The AFL’s 2018 MRP changes are a universal improvement

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    The AFL’s changes to its judicial system will prove confusing at first, but at first glance will calm a building wave of criticism regarding how the league doles out justice.

    A Thursday afternoon press conference, smack bang in the middle of the first session of a season-shaping Ashes Test, invites pangs of cynicism. The AFL has a reputation of a burrier of bad news, and when it became clear what the subject matter of yesterday’s press briefing was, the mind automatically drifted to that usual place.

    Such fears were misplaced. In his first real act as the direction-setter of the Australian Football League – retaining the bounce doesn’t count – Steven Hocking has fundamentally changed the means and ways his league manages the on field conduct of its players.

    Hocking put Match Review Panel (MRP) and Tribunal reform at the top of his priority list at his first press conference as the league’s General Manager of Football Operations. Ahead of congestion, the ruck, and other ‘State of the Game’ matters that had become de jour at HQ in recent years. Hocking initiated an internal working group, and reportedly canvassed the views of players, coaches and administrators.

    While this research has not been released – it’s still the AFL after all – one assumes the magnitude of change reflects a consensus that what was before was not working. The table of offences has not changed, and the grading system has been left untouched, but otherwise, we’re in completely new terrain.

    At a fundamental level, much of the change is centred on removing a complexity that was regulated into the system bit by bit over the previous half decade. For instance, the early guilty plea – designed to provide an incentive to avoid a tribunal hearing – has been abolished for offences that attract a suspension.

    Instead, clubs will now have a choice whether to accept the verdict of the MRP, and cop the requisite suspension, or head to the Tribunal and attempt to have the MRP’s verdict overturned. From the material released to date it is not clear whether the Tribunal will have the latitude to change a penalty, or be restricted to a binary guilty/not guilty decision.

    As part of that change, the ‘base sanction’ for each category of offence has become what was previously offered when the early guilty plea was taken. This shifts the dial significantly. Where a player would previously risk adding an additional week to their time on the sidelines if they wished to challenge, they will now face a different incentive – more on that in a moment.

    On base sanctions, players no longer have a loading applied for a good or bad record (the former was abolished a couple of years ago). The past does not matter, at least not directly.

    These two changes alone will remove one of the most significant sources of confusion and exasperation with the system as it had functioned in recent years. A player will no longer receive, for example, a base sanction, which is then increased on account of a bad record, and then reduced on account of an early guilty plea.

    By way of example, consider Jack Redpath’s Round 21 suspension. The Western Bulldogs’ key forward was cited for striking, which was assessed as intentional, low impact contact to the head. Redpath also had a bad record. Under the old system, Redpath initially received a two match suspension from the MRP, which was increased to a three match suspension on account of the bad record. An early guilty plea then reduced this back down to a two-week suspension.

    Under the new system, Redpath is offered a one-week suspension straight up, and has the option to challenge that at Tribunal in an effort to have the suspension quashed. It goes from a situation where the Western Bulldogs risked upping a two-week offer to a three-week ban by going to the Tribunal to a situation where the Western Bulldogs risk nothing by way of player availability if they think their man is innocent.

    That would result in every decision being sent to the Tribunal, right? Well, to counter that, Hocking’s system requires clubs that are challenging an MRP finding at the Tribunal to post what is effectively a $10,000 bond.

    If the Tribunal challenge is successful, the player is free to play and the bond is returned. If the Tribunal challenge is unsuccessful, the club loses the $10,000 bond, and the amount is added to its football department cap tally. The football department cap.

    The cap was set at $9.5 million last year, so we aren’t talking sheep stations for a challenge. But most clubs work right up to the limits of the cap to ensure they are getting bang for buck, and a few unsuccessful Tribunal hearings could push a club into equalisation tax (75c for every dollar over the cap) territory.

    Indeed, the advent of Hocking’s system will likely lead to an increase in spending on legal matters within football departments.

    Steven Hocking

    (Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    This will almost surely result in more Tribunal hearings. The number of hearings has fallen precipitously in recent years – by design of course – from 42 in 2007 to 25 in 2012 to just four in 2017. We may not get back to the heady days of Dean Solomon and Steven Baker, but a tripling or quadrupling of tribunal hearings is not out of the question.

