Posts about Australian rules football
[Australian rules football] Collective Minds: How a four-day camp turned the AFL’s best team into its worst
I’ve seen a bunch of sports posts on this sub, but most focusing on American or European sports, so I’ve decided to do a write-up of an Australian sports drama. Welcome to the horror story that is the 2018 Adelaide Crows pre-season camp. Put your seatbelts on, because this is going to be a long ride.
For those of you who don’t know, Australian rules football is a professional sport played almost exclusively in Australia, where it is one of the two bit football codes (the other being rugby league). If you want to learn about the actual rules of the game, I recommend watching this five-minute video. For the purposes of this write-up, you don’t actually need to know anything about how the game works, just that it’s a full contact sport which traditionally has a very “masculine” or “tough” image.
The top level of play is the Australian Football League (AFL), which consists of 18 teams. The Adelaide Crows were an expansion team added in the city of Adelaide ahead of the 1991 season, the first team in the state of South Australia. They’ve won the competition twice (1997 and 1998) and for a long time were a very consistent team that would make it to the eight-team finals series more often than not. When this saga began, Adelaide were one of just two teams in the competition who had never won the “wooden spoon” (an ironic title awarded to the bottom-placed team of each season).
Before I actually get into the drama itself, there are a few key people involved in the team who I want to introduce:
Mark Ricciuto was an Adelaide player during their two premiership years and later became the club’s captain. He’s the only Crows player to win the Brownlow Medal (awarded each year to the “Best and Fairest” player in the AFL), he was selected in the All-Australian team eight times (equalling the AFL record), and when he retired in 2007 he had played more games than any other Crows player. He was named to the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2011, the first year he was eligible. He has a stand named after him at Adelaide Oval. It’s safe to say he’s a legend of the team and the sport. All that being said, he’s also known for being a bit of a knob. He's not very smart and he's very into the whole “toughness” side of things. Unfortunately, because of his history as a player, he’s had roles in the Crows’ administration. He’s been on the club’s board since 2014.
Brett Burton was another Adelaide player, though not as big of a deal as Ricciuto. He was mostly known for his great leaping ability, which earned him the nickname “Bird Man”. He retired in 2011 and also became a club administrator. When our story starts he was the team’s “Head of Football”.
Scott Camporeale was also an AFL player, but not with the Crows. He retired in 2007 and became a coach. He joined Adelaide as the team’s midfield coach in 2010. He was basically second-in-command at the club under the team’s senior coach Phil Walsh in 2015, so when Phil Walsh was murdered (yes, you read that right), Camporeale took over as a caretaker coach. This was obviously an emotional time for the team. Camporeale was credited with helping the team through it, and the team was still able to make it to the finals series that year. Camporeale wasn’t made permanent senior coach, that role was instead given to…
Don Pyke, another former AFL player, funny enough the first American-born player in AFL history (though his family was Australian and they moved back to Australia when he was still a very young child). He was an assistant coach at Adelaide for a couple of years in the mid-2000’s, and was more recently an assistant coach at the West Coast Eagles.
Finally, Taylor Walker is a current Crows player who was the team’s captain starting in 2015. He’s 6 foot 5 and moustachioed and has the nickname “Tex”. He’s a country boy and comes off as very "bogan". He has kicked more goals than any other Crows player, so there’s no doubt that he’s one of the team’s best players ever.
While Ricciuto displays it the most, all five of these men represent the idea of “toughness”. Ricciuto and Tex could almost be called “thugs” in the way that they come across. This isn’t uncommon in AFL, especially since these guys have spent virtually their whole childhood training to become a footballer, and then their whole adulthood in the AFL system. Unfortunately for the Crows, this “toughness” ended up being their downfall.
2017 was Pyke’s second year as senior coach and Tex’s third year as captain. The team was on the up and up, and a lot of their players were perform at career-best level.
One of the Crows’ best players was Eddie Betts, an Indigenous Australian who had played for the Carlton Blues until the end of 2013, when he signed with Adelaide as a free agent. Betts is an AFL legend who had an area of the Adelaide Oval’s boundary named after him (“Eddie’s pocket”) because of his freakish ability to kick goals from there. The AFL has an award called “Goal of the Year”, given to the most impressive goal scored during each season. Betts won it three times with Adelaide, though ironically all three were from the opposite side of the ground to Eddie’s pocket.
