One minute, you’re an AFL star, playing in front of packed stadiums and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. By the end of this week, when the AFL’s short, sharp trade period ends, you might be on the footy scrapheap.

It’s a sobering prospect that faces players at all 16 clubs as the recruiting and coaching staffs of all teams huddle this week, to swap horseflesh and bandy about the names of players, many of whom have no idea they’re even “trade bait”. Trade Week isn’t known as “the meat market” for nothing.

According to the AFL Players’ Association general manager, operations, Matt Finnis, between 80 and 100 players will fall out of AFL footy at the end of the average season. While many of those have already had the dreaded call to the coach’s office, to clear room for the November draft’s teenage rookies and potential pick-ups from this week or the pre-season draft, others are about to find they’re unemployed.

It can be quite a large fall for a seasoned AFL star.

Finnis says established players who finish Trade Week without a football home will still be hoping to convince a club of their worth by the drafts to come, but the reality is that many will be unsuccessful and their rejection is already being prepared for. The Players’ Association (PA), working closely with the clubs, monitors the exit of every player from the elite level. A qualified career transition manager will meet all 80 to 100 players, and the PA’s full-time psychologist is deeply involved.

Some players are so angry at being dumped that they want nothing more to do with their club, meaning the PA’s staff provides a caring, independent support network when it’s needed, and clubs make a point of letting the PA know which players are taking rejection badly, and need to be watched more carefully.

This time of year has always been a dangerous and tense stage of the AFL system – especially the November draft where a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds may feel like their whole lives depend on their name being called out – and the League has long worried that an overlooked kid might do something stupid.

The systems are in place, as much as they can be. This is not the time to say it’s only a game.

Peter Fray

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