From all reports, the death of the
Kangaroos supporter who had a run-in with Dean Laidley at the end of Sunday’s
game had nothing to do with the confrontation. The man’s relatives were quick to
announce the incident had nothing to do with their son’s death, and that Dean
Laidley was not to blame.

Given the pressure Laidley is under, his
general intensity as a coach, and the unpleasant job of walking through a crowd
after his team’s seventh loss of the season, the Kangaroos coach’s reaction to some pointed
comments from a crowd member – to invite the man to the rooms to see how much
the team was hurting – was the remarkably poised act of a coach looking for
understanding, not more hostility.

The biggest lesson, for all of us, is a
reminder that we don’t know the hidden demons within those we deal with on a
daily basis. Whether giving “the bird” to somebody at a traffic light or
bawling out a work mate, we rarely know what’s going on behind the masks people
wear.

In normal circumstances, AFL folk like to boast
about how “tough” their environment is, the harshness of competition, the
mental and physical demands. The stakes are high and “winning at all costs” is
the guiding principle. Players are brutally cut from a team list at the end of
a season and coaches understand that the end of their association with a team,
when it inevitably comes, will almost certainly not be pretty. The emotional
wounds often run deep.

Every year, there is unspoken concern for
the health of the teenagers whose names are NOT called out in the national
draft. Clubs have also become more aware of the mental health of players within
their walls, with several players in recent years able to openly admit to
suffering depression.

But despite all of this, thankfully, it is
rarely life or death. The vast majority of fans are able to safely return from
the heights of negative passion a bad game can provoke.

The Age‘s report,
that Laidley was at home, “haunted” by the man’s death, was instructive. Let’s hope he can see quickly that this
death, while tragic, is not his personal burden.

Peter Fray

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