It's very important to this saga that Eddie Betts is Indigenous. Indigenous Australians have a very long history of systematic racism and genocide against them ever since colonisation began, and within the AFL itself there’s still a lot of racism towards Indigenous players. Betts was never particularly outspoken about racism because he knew that to be outspoken was to have your career ended, but regardless he was a great support for other Indigenous players in the team and was part of Adelaide’s leadership group.
2017 was a great year for Tex, Eddie Betts, and the whole Adelaide team. They finished on the top of the AFL ladder and were big favourites to win the whole competition. They won their first two finals resoundingly, given them even more momentum going into the Grand Final. But this is where the weirdness started.
Before every final, the two teams line up on the ground opposite each other while the Australian national anthem is played. Most players stand pretty relaxed, and a lot sing along with the anthem. The Crows decided to do things differently this year, and during each anthem they would stand, arms at the side, staring at the other team’s players. Image for context. It was truly bizarre, but people sort of laughed it off because the Crows were playing so well.
The 2017 AFL Grand Final was played on September 30th. Adelaide played against Richmond. Adelaide were favourites to win the game.
The Crows started the game off with their weird national anthem power pose, and they were leading through the first quarter, so all seemed like it was going to plan. Then the players promptly forgot how to play football, and Richmond dominated the whole rest of the game. It was embarrassing for the players and the club. Taylor Walker’s concession speech after the game was criticised for being short and therefore disrespectful.
While the Crows were embarrassed, Richmond players and fans celebrated like there was no tomorrow. The Grand Final entertainment had been rock band the Killers, and Richmond player Jack Riewoldt sang Mr. Brightside on stage with them after the game. Not part of the drama, just a fun fact.
So the Grand Final was a disaster, but at least Adelaide had made it that far, right? They were the best team for most of the season, so all they’d have to do next year is make some minor tweaks and hopefully they’d get another chance.
From January 29 to February 2, the Adelaide players went on a four-day camp with a consultancy group called Collective Minds. They’d been with the team through 2017, and they were the ones behind the Crows’ national anthem power poses, believing it would intimidate the opposition players. Collective Minds and the Crows leadership thought the reason for the Grand Final loss was a lack of “mental toughness”, and the camp was meant to help the team toughen up. Nothing was really said about the camp at the time, and retreats aren’t unusual in pre-season training, so nobody outside the club paid it any mind.
As part of the pre-season, the AFL introduced a brand new kind of game called AFLX. AFLX was stupid and filled with gimmicks and sponsored content, so it was mocked and nobody took it very seriously. Nevertheless, the Adelaide Crows won their AFLX competition, so it looked like things were on track for a good 2018 season.
There was only one sign of weirdness before the season started: Eddie Betts was removed from the team’s leadership group. This meant that the team didn’t have any Indigenous players in the leadership group anymore, which is not a very good look.
Adelaide’s 2018 season got off to a good start. They played Richmond in Round 2 and won this time, so people thought they’d recovered from the embarrassing loss. After Round 9, they had 6 wins and 3 losses, so they were sitting in 4th on the AFL ladder. So far so good!
Then the Crows lost their next four matches. They recovered a little bit and still finished the season with a winning record, but it was only 12 wins and 10 losses, so they finished in 12th place. Not good enough to play in the finals series, which is a big slump after making the previous year’s Grand Final. Clearly something had gone wrong.
During the season is when the scrutiny around the camp really started. The players had all apparently signed non-disclosure agreements, so details were sketchy and it was mostly rumours floating around. It was mostly portrayed as a “mental toughness” boot camp. There were rumours that the players had been forced to listen to Richmond’s club song on repeat (which is honestly a banger). The Crows acknowledged that the camp hadn’t worked, and before the 2018 season had even ended they cut ties with Collective Minds. They said it was an amicable and mutual decision, but obviously people speculated that there was more behind the scenes.