    That is not all. The AFL has doubled down, quite literally, on its financial sanctions regime. A first offence is now worth $3,000 (up from $1,500), and a second offence is worth $5,000 (up from $2,500). Significantly, there is no longer an automatic suspension for third and subsequent low level offences. These now attract an $8,000 fine, meaning a player who continuously pushes the line will donate a sizeable chunk of their salary to the HQ Christmas party fund.

    To keep things just a little bit confusing, players are still able to accept an early guilty plea discount on financial sanctions. They are also free to challenge them at a Tribunal hearing, but given the risk versus reward it would be an unusual occurrence.

    On questioning, Hocking revealed Brownlow medal eligibility rules would not be changing. This means a player who received three or more financial sanctions will now remain eligible for the Brownlow medal, where under the previous system they would have been ruled ineligible. That was the way Patrick Dangerfield’s name was removed from Brownlow medal calculations in 2017.

    One may argue a player that has been cited by the MRP three or more times in a single season – no matter the offence – doesn’t meet one half of the criteria of the Brownlow medal. But for now, officially, they do.

    Other changes are more procedural in nature. The AFL has sanctioned a trial of “Instant MRP”, with the MRP issuing findings and sanctions for Thursday and Friday night games by 5pm eastern time the following day.

    Saturdays and Sundays will be dealt with on Monday per current procedure. At his press conference, Hocking revealed that if this is successful – and, well, what’s going to stop it from being successful – Saturday games will be reviewed by 5pm on Sundays.

    Finally, the MRP no longer exists. Instead, the process of match review will now be handled by a single arbiter. Michael Christian, who has been on the MRP for three seasons, and is a long term member of the football diaspora, is now a salaried AFL employee reporting through to Hocking himself.

    Putting aside the roasting Christian has willingly signed himself up for – he has a Twitter account, for now – the fact this is now in the hands of an individual creates some interesting dilemmas. While it might streamline decision making, and allow for the clear communication of a single view of what happened, it is easier for one person to make a mistake than it is for three people.

    Then again, the MRP is intended to be an initial first pass and attempt to streamline the process: dealing with complex matters is why the Tribunal is in place.

    It’s all to come, of course. All that changed yesterday was words on a page. And, for all the change which has occurred, the league has not apparently explored the notion of football (for example: a bump that slips high) versus non-football (a punch, of any force, to any part of the body) action.

    It is likely the new system will still deliver some penalties which at face value seem too harsh or too lenient – this will be the case until the table of offences is tweaked.

    However, we are on the right track, and the changes Hocking has made will improve the operation of the league’s judicial system. The measure of Hocking’s new Match Review Panel and Tribunal system will be a reduction in incidents as players change their behaviour, and improved consistency of outcome when offences do occur. The jury will now begin its deliberations.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • Roar Guru

      December 15th 2017 @ 7:50am
      Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      I think the most important part of the change is that the MRP is no longer independent of the AFL. If something happens mid-season and the AFL wants to crack down on it (such as jumper punches last season) they will be able to. In the past the AFL would huff and puff and the MRP would continue to do whatever it felt like doing.

      I do think Hocking missed two points that would have made the changes even better. One you mentioned, the separation of football versus non-football incidents. The other is precedence. Players or the AFL should be allowed to show other incidents they feel are reflective of the one in which they have been cited and use the outcomes of them as evidence. If a player can find an incident (no archived footage from 20 years ago) they feel is ‘exactly the same’ where a player got off, then it is relevant. Micheal Christensen could then agree or disagree and cite why.

      • December 15th 2017 @ 1:50pm
        Vocans said | December 15th 2017 @ 1:50pm | ! Report

        I think the AFL is wise to stay out of precedence if at all possible, be ause arguing to precedence is fraught with lengthy delays, and is liable to gradually create a massive legal apparatus in the long run. This is one of the ways the legal system we have in many countries is voluminous and unwieldy.

    • Roar Pro

      December 15th 2017 @ 8:59am
      Darren M said | December 15th 2017 @ 8:59am | ! Report

      I think having one arbiter brings great power and with it great responsibility.
      The good thing is his interpretation of incidents will hopefully be more consistent, seeing as it is one opinion, and that opinion should not waver that much throughout the year.

