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Graduating with a Guernsey

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Photograph courtesty of NMFC.com.au

The Australian Football League (AFL) is an integral part of the city of Melbourne. AFL clubs possess near cult followings, and their players are equal in notoriety with rock stars and celebrities.

But the average professional football player’s career lasts only a few years, and many of these players are eventually found to not be adequately equipped for life after football. As a result, the AFL and its club are beginning to focus on preparing players for the realities of the world outside the game.

Some of these players have turned to the University of Melbourne as part of that preparation. One such player, Jamie Macmillan, a defender for the North Melbourne Football Club, spoke to Farrago about how he has blended the life of a professional footballer with that of a student at the university.

Macmillan, who is currently studying for a Bachelor of Commerce degree, noted that he belongs to a minority, as part of only 15 percent of players within North Melbourne undertaking tertiary education alongside their football.

However while he cops some banter from his teammates for being ‘a bit of a brain’, it is his status as an AFL player amongst his fellow students which makes Macmillan most self-conscious. He says that he is ‘absolutely reluctant’ to inform his classmates of his other occupation, wanting to ‘avoid at all costs’ the associated fame of being an AFL player within the student community.

Despite this Macmillan still endorses his dual-life as a student and footballer for its numerous benefits, even with the added trials including an extensive time commitment. In the all-consuming world of the Melbourne AFL bubble, study has allowed Macmillan a release from the intense stresses and demands requisite of professional sport In his own words, ‘being able to come home after a game and hit the books and listen to a lecture is a great way to get my mind off it’.

Macmillan praises the mutually receptive relationship between the club and the university that has allowed him to focus on his degree and football career simultaneously with success. During crucial study periods the ‘awesome’ coaching staff allow him to substitute training sessions to focus on his assignments. North Melbourne also allocates its players four hours per week to focus on ‘Professional Development’ activities, which Macmillan uses towards his education. Furthermore, Macmillan has made professional contacts through his association with the club that he hopes will be of use to him following the completion of his degree.

The university likewise provides numerous options to students like Macmillan who are also professional sportspeople to help with the workload. The University of Melbourne has an Elite Athlete Program that gives offers professional athletes help and flexibility with completing their degree, through such means as allowances with coursework.

Macmillan observes ‘that a lot more people need to realise that a football career doesn’t set you up for life’, lauding the new schemes implemented by the League with ‘push [life after football] enormously’. For example, the AFL Players Association (AFLPA) provides studying footballers with grants to help them overcome costs associated with tertiary education, and even assists players with satisfying the requirements for gaining entrance into their prospective courses. Macmillan notes that whilst it might only be a minority of players who are actually enrolled at university, ‘up to 75 per cent are doing some sort of work to prepare for life after footy’ as a result of the AFLPA initiative. Still, he feels that improvements can continue to be made so long as there are players not yet utilising the system to their utmost advantage; a situation he summarises by saying ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’.

Nevertheless, Macmillan is part of the increasing trend of professional athletes focusing on their education, a movement in which the University of Melbourne is set to play a key role.