Probably the worst rumours were that Collective Minds had misused an Indigenous artefact, which upset some of the Indigenous players. This was denied, but with Eddie Betts no longer being a part of the leadership group it was clear that something had gone down.
To cap things off, at the end of the year, Crows player Mitch McGovern requested a trade away from the team. He was vague about his reasons, but did acknowledge that it was at least in part because of the pre-season camp.
2019 was another failed season. Rumours about the camp continued to cloud anything the Crows were doing. The team reached Round 13 in the top 4, but then lost 7 of their last 9 games and again missed out on the finals series. The club held a review into their football department to figure out what went wrong. Don Pyke quit as coach, and Taylor Walker stepped down as captain (though he continued on as a player). Once the review was complete, it was recommended that both Brett Burton and Scott Camporeale should be sacked, which was promptly done. This means out of those five guys I mentioned at the start, only Mark Ricciuto was left with his job.
On top of the cleanout of leadership positions at the club, a whole swathe of players left the club during the off-season:
Four players who had spent most of their careers at the club all requested trades to other clubs (Sam Jacobs, Hugh Greenwood, Alex Keath, and Josh Jenkins). Three of them (Jacobs, Greenwood, and Jenkins) had been key parts of the 2017 team that made the Grand Final.
Cam Ellis-Yolmen, an Indigenous player, left as a free agent.
Andy Otten and Richard Douglas, two veteran players, retired.
Most importantly, Eddie Betts left and returned to Carlton. This was a very big shock to the system for a lot of Crows fans since he was easily the club’s most popular player.
So there was a cleanout of coaches and administrators, and there was a cleanout of the playing group. This set the team up for a fresh start in 2020 to put the camp behind them and focus on the future.
We all know what changed the world in early 2020. COVID affected the AFL, just like it did to every other sport worldwide. After the first round of games was finished in mid-March, the rest of the season was postponed indefinitely. It didn’t come back until June, and it was to be a shortened season with shortened matches. Making things harder, players were under very strict COVID protocols and weren’t allowed to train as a group.
COVID was especially hard on the Crows. A brand new coach (Matthew Nicks) didn’t get to work with the group as much as he would’ve liked. A lot of the players hadn’t played together yet because of the huge turnover at the end of 2019. The Crows then made it worse for themselves by breaching COVID protocols and getting in trouble with the AFL.
Things didn’t get better when they started playing, and Adelaide made it through their first thirteen games without winning a single one. They finished the season in 18th place out of 18 teams, their first ever “Wooden Spoon”. So things were about as bad as could be on the field.
Off the field, things managed to get even worse, because on July 4th, journalist Sam McClure published an article about the 2018 pre-season camp. Relying on anonymous sources (because of the non-disclosure agreements about the camp), McClure gave the first in-depth look at what actually happened with brand new details. And somehow, this new truth was even worse than any of the rumours had made it out.
The original article is no longer up (for reasons I’ll get to in a bit), but you can still view it through archive.org here. To summarise the key points:
The club doctor (Marc Cesana) and the club welfare boss (Emma Barr) were not allowed to attend the camp with the players. That should’ve been a red flag right from the start.
The players were split into three groups, with group one consisting of the older/senior players, who were going to go through the “toughest” regimen. This is where most of the bad stuff happened. Group one was blindfolded before being put on a bus to an undisclosed location in the middle of the woods. They were then forced to hand in their phones and didn’t get them back until the end of the camp.
The first exercise for group one was to pair up and stare at each other’s eyes. During this exercise, one player, Tom Lynch, fainted. He was told to get back up and resume the exercise even after he began vomiting. The other players had to demand that he be given medical attention before they let the club doctor come and take him away for medical attention.
At night, the players had a “sharing session” where they had to use an Indigenous artefact called a talking stick. The Indigenous players found this culturally offensive.
For one activity, players were harnessed to a tree, and to get out they’d have to crawl towards a combat knife 10 metres away. Meanwhile, their teammates were made to hold them back and hurl verbal abuse at them. This abuse got very personal, bringing up childhood trauma and domestic abuse.
Club doctor Marc Cesana wrote a report after the camp detailing the issues with what happened. This was never released or acted on.
