and has been described as having ‘more secrets that the CIA’.
Then, the book reveals, the VFL sent a team of its officials to ‘fly to the USA to meet with the four major sporting leagues. They were the National Football League (NFL), Major Baseball League (MBL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL).’
The team’s mission to the US was to get as much information on the American system of running a professional competition, including promotion of the game, managing the payment system, and the retention of players. Such American assistance would pay dividends later.
Prime Minister Julian Gillard famously used AFL as a tool of diplomacy on her visit to US President Barrack Obama in 2011, in a PR highlight handballing an AFL ball to Obama, before assembled cameras.
The alliance blossomed between the hand-ballers, and later that year during Obama’s Australian visit, Gillard agreed – without any public consultation – to the permanent rotational basing of US marines in northern Australia, and the provision of extended US access to military bases and facilities across Australia.
This can now be realised as a early step towards the US militarisation of Australia, that has now been put on steroids by the Morrison government under the AUKUS agreement.
In 2016 the AFL invited then US Vice President Joe Biden to a football match in Melbourne.
Enormous publicity, hoopla was generated as well the very important photo-ops of VP Biden holding an Australian Rules Football ball in his hands whilst talking with AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan. It wasn’t just sport – Biden watched the game with then Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop.
The political message of the AFL linking itself to the US could not be missed. It was telling Australians loud and clear that it had hitched its polticial wagon to the White House, the supreme centre of world power.
Documents detailing the AFL connections with the visit of Biden were applied for by Declassified Australia under Freedom of Information applications to the Prime Minister’s Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Victorian State government. The search surprisingly turned up barely a handful of emails, all largely redacted. Why the secrecy over a visit to a football match?
The letter accompanying the release stated:
‘Disclosure of this correspondence is reasonably expected to impact the ability of the Australian government to maintain good working relations with the United States Government. The document contains information of a nature that would reasonably be expected to cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth, should this information be released.’ [Our emphasis]
To hammer home the AFL association with the US establishment, in 2019 the Collingwood Football Club invited the then US Ambassador to Australia Arthur B. Culvahouse Jnr, a US President Trump appointee, to a players’ event.
Culvahouse was certainly a ‘good old American boy’ – he had served as chief lawyer to President Ronald Reagan in the early 80s fending off a presidential impeachment on charges of illegally arming a mercenary army with funds from illegal weapon sales to Iran, known as Iran-Contra.
The stated reason for his attendance was to celebrate Collingwood’s new American recruit to the game, Mason Cox. While the Collingwood team had many players of other ethnic and national origin, they never felt the need to invite those players’ foreign ambassadors.
The final part of the picture relates to the severing of ties to England and the monarchy, and the turning further towards American presidency and nationalism.
The AFL enlists a clever ‘anti-colonial’ policy to make itself out as the champion of Indigenous Australians. The AFL has moved to largely erase its British heritage and re-write its history.
Of note, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was in Australia in early 2022 but never got the red carpet treatment to a game as Biden had, even though a number of AFL clubs, such as Collingwood, North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, were actually founded by UK born Englishmen.
The AFL’s female competition, the AFLW, last year refused to give a minute’s silence on the ground over the death of Australia’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, the British monarch, because of Indigenous Australian opposition.
The AFL hypocritically has been happy to at the same time to associate itself with the US, another Anglophone country founded on white European settlement, with a long history of mistreating indigenous Native Americans.
America’s NFL has a history of denigrating Native Americans with for example the use of the name ‘Red Skins’ for its Washington team. It was finally forced to change the name in 2020 after massive Black Lives Matter protests rocked the US over the deaths of African Americans at the hands of US law enforcement.
The embracing of US forms of publicity, management, and style, hyped up with the overblown dropping of Australian sporting terms for aspects of the game, in favour of American slang terms, is not a natural process. It is being pushed hard, including by some very prominent US political heavyweights.
Under the guise of sport, it enables the US to build up in Australians a close identification with all things American. It builds public support for America and American interests.
It builds empathy among the public at the very time that Australians are being expected to accept the American militarisation of the Australian mainland – with new bases, new facilities, and new weapons – that threaten to drag Australia inevitably into another American war, this time against China.
It’s not just sport.