It is a high-30s day at Waverley Park. The pre-season competition is under way and the Demons are sweating through their training routine. In the midst of them the ‘Reverend’, a great hunk of muscle in navy singlet and shorts, strides around with half a dozen large plastic bottles in his arms. He offers them to the players, and all eagerly accept a drink.
Neale Daniher, senior coach of the Melbourne Football Club, says it is just this kind of presence that makes club chaplain Cameron Butler so valuable. ‘Cameron’s been a great asset to us over the last couple of years,’ Daniher says. ‘It’s important to be visible, important to be there in that situation with them. It’s good that on 40 degree days he’s out there being part of the whole process, not just blowing in one minute and blowing out.’
Most professional sport clubs now recognise that a champion team is about more than just physical skills and fitness. In the Australian Football League 12 of the 16 teams have chaplains, and the others are set to follow suit. It was football manager Danny Corcoran who brought the idea to the Melbourne club from Essendon, where he had seen the value of a chaplain. ‘He introduced me as Cameron Butler, who’s here to look after your spiritual needs,’ says Cameron.
Touched by ‘The Rev’
Cameron, an Assemblies of God minister, believes a chaplain’s greatest effectiveness stems from the voluntary nature of the job. ‘If we were paid, we’d be told what to do. We want to develop trust with the players. A lot of players wouldn’t talk to paid people in the club because they’d feel that if they talked about certain issues their position on the team would be threatened. The role of the chaplain is to be someone they can sound off to, speak to about issues so it won’t threaten their position on the team. It’s a position of confidentiality, high trust, relationship building.’
Most of the players welcomed him, though some shrugged him off with, as Cameron says, a bit of attitude. ‘Maybe one of the reasons was, they saw a chaplain, a man of God, as coming to judge rather than to love them. One of my great aims here is to show them that I love them and God loves them and wants his best for them.
‘The first time I rocked up to training I had one of the blokes ask to talk to me. I didn’t know whether he was serious or joking around, because some of the blokes like to joke around with me. He said, no, he really needed to speak to me, so we got together in the gymnasium in the city with the other guys playing basketball and doing weights, and he began to offload about some of the issues that had kept him out of the game for some weeks. People thought it was injury-related, but it was actually family issues going on.
‘I asked him if I could pray for him… I laid hands on him, and as I was praying there was a tangible presence of God. I’m experiencing it and wondering if the guy I’m praying for is experiencing it. I got to the end of my prayer and said, “in Jesus’ name.” I expressed a sigh of relief and a sense of “wow, God, you’re awesome!” I opened my eyes to see him, and he finishes off by saying, “oooh, amen!” Obviously he experienced something very tangible, very powerful.
‘The fruit of it was that the disquiet in the family that was occurring, through a bit of hard work and through a great witness, turned right around. He expressed at the end of that year to the coach and the players how his life was touched immeasurably by the ministry of “The Rev”, the chaplain. Glory to God!’
Better Player and Better Person
Though success on the field is naturally the primary motive at the club, Cameron brings a longer-term view to the players. ‘My goal at the Melbourne Football Club is to influence people,’ he says. ‘I want to influence in many different ways, and pursue excellence off the field. I want them to become not just a better player, I want them to become a better person, because their life goes on after football.’
He spends time with players about to retire—a critical point of change. ‘When you’re a football player everything’s done for you,’ he says. ‘You have all the money you need, all the girls, all the fun you need. There’s a huge chasm between that and reality. The AFL are addressing that now in their players’ association, but it’s still good to have someone like a chaplain there who can lessen the burdens and help them keep focused.’
The average yearly wage for a player is $101,000, and although Cameron stresses every cent is earned, he points out the lifestyle problems such a large income can bring—gambling, for instance. ‘It’s like someone winning Tattslotto. All of a sudden they’ve got all this money and they’re not prepared for it, haven’t got the skills to cope with it. Quite often people who win a lot of money also lose a lot of money very quickly, and I guess it’s like that in football clubs—people come from relative obscurity, relative poverty, and all of a sudden they’re making huge pay packets.’
Star player Marcus Seecamp appreciates Cameron’s input into his career. ‘There’s a lot of pressure on professional sports people to perform nowadays,’ Seecamp says, ‘and you’ll find that a lot of young kids, if they don’t get the right teaching, they can tend to fall in this pressure hold. It’s like you’re not living up to people’s expectations. I went through that… I spoke to Cameron about it and he really helped me along.
‘He probably got me out of it, because I didn’t feel like approaching the coach or someone within the football administration. It was good to have Cameron there—it gives players an opportunity to meet with someone outside the football club who’s got a mutual understanding of problems we face.’
The high level of professionalism was on Danny Corcoran’s mind when he moved to Melbourne. ‘He was concerned we may have suicide-related deaths,’ says Cameron, ‘because a player might have built up all this expectation to do very well and then doesn’t make the grade. He’s got these hopes of making lots of money and then all of a sudden it’s pulled out from under him to the point where he may want to do something stupid. So rather than waiting for that to happen, it shows wisdom from someone like Danny to say, hey, we want to try and nip it in the bud before it gets that far.’
Big Days, Big Crowds
Cameron regards the players and staff and their families as his own extended family. There are nearly 800 of them. ‘What more can I want?’ he asks. ‘I love sport. I love serving the guys. I love big days, big crowds… What more can you ask for?
‘Before I became a chaplain I was at a point in the ministry where I was saying, God, I want to see your glory go outside the four walls of the church—saying, God, what you’re doing inside the four walls, let’s get it out there, let’s make a difference. That was when the chaplaincy position became available. I think this is the high point for me.’
‘Fantastic,’ says Neale Daniher. ‘For our first game he travelled all the way over to Adelaide with his family for the weekend. The players realise he’s got a genuine love and concern for the club and for them, and it’s terrific for the players to see.’
Cameron, a Sports and Leisure Ministries chaplain, is the Australian Christian Churches’ sports ministry representative on the Quest Committee for the Sydney Olympics. Anyone interested in sports chaplaincy can contact him on (03) 9893 2526 or at [email protected]
Article by Adrian Brookes