The McClure article, as well as televised comments from journalist Caroline Wilson, caused a major storm. The state premier (equivalent to a U.S. state Governor) suggested that the camp should be investigated for breaking work safety legislation. Collective Minds hit back, suing McClure and Wilson for defamation. The Adelaide Crows and Collective Minds continue to deny these details had any truth to them.
At the end of 2020, the Crows’ player exodus continued. The changes from 2017 to 2020 made the team completely unrecognisable from what it used to be. The most striking change was in the Indigenous players. According to the McClure article, a group of four Indigenous players (including Eddie Betts) tried to address the club about the camp. The club’s solution was that the Indigenous players could just be excluded from the Collective Minds program. This did not go down well. Of those four players, only one of them was still at the team in 2020.
2021 was mostly uneventful aside from the ongoing he-said-she-said about the camp. SafeWork SA cleared Collective Minds of any wrongdoing, but that just meant they hadn’t broken any laws. Adelaide had another poor season on the field, but it was slightly better than 2020, and that was expected as they were basically trying to build a team from scratch at this point.
One thing worth mentioning is what Taylor Walker did. Near the end of 2021, he was heard making a racist comment towards an Indigenous player at a SANFL game (a smaller Australian rules football competition in South Australia). He was suspended from the AFL for six matches and had to make a $20,000 donation to an Indigenous program. He apologised for making the comment, but that apology was in itself controversial. This wasn’t directly related to the camp, but it was another incident at the club involving racism towards an Indigenous Australian.
Things took a turn in February 2022. Both The Age (the newspaper Sam McClure wrote for) and Channel Nine (the TV channel Caroline Wilson works for) issued apologies and retracted a number of articles about the camp, including McClure’s original article. This is why the article is no longer available on The Age’s website.
People naturally concluded that the article was exaggerated, and the camp wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be. So it’s all over, right?
Eddie Betts had retired from the AFL altogether at the end of the 2021 season, and on August 3rd this year he released his autobiography. In it, he has a chapter detailing the events of the camp.
The biggest focus was put on what he said about the talking stick.
“The camp ended up appropriating a First Nations peoples’ ritual of a ‘talking stick’ and attempting to apply it to all of us, even the non-Indigenous players and coaches,” he wrote.
“In my view, the talking stick was used incorrectly, and I was not aware that any Elder had given permission for it to be used either.
“There was all sorts of weird shit that was disrespectful to many cultures, but particularly and extremely disrespectful to my culture.”
Overall, what he had to say agreed with basically everything that the McClure article had said. He even confirmed that the Richmond club song had indeed been played on repeat during a training session. So the camp was exactly as fucked up as people thought.
Now that a player was finally speaking up about the camp, you would think that the club would stop trying to run away from it and finally acknowledge that they did something wrong. To the club’s credit, the CEO did issue an apology to Eddie Betts both personally and publicly. Even the CEO of the AFL piped in to apologise to Eddie. But this is where Mark Ricciuto comes back into things.
I’m going to include his quote in full:
It’s sad to hear Eddie write that, because he’s been one of the greats of the football club… player welfare is always number one no matter what’s going on.
You always want everyone to be happy and all that, so it’s very sad that Eddie’s written that.
I think the club has been on record at times to say that they acknowledge that it wasn’t handled perfectly.
It had all good intentions but didn’t go perfectly… we all love Eddie and hopefully Eddie is getting over that.
That was four years ago, certainly the club’s moved on from that, and are looking towards the future and have made a lot of ground since back then.
It has come up in Eddie’s book and that is fair enough.
Ricciuto has been rightly criticised for attempting to brush it off and basically saying that Eddie should just move on. Here’s a Reddit thread full of complaints about him. The general sentiment is that he’s an idiot and should be nowhere near an administrative position at the club. Sadly nothing has come of this (yet) and he still has his job. He also still has his job as an AFL commentator, which means AFL fans are still subjected to his voice for three hours every week.
Betts finally speaking out about the camp inspired a couple of other Crows players to also speak out about things.
Josh Jenkins was one of those players who left in the big exodus at the end of 2019. He released a statement on radio station SEN giving his perspective on the camp, and it somehow made the camp look even worse.