      I would have liked to see football vs non-football incidents formally separated, but who knows perhaps Christian (sorry Ryan, not Christensen) will make that type of ruling himself, and set his own precedent.

      I’m glad the early guilty plea automatically risking another week is gone, because it seemed the MRP penalties were already skewed to account for the early plea. It meant that risking it at the Tribunal earnt a harsher penalty and became the standard rather than the early plea being a discount.

      I think the fact that the Brownlow rules are the same is fine. The criterion is if you’re guilty of an infringement that warrants a suspension, so multiple fines do not warrant a suspension. It’s too bad for Dangerfield, but he didn’t win it anyway, and those were the rules at the time.

      The only thing I can see as a problem is that some clubs that truly believe their player to be innocent may hesitate appealing to the Tribunal if they are close to the cap, or in a poor financial position, especially toward the end of the season.

      • Roar Guru

        December 15th 2017 @ 9:23am
        Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

        I suspect if the rule remains, smart clubs will build in a small next egg of cap space to be used towards appeals. There has to be a deterrent so every single decision isn’t appealed.

        The one thing I never understood is the infringement is against the player, not the club, so why does the club get to decide if the player appeals or not? What will happen under this new system if a player wants to appeal and their club refuses to put up the $10k bond?

        • December 15th 2017 @ 9:45am
          Tom M said | December 15th 2017 @ 9:45am | ! Report

          Half the clubs go over their cap routinely so I don’t see the 10k as an issue.

          • Roar Guru

            December 15th 2017 @ 10:03am
            Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

            In 2015, the 2nd year of the footy dept tax only 3 clubs went over the soft cap. I can’t seem to find date for 2016 or 2017 related to the footy dept tax but ‘half the clubs’ seems wildly off the mark.

            • December 15th 2017 @ 10:50am
              Tom M said | December 15th 2017 @ 10:50am | ! Report

              A club will put up 10k if it thinks it has a chance. 10k seems like nothing in comparison to a player being suspended for an extra week.

              • Roar Guru

                December 15th 2017 @ 11:33am
                Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 11:33am | ! Report

                If it puts a club over the soft cap that $10k becomes $17.5k ($0.75 tax on every dollar over the cap). In isolation it may seem like not a big deal; however, it is unlikely a club would only have to consider a single appeal over the length of a season.

        • December 15th 2017 @ 4:17pm
          BigAl said | December 15th 2017 @ 4:17pm | ! Report

          • Roar Guru

            December 15th 2017 @ 4:35pm
            Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 4:35pm | ! Report

            Yeah, seems like Melbourne players are still looking for the easy way out.

            • December 15th 2017 @ 9:28pm
              BigAl said | December 15th 2017 @ 9:28pm | ! Report

              Well, to me it brought back memories from the old Des Tuddenham school of coaching at Essendon, where he had players doing laps on their knees !

    • Roar Guru

      December 15th 2017 @ 9:25am
      Dalgety Carrington said | December 15th 2017 @ 9:25am | ! Report

      I can’t agree with this being likely to improve decision making at all. Footy is already awash with emotion and reducing the process down to one view will increase the potential for emotion to have an undue influence on the decision making. It’s highly likely over time Christian and Hocking will synchronise their opinions and views on most things.

      I’d imagine there’s going to be even stronger perceptions of hidden AFL agendas/networks driving decisions people don’t like, being more in the front office fold. I also reckon there’ll be a larger potential for windsock decision making, following wherever the prevailing emotional collective winds are blowing.

    • Editor

      December 15th 2017 @ 10:09am
      Josh Elliott said | December 15th 2017 @ 10:09am | ! Report

      Big fan of most, if not all changes. The only concern for me is something a Tsarist regime with only a single decision maker. That said, having the Tribunal to go to, and having it be much more feasible to do this now, balances out the risk there. A single person making the decision will be more efficient too, which is a double-edged sword, but still.

      • Roar Guru

        December 15th 2017 @ 10:18am
        Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        He still has to run every decision by Hocking, so it really isn’t a one man rule.

