Former AFL Player Travis Cloke On What Coronavirus Means for the Sport

Travis Cloke

Former AFL player Travis Cloke was born into a football family. His father, David Cloke, played for both Richmond and Collingwood, and two of his brothers also played for the Magpies.

In 2004, at the age of 17, Cloke was drafted under the father-son rule at Collingwood while he was still in year 11.

With a career spanning 12 years, the footballer played 246 games but during 2016, he fell out of love with playing the game, and after a six-month hiatus, Cloke joined the Western Bulldogs in 2017, the year after they had won the premiership.

“It wasn’t what I wanted,” Cloke said during an interview with TheLatch—. “I just wanted to fly under the radar a bit. I really enjoyed it and really loved it but footy just wasn’t for me anymore.”

At the time, the 33-year-old had just gotten married to wife Rebeccah who was pregnant with their first daughter Scarlett.

“I had a lot going on away from footy that probably became more of an interest for me and that’s where life took me, more down the family road and I haven’t looked back,” he added.

Now, Cloke works full-time at Collingwood in their pathways and academy program and he and his wife are also expecting their second child in September 2020.

“It’s meant to be Grand Final week, but who knows,” he said.

Back in March, AFL chief Gillon McLachlan announced unprecedented changes to the game due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

The length of the season would be reduced from 23 rounds to a maximum of 17 and no fans are allowed to attend and currently, due to social distancing restrictions, players, coaches and club staff, including Cloke, have all been stood down.

So, what does this mean for the future of the sport?

Cloke talks to TheLatch— about its uncertain future and the impact, for both the clubs and the players, that the coronavirus has.

Travis Cloke
Travis Cloke and the Next Generation Academy. Instagram @TravisCloke

Anita Lyons: Travis, thank you so much for talking with me today and warmest congratulations on your impending arrival!

Can you talk a bit about what you are doing now that you are retired and what led you there?

Travis Cloke: I fell out of love with the game because it just became too much mental pressure and building anxiety during the week about playing the game. I took six months away from everything and just stayed home. I spent time with my wife, my daughter was just born and then I spoke to Luke Power who was the National Academy coach for the AFL for the under 18s. So I went to New Zealand with him for a week and I really loved it. I enjoyed the transition of teaching the next generation, the young kids of football and I that’s when the spark came back and I thought maybe I do want to stay in footy but pick where I want to actually fine-tune and educate myself. Over the last two-and-a-half, three years, I’ve really worked hard to upskill myself in the junior development space for the Next Generation Academy which is realistically the next step for AFL footballers. They really want to learn their football skills and also their life balance. How to communicate and how to interact and transition into an AFL club.

AL: It sounds like you love what you do!

TC: Always in the back of my head, I really enjoyed community programs. I loved going out to primary schools and interacting with children. I loved getting to know people from different walks of life throughout my football journey, so I always knew that life after football would involve these things.

I’m not doing what I’m doing because of the money. I’m doing it because I care.

AL: How has the Next Generation Academy been affected by the coronavirus?

TC: We’re still trying to interact as much as we can and try to make it active on group chats through text messages and WhatsApp. We try to keep each other engaged so we can have some kind of connection, but obviously, it’s really hard because the kids are anywhere from the age of 12 to 18, so they’ve got school, they’ve got parents who are trying to work full-time and they’re trying to get the sport in and be active but we can’t be hands-on anymore.

Looking at the big picture, the development of these children in terms of the sporting aspect is really going to hurt them later on in life. Some of these kids live in an apartment and it’s really hard to get motivated to get outside and be active, go for a run, or if you’re an only child, who can you find to kick a ball with if your parents are working?

Travis Cloke
Travis Cloke during 2017 playing for the Western Bulldogs. Getty Images.

AL: As a national sport, how has the AFL been affected?

TC: Football is not going to be the same going forward. We know that. As an organisation, we’ve taken such a financial hit, billions, and they’re never going to be able to recover that. Because if you lose six months of sport, advertising, promotion, you can’t pick that up no matter what. So, it’s a matter of survival right now.