Josh Jenkins comes from a less privileged background than a lot of other players, but he specifically requested that this not be brought up at all during the camp.
As Eddie stated in his book… I also took a phone call with the supposed counsellor and - again, expressed my desire that my unusual upbringing was of no significance to me as an athlete or teammate.
I - in a naive bid to allow these people to improve me - explained to this person how I was raised by my non-biological grandmother and have had no meaningful relationship with my parents.
I stated more than once I wanted none of my upbringing to be used or even spoken of during or after the camp. Something which was promised to me - but in my view, a promise that was broken.
This brings us back to the harness activity. I mentioned before that players were forced to hurl abuse at their teammates, some of it on a personal level. Despite the promise that his upbringing would not even be mentioned during the camp, camp facilitators taunted him about his upbringing as he struggled through the “ritual”.
I’m choosing not to reveal some of those comments because I know people who care about me are reading… but I can say for sure those comments were fed to the facilitators and I believe some of the info was passed along from people within our club.
Jenkins also described one conversation he had with one of the camp’s facilitators.
I got into a chat with one of the facilitators who told me he occasionally gets voices in his head… I asked how do you get them to stop… he said he sits under a tree until the voices stop.
He said they took two days to stop so he sat beneath a tree for two days.
I only include that info to explain how misguided this whole situation was… how could you possibly allow someone of that nature to be in control of high-performing professional athletes?
Lastly, Jenkins revealed that the players had not actually signed non-disclosure agreements, instead the club had signed them on the players’ behalf.
We were sworn to secrecy even from teammates on different versions of the group.
Myself and a coach stood up one session and demanded we tell each other what happened and the CEO or Football Manager (I cannot recall who exactly who) stood up and said we were unable to because the club had signed confidentiality agreements on everyone’s behalf.
I said, "I did not sign a damn thing".
Bryce Gibbs was the third (and so far final) player to speak out about the camp. I haven’t mentioned him yet, because he actually wasn’t a part of the team during the 2017 Grand Final. He was raised in South Australia but played for Carlton for most of his AFL career. At the end of 2017 he requested a trade to Adelaide so that he could come back home, which means the pre-season camp was basically his first experience with the club.
Gibbs spoke out mostly to back up what Betts and Jenkins had already said, and to express regret that he didn’t speak out at the time.
When I reflect, this is where I feel really disappointed in myself, this is when I started to take a back seat, watching guys stand up and say 'this is not on, we need to address this, we need to tell people what happened', they seemed to get shut down pretty quickly.
Reflecting on those ongoing conversations when we were trying to flush it out, I do regret not speaking up when I probably should've been a more experienced and senior player of that group.
There are still some unanswered questions about the camp:
What was in the club doctor’s report that never got published?
Why did SafeWork SA conclude that there was no wrongdoing?
Who the fuck thought this was a good idea in the first place?
The effect on the Adelaide Crows is obvious enough. On-field they’ve had to endure a few years of failure after failure. Off-field they’ve had to clean out a lot of their senior staff to prevent this from happening again. The club’s reputation with Indigenous players is tarnished. There are players whose careers were derailed by the camp who never recovered.
If the last five years are anything to go by, this isn’t the end of the camp story, but you could see the events of this August as giving some kind of closure. We finally have detailed first-hand accounts of what happened, which has settled all the debate about how bad the camp really was. Now knowing what happened, and with most of the involved people no longer involved, there’s not much more to play out.
That being said, people are still mad about the lack of consequences for those involved. It’s clear that the players all suffered, and three of the staff responsible eventually lost their jobs, but the club’s administration is yet to suffer any real consequences or penalties for what they allowed to happen.
Personally, I'm a big fan of the Adelaide Crows, so the whole situation infuriates me to no end. The last five years have been a trainwreck that just keeps getting worse. Writing this all out has been a bit cathartic for me, and hopefully now that there's some clarity on the situation that means there's a light at the end of the tunnel. If nothing else, this saga has helped illuminate some of the cultural issues you see in football (the racism and the whole idea of "toughness"), so hopefully the Crows can work towards fixing those issues now.