        • Roar Guru

          December 15th 2017 @ 11:07am
          Dalgety Carrington said | December 15th 2017 @ 11:07am | ! Report

          It’s very probable that Christians’ views will fall into line with Hockings’ fairly quickly.

      • Roar Pro

        December 15th 2017 @ 10:48am
        Darren M said | December 15th 2017 @ 10:48am | ! Report

        Having the one primary decision maker will make it easier to see where the view is coming from. Michael Christian will be accountable, not some hidden away panel of random people. If he sticks to his word and regularly fronts the media, then he will hopefully be held to account and perhaps can provide insight and explanation as to why he thought a certain penalty should apply.

        Having easier, less risky access to the Tribunal will also help, for if by Round 6 he’s had five of his decisions overturned, it would help him adapt and find the right standard.

        • Roar Guru

          December 15th 2017 @ 11:10am
          Dalgety Carrington said | December 15th 2017 @ 11:10am | ! Report

          “Accountable” to whom exactly? Being accountable to the media or the non partial footy public is not particularly conducive to objective decision making.

          • December 15th 2017 @ 12:01pm
            Tom M said | December 15th 2017 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

            No but at least their is a face the football public can see and not a group of people hidden behind a “panel”. This way it gives Christian a chance to stand up and explain his reasoning for decisions and being only a single person you would hope it makes it easier to stay consistent across the season

            • Roar Guru

              December 15th 2017 @ 3:00pm
              Dalgety Carrington said | December 15th 2017 @ 3:00pm | ! Report

              That’s a communication issue and not exclusive to a panel nor “review officer” model.

              From my standpoint between the two options, I’d much rather the footy public is unhappy and the most appropriate decision is made over having the footy public happy and an ordinary decision is made.

              I’d put this in the “execution category”. So just because the structure was poorly executed last season, it doesn’t’t necessarily follow that the whole structure is best thrown out, or that the new structure would be definitively better.

    • December 15th 2017 @ 1:52pm
      Vocans said | December 15th 2017 @ 1:52pm | ! Report

      Ryan, I wondered whether this would draw you out of the woodwork. Been missing you.

      • Columnist

        December 15th 2017 @ 2:29pm
        Ryan Buckland said | December 15th 2017 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

        Thanks Vocans! There is a very cool reason (a project) why my November break has been a bit longer than previous years. Can’t give you any specifics right now but hopefully there’ll be an annoucement in the new year.

        • December 15th 2017 @ 5:59pm
          Vocans said | December 15th 2017 @ 5:59pm | ! Report

          Looking forward to another Buckland season … er… pre-season..

    • December 15th 2017 @ 2:21pm
      Steve Squires said | December 15th 2017 @ 2:21pm | ! Report

      “On questioning, Hocking revealed Brownlow medal eligibility rules would not be changing. This means a player who received three or more financial sanctions will now remain eligible for the Brownlow medal, where under the previous system they would have been ruled ineligible”

      Unless I’m misunderstanding, this sounds like eligibility rules ARE changing but it says NOT changing in the article, but it then says three financial sanctions means the player remains eligible.
      My recollection is, in 2017, players with 3 financial sanctions received a 1 week ban and were ineligible for the Brownlow. I thought there was concern Dusty could become ineligible late in 2017 season if he got another fine (he had 2).

      Regarding the eligibility rules, I dont see how a player can be reasonably awarded fairest and best if they’ve committed 3 or more infractions in 1 season, even if relatively minor, they’re still bad enough to draw a fine, not just a free kick against.

      I also think the bad record loading should have stayed. Repeat offenders do deserve harsher penalties. It doesn’t affect whether they are found guilty or not, but if found guilty the penalty should be harsher. It works like that in every workplace disciplinary and the civilian court system.

      • Columnist

        December 15th 2017 @ 2:30pm
        Ryan Buckland said | December 15th 2017 @ 2:30pm | ! Report

        The eligibility criteria for the Brownlow is “if a player is suspended they are deemed ineligible”. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is three fines offences doesn’t result in a suspension any more. That’s what I’m getting at.