Also, then there’s the travel aspect. We’re an Australian sport we play across all different states and we obviously can’t fly.

Players that play for other clubs have had to go back to their home states and most clubs are 250 staff and most of them have been stood down. We’re talking 1000s of people without jobs.

“We’re talking 1000s of people without jobs.”

AL: You said the sport is losing billions but what does this financial loss actually mean? Does it mean fewer games or that the player’s wages will be cut?

TC: Everyone financially will take a pay cut. But there’s going to be repercussions moving forward and not just this year. I think that will be reduced numbers in staff where that will be coaches, officials, players on their playing lists. The AFL will want to recoup costs. They’re an organisation and there’s going to be a lot of hardship because of it.

I think as an organisation, we all thought it would be fine and that we’d be able to pull it together but they’re just like every other company. They’ve got to be profitable.

They’re doing an amazing job at the moment trying to keep their head above water and fingers crossed the games are played sooner rather than later.

AL: How is the AFL community feeling right now?

TC: The last few weeks haven’t been cruisy for everyone. People are wondering when their next paycheck is coming from. How are they are going to pay their rent, put food on the table for their families and  whether they’ll have jobs in six months. We’re all in that boat now that we’ve got to look out for one another. Reach out to friends, family, colleagues and see how they’re going.

AL: What effect do you think this loss is having on those who enjoy watching a game of AFL?

TC: We’re all missing AFL on TV. So many people loved the game on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon, and they could sit down with their family and watch it — it was a relief for so many people and that’s what we’re missing.

I think the biggest issue out of all of this is mental health. Without that outlet of sport. Without those two or three hours of social connection a week, watching that game of sport is really going to impact those people going forward.

We won’t see repercussions of this for another couple of months, but the sooner we get it back on TV, I think we will be able to generate a few more positive vibes and really enjoy ourselves.

AL: How can we support the game in the short term?

TC: It really comes down to your own financial position because I have seen players paying individual memberships and it’s a lovely gesture because everyone is finding it really hard at the moment to keep going the way they used to.

It’s just about showing faith that when the sport is up and running again, get to the game and buy some merchandise and be respectful of the players.

Let’s not be too harsh, let’s remember what the things are that we missed the most and this is purely the sport.

“Let’s not be too harsh, let’s remember what the things are that we missed the most and this is purely the sport.”

Travis Cloke
Travis Cloke. Getty Images.

AL: You mentioned earlier that you took six months off from the game. How did AFL help your mental health personally?

TC: The biggest battle for me with mental health was the anxiety of the game. I was just stressed all of the time, so I removed myself from footy, but I didn’t remove myself from the club.

I still trained and was a part of the club because I loved that part. It was the game that really chewed me up and that was the issue.

So, I think we, as an organisation and community, really need to be respectful of these old professional athletes when they come back into the game.

AL: You’ve been stood down and are now spending time with Rebeccah and Scarlett. What is it like being a father of a toddler during this time?

TC: I love it. Pretty much life is as normal for me. My daughter is two-and-a-half and she’s a really outdoorsy kid, she loves animals. We live on a property and we’ve got ponies and dogs, we have lots of things happening, so she loves it. I just love being with my wife and daughter. I think it’s the hardest job in the world being a stay-at-home parent but when I’m home for a period of time, I love it.

Travis Cloke
Travis, Rebeccah and Scarlett. Instagram @TravisCloke

“I think it’s the hardest job in the world being a stay-at-home parent but when I’m home for a period of time, I love it.”

AL: How does it feel bringing a brand new baby into such an uncertain world?

TC: To be completely honest, I haven’t thought about it too much. Obviously I’m so excited to be having another one, but realistically, are we going to be able to both go to the hospital when Becky’s due date comes? I’m not allowed to go to the appointments and little things like that have changed but it’s just going to become the new norm now. We can’t read into things too much and try to take it in our stride.

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