A few weeks ago, the Australian Football League became the first major sporting code in Australia to make vaccines mandatory for all players and staff across Both men’s and women’s competitions.
The AFL’s decision follows a pattern of vaccine mandates affecting other workforces as Australia prepares to bring down its internal borders.
Healthcare, resources, education and retail are just some of the sectors required to have full vaccine coverage as state governments work to overcome lingering vaccine hesitancy.
With one notable exemption, professional athletes have avoided government mandates, which makes the AFL’s decision to take such a strong stance even bolder.
How the AFL navigated this significant policy change offers lessons on successfully communicating major transformations.
Aside from a few vocal critics – namely Melbourne premiership player Tom McDonald and Adelaide player Deni Vernhagen specifically – the AFL has thus far managed to avoid too much pushback, with five Victorian teams already reporting 100 per cent vaccination rates.
The messaging around the decision played a significant role in achieving this.
Before making it official, the AFL carried out an education program across the industry and clubs and conducted extensive engagement with the AFL Players’ Association to reach a majority agreement.
In the statement announcing the decision, the AFL was sure to reference the AFPLA’s involvement in the first line to reinforce that it was a collaborative decision resulting from thorough consultation, not an edict from above.
It also framed the decision as not only being the best way to uphold its responsibility to keep its players, staff, and the community safe, but also the best way to return to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy.
With the loss of two AFL grand finals for Melbourne fresh in people’s memories, this was an important reminder of what was at stake.
The timing was another important factor.
By announcing the policy months out from the next season, players and fans will have time to grow accustomed to the idea, and any backlash will likely be a distant memory.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the AFL is in a unique position of strength as the only professional league for Australian rules football in the world, leaving individual players with little leverage.
So how does the AFL’s decision compare with other sporting codes without that luxury?
The National Rugby League has taken a much softer approach by introducing different protocols for unvaccinated players instead.
The NRL went so far as to rule out issuing a mandate, instead pointing out that Victoria’s requirement for all professional sportspeople to be fully vaccinated made it a moot point.
In doing so, the NRL avoided the controversy it attracted when it encouraged players to get the flu vaccine ahead of the 2020 season restarting.
The A-League, Australia’s peak soccer competition, has followed suit in not mandating vaccinations, declaring its policies to be secondary to those of airlines and stadiums.
However, retired star Archie Thompson has called for the league to take a stronger stance, even if it costs the league some big-name players, as another retired player Alex Brosque believes will happen.
Unlike the AFL, the A-League doesn’t have the luxury of time, with the start of the season rapidly approaching.
For the National Basketball League, players have already left over vaccinations.
Despite the NBL not requiring vaccinations, the restrictions on unvaccinated players prompted two brothers to leave the competition.
The AFL’s strong stance can’t be entirely attributed to its position at the top of its respective sport.
The world’s biggest basketball league, the National Basketball Association, has required vaccinations for its staff and referees, but not the players.
But laws in New York and San Francisco restricting unvaccinated players on home teams from participating has left several marquee teams in strange positions.
For the Brooklyn Nets, their marquee star Kyrie Irving made his unwillingness to get vaccinated known early, leading the team to declare him ineligible for all games rather than have him in and out of the line-up.
As a result, Irving has become a beacon for the anti-vaxxer movement in the United States, with a crowd of people protesting on his behalf outside the Nets’ home opener in late October.
In failing to take ownership of the situation and announce a firm policy, the NBA demonstrated a lack of leadership that detracts from its on-court product.
Although Australian rules football is a small sport in terms of global participation rate, the AFL’s communications strategy has set a high benchmark for dealing with complicated issues such as vaccination mandates.
By collaborating with key stakeholders like the AFLPA early and often and clearly explaining why it was necessary, the AFL was able to announce the decision at a time of its choosing and lead from a position of strength.
Contact CGM Communications for help developing your change communication strategy and coordinating your stakeholder engagement policy.