Ever since the Brownlow Medal was first awarded to Geelong’s Edward ‘Carji’ Greeves in 1924, the umpires have been responsible for awarding the votes.
Currently after each home-and-away fixture the three field umpires get together in their change room and decide on the three best players on the ground and award votes on a 3-2-1 basis.
Thus the medal goes to whom the umpires deem to be the ‘best and fairest player’ in the competition.
But is it time to perhaps broaden the number of men responsible for ultimately coming up with the winner of the most coveted individual award in the sport.
The medal has been presented in 85 seasons, and accounting for ties, a total of 98 medals have been awarded.
The mid-fielders (centremen, wingmen, ruck-rovers and rovers) have dominated the counts, with 61 of the medals going their way.
Ruckmen have been the recipient on 19 occasions.
The remaining 18 have gone to players lining up at centre-half back (7), centre-half forward (2), half-back (3), full-back (2), back-pocket (3) and full-forward (1).
In recent years the Brownlow Medal has become almost entirely the domain of the midfielders.
Since 1996, just one non-midfield player has won the award – Sydney ruckman Adam Goodes in 2003 (his second medal in 2006 was won as a wingman).
That represents 18 of the past 19 medal winners.
Last season the top 11 placegetters were midfielders, while in 2011 they filled the first seven places.
Is that a trend that will continue?
It seems that if you are a specialist forward or defender you have an extremely slim chance of having the medal draped around your neck nowadays.
The midfielders are the players who are pretty much constantly under the umpires’ eye – they are involved in the play, by nature of their roaming assignment, more than those up forward or down back.
Hence, they are more likely to attract the votes, but are they always the principal determining factor in the outcome of the game?
The speed of the game at VFL/AFL level has continued to get quicker, hence the move from one umpire to two in 1976 and then an increase to three in 1994.
With the increase in the speed of play has come added pressure on the men with the whistle.
Australian football is perhaps the most subjectively officiated team sport, and the umpires nowadays having only a split second to assess each play according to the laws of the game.
On top of that we expect them to be the sole arbiters with respect to the Brownlow.
We are told that the umpires do not have any access to the official match statistics when they make their evaluation.
And, a lot of the time, raw statistics do not always tell an accurate story.
Rotations are an enormous part of the modern game and you wonder, given the speed of the game, whether the umpires on the field can pick up on tactical changes that are made by coaches.
A lot of emphasis with respect to team game plans nowadays revolves around the so-called ‘run with players’ – those assigned to shut down the most dangerous midfielders.
A player who can shut down the likes of a Gary Ablett, Dane Swan or Chris Judd can do an awful lot to enhance his team’s prospects.
Yet these players are almost always overlooked by the umpires.
Fremantle’s Ryan Crowley, his club’s best and fairest winner last season, is a classic case in point – over his 132-game career he has only been awarded three votes, or 0.02 per game, yet he has often negated opposing players effectively.
Port Adelaide’s four-time best and fairest Kane Cornes is another who has been a terrific shut down player throughout his career, yet he has collected just 49 career votes across 231 matches.
Those types of players would be looked upon as extremely valuable by their respective match committees, as evidenced by the club best and fairest awards they have garnered.
In Crowley’s case, while his club’s match committee saw him as their best player last season, he did not poll a single Brownlow Medal vote.
Yet the umpires seem to miss their importance on match days and tend to reward the players who amass possessions rather than those who at times greatly reduce the effectiveness of some of the game’s premier players.
Backmen also get a rough deal.
Yes, they may be seen as negative in outlook and not ball players as such but again the jobs they do in shutting down opposing forwards is crucial.
But trying to earn a vote is nigh-on impossible.
West Coast’s four-time All-Australian (he was named the captain last season) and triple best and fairest Darren Glass has played 226 games where votes are on offer and received seven votes (0.03 per game), despite often restricting opposing full-forwards to very few touches and even fewer goals.
Geelong’s recently retired six-time All-Australian full-back Matthew Scarlett is viewed by many as the best of his era and one of the finest of all-time yet in 262 games he received 31 votes; full-back of the 20th century Steven Silvagni polled 69 votes in 286 game; while Dustin Fletcher’s 342 games have realised just 63 votes.
Nullifying the effectiveness of the likes of Lance Franklin or Jack Reiwoldt can be crucial to a team’s fortunes.
The modern-day attacking half-backs who so often provide the rebound that sets up attacking sorties also get overlooked.
Is it time then to go beyond the boundary line to augment the umpires’ vote?
In the media contingent that covers every single AFL match there are numerous experienced football heads closely following the game – the likes of Leigh Matthews, Paul Roos, Jason Dunstall and Gerard Healy.
Would it not be wise to choose three former players/coaches each match and have them each supply their 3-2-1 analysis?
Many of them would often see the game in a vastly different light to the men officiating it.
Under that format, the best afield could receive a maximum 12 votes.
Some will argue that having the umpires alone determining the winner underwrites the ‘fairness’ aspect of the award.
However, under the current-day match review system it is fair to say that that facet of the award is already catered for.
Since 2005, players who are found guilty of an offence that carries fewer than 100 points under the revamped tribunal system remained eligible for the award.
Those who exceed 100 points are automatically ineligible.
As a footnote, remarkably, the great John Coleman who kicked 514 goals in home-and-away football in just 93 games at an average of 5.5 per match received just 36 career votes, despite kicking eight or more goals on 20 occasions, including 12 bags of ten or more.