IT IS ALMOST 30 years since the family of the late Charles Brownlow wrote to the then VFL pleading for no change to be made in the criteria of football’s iconic best and fairest award. Neil Roberts has been an unflagging ally. Chief writer RON REED reports:
THERE were many qualities that made Neil Roberts one of the best footballers of his era, captaining St Kilda, playing regularly for Victoria, winning the 1958 Brownlow Medal and eventually being inducted into the hall of Fame. One was a strong sense of fair play. Another was a refusal to give up when the going got tough, as it did very often for the struggling Saints back in the day.
That persistence has come into play in various ways since the old centre half-back, who is now 84, hung up his leather-stopped boots. Perhaps it has resonated most loudly in his campaign to prevent the eligibility criteria for the Brownlow being changed from best and fairest to simply best. This week, the debate flared again as it emerged that Geelong champion Patrick Dangerfield would become ineligible to win “Charlie” for the second year in a row because he was suspended for an illegal tackle on Carlton ruckman Matthew Kreuzer, which many considered to be a minor infraction and therefore not worthy of such a major ramification.
And, on cue, there was “Coconut” again, on the back page of the Herald Sun, railing against any such change – and vowing to send his medal back to the league if it ever happens. He has filled that same space, mounting the same argument, several times down the years and it always makes for emotional reading. “I would hand mine back if they took the word ‘fairest’ out of the citation,” he said. “There would be no point having it.”
The change, he said, would be “unthinkable and intolerable,” adding: “I understand it is very easy to break a rule now and then, particularly in today’s football. It’s very vigorous, very fast and very demanding and there is a lot of manpower in it because it is a tackling game now, but you have got to retain the fairness part because it is an insult to the past champions otherwise. It is a sacred thing in football and should never be violated. If you remove the fairest criteria you open the gates to violence and the carry-through to junior level is unacceptable. It could become a cruel business instead of a sport.”
It is now almost 30 years since the family of the man after whom the medal was named, Charles Brownlow, mounted their own campaign to prevent the criteria being changed – that’s how long this debate has been going on. They enlisted Roberts’s help back then, and the battle was won, at least for the time being. One of the key elements of the fight was an articulate and emotional letter written by three of Brownlow’s grandchildren – one of them also named Charles – to the directors of the VFL, as it was then, in November 1988. In it, they argued that the Brownlow was different from all other awards for players judged merely the best, and that their late grandfather’s values should not be diluted or denigrated.
Roberts has kept a copy of the letter, which he still uses from time to time to assist him in speeches he makes on the topic. A couple of years ago, after one such oration, he lent the letter to me, and it is well past time I returned it to him. But before I do, this week’s events make it newsworthy again so sportshounds republishes it. It is an interesting document just to look at, written on a typewriter and now freely marked with highlighter and Roberts’ own handwritten notes in the margins that he incorporates into the speeches.
These say: “So much more prestige attached to it, making it all the more attractive to strive for, as well as being a very fitting basis for behaviour within a contact game. It is sport which calls for sportsmanship, instead of pandering to the win at all costs mores of today’s society. Keeps footy in the category of sport.”
Some will call that old-fashioned, many will agree wholeheartedly. One thing is certain, this is one contest Roberts will fight out right up until the final siren.
THE BROWNLOW FAMILY LETTER
The Victorian Football League
We, the grandchildren of the late Charles Brownlow, are dismayed at the reported intention of the VFL to consider deleting or depreciating the stipulation of ‘fairest’ from the criteria for selection for the Brownlow Medal. We write to express our opposition to the proposed change.
Charles Brownlow served the game of football as player, Club Captain, Coach and Administrator in various roles within and outside his own club, Geelong, from before 1880 until his death in 1924. A month after this event, the permit committee of the Victorian Football League, a body which Brownlow himself had helped found, resolved to acknowledge his contribution to football in these terms –
“To perpetuate the memory of Charles Brownlow and his many years of most valuable service to the Australian game as player, club Secretary, Delegate and Vice President of the League and President of the Australian national Football Council, a gold and enamel medal of the value of ten pounds shall be presented annually by the League to the best and fairest player in the premiership matches each season – the medal to be called the Brownlow Medal.”
These were the terms with which those who knew Charles Brownlow thought the most fitting ones for the award they instigated in his honour. It is fair to assume they perpetuate the values he stood for, and we see no reason for them to be changed now that there is no possibility of his being remembered personally by VFL people.
There are plenty of awards in football that can be won by anybody – by the brutal or hothead player as well as by the merely skilful – all he has to do is be judged ‘the best.’ But who remembers from one season to the next who drove away in which gleaming car? The Brownlow is different. To win it, one has to be not merely the best, but also fair – to play the game according to the rules. It’s a fairly minimal definition of ‘the fairest’ after all. To be eligible, one merely has to avoid being found guilty during that particular season of an offence severe enough to incur suspension. Is that a great deal to ask?
Are the proposers of the change suggesting that the Brownlow is awarded only to wimps? In the light of some recent awards, there seems little danger of that! There is a lot of pious talk these days of trying to combat violence in League football. One has only to watch television coverage of the game to realise that the medium thrives on ‘incidents’ which only too often involve players behaving violently. It seems that the notion that one cannot be a real star player without being violent is actually gaining ground and that moves such as the proposal to change the conditions on which the Brownlow is awarded will only serve to confirm it.
People do remember the winners of the Brownlow. It is special. How about keeping it that way?
We request that our letter be submitted to the VFL Board when the matter of the Brownlow Medal rules is considered.
Copies of this letter are being sent to Melbourne newspapers.
AUDREY TREGEA, K. H. WATT, CHARLES E. BROWNLOW
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.