        • December 15th 2017 @ 3:05pm
          Steve Squires said | December 15th 2017 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

          Cool, thanks. I did misunderstand that then. Good to know that suspension = ineligible.
          I think the AFL needed to make some bigger changes to the discipline system. Introduce red cards for henious acts like Bugg’s punch which knocked a player out of the game. And I think 3 things in one season that warrant a fine, also warrants a suspension. As far as we know, fines are not a disincentive because the players earn so much and fines has not affected the incidence of lower level jumper punches etc.

          • Roar Guru

            December 15th 2017 @ 3:22pm
            Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 3:22pm | ! Report

            Problem is the MRP showed it is unwilling to fine a star player when they are on two fines already. Hence why some people are calling this the Delidio rule. He should have gotten a third fine and missed a final. Dusty too should have gotten a third fine in the season but the MRP didn’t dare rule out another brownlow medal contenders.

            • December 15th 2017 @ 3:23pm
              Steve Squires said | December 15th 2017 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

              Good point about that but surely you mean Cotchin for his bump on Shiel? Deledio barely played 3 games so he wouldn’t have had 2 fines.

              • Roar Guru

                December 15th 2017 @ 4:34pm
                Cat said | December 15th 2017 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

                Yeah sorry.

              • December 15th 2017 @ 6:01pm
                Vocans said | December 15th 2017 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

                ‘Cat’ clearly doesn’t mean ‘Tiger’. Good to see you choofing on, Cat.

          • December 16th 2017 @ 6:05am
            Liam said | December 16th 2017 @ 6:05am | ! Report

            “Introduce red cards for henious acts like Bugg’s punch which knocked a player out of the game.”

            First things first.

            Red cards are a patently terrible idea for AFL, largely because the umpires onfield inevitably get some of their decisions wrong; they have the wrong angle, they can’t see on their blind side, things happen too fast etc.

            Clayton Oliver went down as though shot against WC, and the opposing player was reported on the spot, despite Oliver not being hurt at all; might have copped a glancing blow, maybe, if I’m being generous about his motives. The then match review panel tried to tell us he should get a week, despite Oliver’s dive and video evidence backing up that this was a furphy, compounding the mistake and displaying an unwillingness to admit that their umpire was wrong.

            Second thing, the fines, provided they are as written above, actually do become more of a disincentive, as their amounts are far more serious. Could do with being worse, but at what point does it become exorbitant, amounting to a tax on violence? Not to mention, taking things to the tribunal has a significant financial disincentive as well; you’d only want to be reviewing the ones that matter.

            • December 16th 2017 @ 10:38am
              Steve Squires said | December 16th 2017 @ 10:38am | ! Report

              Noone thought the hit on Oliver was a heinous act though. It took one replay to work out that he’d gone down way too easily. It probably needed to be reported by the field ump, just to get the game under control and so it was formally reviewed and dismissed.

              I am not at all equating getting reported with being sent off though. That would be crazy.

              I think a video ref (e.g. reserve umpire) could review off the play acts like Bugg’s and make a decision on the red card within a few minutes of it occurring. Bugg’s hit on Callum Mills was a clear send-off offence in any team sport. I am not a Sydney fan but it was unfair for Swans to lose a player for the rest of the game with concussion, while Bugg continues to play out the game. The fact that he gets 6 weeks doesn’t help or matter to the team that suffered the loss of player in-game.

              I would not at all want the red card system to be like Soccer, where it can be given for 2 sometimes relatively minor infringements.

              Until cheap shots and off the ball acts have a larger in-game penalty (larger than a free kick which even then is sometimes missed) then it’s worth it for a player to potentially get suspended to knock a star player out of the game (with concussion awareness and rules nowadays it’s very easy to do.)

              As for the fines, I agree it is good that they’ve got bigger, but I maintain that if a player has committed 3 fine-worthy offences in a season then I’m not comfortable with them getting the Brownlow medal for ‘fairest and best’. Unless they just remove the ‘fairest’ component from the award completely, which will never happen because it sends the wrong message.
              There are players getting rubbed out for marginally held-too-long tackles (that they sometimes win free kicks for like Brodie Grundy on Ben Brown – I’m not a Pies fan either) and then there are players that will get away with (in terms of Brownlow eligibility) 3 off-the-ball ‘jumper punches’ to the chin, which will attract 3 fines and no suspension.

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