The 1916 season of the VFL saw just four teams competing, due to World War I. This led to the anomaly of Fitzroy having the distinction of winning both the wooden spoon and the premiership in the same year, finishing 4th out of 4 but progressing through to the Grand Final in the final four finals system and winning that match.
In 1916, the VFL competition consisted of four teams of 18 on-the-field players each, with no "reserves", although any of the 18 players who had left the playing field for any reason could later resume their place on the field at any time during the match.
Each of the four teams played each other four times in a 12 match home-and-away season (each team hosting each of the others twice).
Once the 18 round home-and-away season had finished, the 1916 VFL Premiers were determined by the specific format and conventions of the amended "Argus system".
The situation of the VFL in 1916 was rather complex.
By 1916, Australian society in general, and the VFL clubs (and their respective supporters) in particular, were collectively appalled that conflict (originally thought to be one of a few months' duration) had turned into a gigantic, worldwide war of never-before-seen dimensions, and were deeply shocked by the ever increasing magnitude of the Australian casualty lists.
At the same time, the apparent egalitarian tranquillity of Melbourne and its football world, was being increasingly polarized by an ever widening series of divisive issues that arose as a consequence of the war, including:
Manhood issues, between those who saw war service as a logical extension of the physical and moral training embodied in football, and a manifestation of the unselfish chivalry and team-spirit displayed by champion athletes, and those who did not.
In a series of 1917 editorials, The Age of Melbourne constantly observed that, in its view, at least 10 of every 15 VFL senior players were fit for overseas service, and that in the absence of their enlistment, The Age could only conclude that they were either unpatriotic or cowards.
This sort of sentiment was still strongly held by its advocates for many years. In 1919, with all nine clubs back in its competition, the VFL rejected a suggestion that the Football Record place a star next to the name of each returned serviceman on its players lists. It also rejected a suggestion that returned servicemen wear a special badge on the guernsey to indicate that they had also "played the greater game".
Class issues, between a middle-class who predominantly saw preference for sporting activities over military service as a dereliction of “national duty”, and a working-class that felt it had already sacrificed far too much.
This significant division within the 1916 Melbourne population in general was further amplified by the fact that the memberships of certain clubs such as Essendon and Melbourne were almost exclusively affluent and Protestant, whilst those of Collingwood and Richmond were almost exclusively poor and Roman Catholic (Pascoe, 1996, p. 102).
Financial issues, between those who relied upon match fees to support themselves and their families, and those who did not.
In Sydney, the amateur, middle-class Rugby Union competition was suspended for 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918, while the professional, working-class Rugby League competition continued without major change.
Sporting issues between those who played football for the love of sport — often driven by the ideals of muscular Christianity — and those who played football only because they were paid to do so.
It is a matter of record that the VFA, a competition where most of players were amateurs (except for having their uniform and travel expenses reimbursed), played no matches at all in 1916 and 1917. It is also a matter of record that the VAFA, a competition where all of players were amateurs, and paid the VAFA each week to play (the money went to pay for umpires’ fees, etc.), played no matches in 1916 to 1919; however the West Australian Football League (WAFL), where in practice all players were likewise amateur, continued play throughout the war.
All of these matters were further complicated by the even more intense community polarization, involving all of the above dimensions plus the additional moral, ethical, gender, and social issues (and the various individual political allegiances) involved in the vociferous debate over the merits and demerits of the two unsuccessful attempts made by the Australian Government (on 28 October 1916 and 20 December 1917) to impose compulsory military service on young Australian men (see Conscription in Australia).
On 17 February 1916, a meeting of Essendon players made the following resolution, stating that these were the only conditions under which they would play in 1916: "That all players play as amateurs. That all gate receipts and membership subscriptions be pooled and held in trust by the League and at the end of the season, be handed over to the Patriotic Funds." The Essendon committee said it would support the players, and would find the money to cover whatever expenses were necessary to keep the team on the field. The VFL rejected the players' demands, and Essendon did not compete in 1916. Essendon did not compete in 1917 either because the VFL, once again, rejected to accept the players' demands.
Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy, and Richmond had each volunteered to devote a significant proportion of their 1916 gate receipts to what were known as Patriotic Funds and also conduct a number of special fund raising activities; however, in June 1917, an audit by the VFL of the money that each club's "patriotic fund raising" had delivered over to the State War Council disclosed that the four clubs, which had appeared to all and sundry to be suffering considerable financial distress during the 1916 season due to the reduction in gate receipts, etc., had apparently discovered that their fund raising had involved an extraordinarily large amount of "expenses". From its recorded "patriotic fund raising" receipts of ₤918, Fitzroy could only deliver ₤152 after "expenses", Collingwood ₤40 from ₤664, Richmond ₤90 from ₤614, and Carlton nothing at all from ₤884. The State War Council censured the clubs, and appointed its own supervisors to oversee the clubs' fund raising in 1917.
With only four teams in the competition, regardless of their position on the end-of-season ladder, all teams were to play in the Premiership Finals. Fitzroy with only 2 wins and a draw in the 12 match home-and-away season beat Carlton (10 wins) in the Premiership Final: the only case of a team winning both the "Wooden Spoon" and the premiership in the same season, though there is considerable debate over Richmond's claim to the "prize".
Maplestone, M., Flying Higher: History of the Essendon Football Club 1872-1996, Essendon Football Club, (Melbourne), 1996. ISBN 0-9591740-2-8
McIntyre, S., "Football weathers the storm of war", p. 91 in Ross, J. (ed), 100 Years of Australian Football 1897-1996: The Complete Story of the AFL, All the Big Stories, All the Great Pictures, All the Champions, Every AFL Season Reported, Viking, (Ringwood), 1996. ISBN 0-670-86814-0
Pascoe, R., "Local heroes — How they played", pp. 102-103 in Ross, J. (ed), 100 Years of Australian Football 1897-1996: The Complete Story of the AFL, All the Big Stories, All the Great Pictures, All the Champions, Every AFL Season Reported, Viking, (Ringwood), 1996. ISBN 0-670-86814-0
Rogers, S. & Brown, A., Every Game Ever Played: VFL/AFL Results 1897-1997 (Sixth Edition), Viking Books, (Ringwood), 1998. ISBN 0-670-90809-6
Ross, J. (ed), 100 Years of Australian Football 1897-1996: The Complete Story of the AFL, All the Big Stories, All the Great Pictures, All the Champions, Every AFL Season Reported, Viking, (Ringwood), 1996. ISBN 0-670-86814-0