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Is there anything really wrong with the Brownlow?

Is there a 'Dangerfield effect' at Geelong?. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Roar Rookie
29th September, 2017
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Every September, arguments abound regarding everything wrong with the Brownlow Medal.

Historically, umpires – the men tasked with awarding the medal – have been the predominant bone of contention, while in recent years, eligibility rules have been thrust into the limelight, as acts that wouldn’t warrant a free kick ten years ago now attract a suspension.

Chris Connolly became the latest pundit to call for an upheaval of the current system, taking particular issue with Patrick Dangerfield’s 0 vote – best on ground everywhere else – in the Round 22 game versus Collingwood. It was enough of a snub for Connolly to judge the men in green incapable of awarding votes, citing the difficulty of their main duty – officiating the game – while he also questioned the merit of a system that labelled Dangerfield an unfair player in 2017.

On both counts, he has a point.

The science behind awarding votes has never been clear-cut, but while the Brownlow ceremony is no stranger to shock results – think pre-count favourite Geoff Raines failing to trouble the scorers in 1980 – there are trends to suggest the task has never been easier.

The first factor is the introduction of the three-umpire system in 1994. In this system, an umpire cannot possibly know what impact each player has had on the entirety of a match, as there will be occasions when he is a significant distance away from play.

Even in a two-man system, both umpires are generally close to play at all times. On this basis, a player who can cover the most territory is most likely to draw the attention of all three.

Consider the winning player types in the 24 seasons either side of this change. Since 1994, just one medal has been awarded to anyone other then a midfielder – Adam Goodes (ruck) in 2003. The preceding period featured nine ruckmen (Peter Moore twice), five key position players and one small defender.

The ever-increasing pace and congestion doesn’t make it easy to make clear observations either, resulting in the eye-catchers taking the bulk of the votes. This goes from the peroxide triple treat of Shane Crawford, Shane Woewodin and Jason Akermanis between 1999-2001, to the goal kicking midfield bulls of the present day. This can be reflected in the winning tallies. Using the same time 24 season periods, the 1994-2017 winner has polled nearly five votes more on average (27.4 versus 22.5*).

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This trend is not exclusive to the umpires’ award; midfielders have maintained a stranglehold on the AFL MVP since 2005, and the AFL Coaches’ Association player of the year since 2006.

Speak to any two umpires and it’s unlikely you will hear identical voting mantras. Some place particular emphasis on general fairness on the field (an aspect not considered when predicting the eventual winner). Some think a big loss precludes a player from a losing side being best on ground. Some are wary of giving ineligible players votes, to avoid the embarrassment of a player polling the most votes but not winning.

The players adjudged 3-2-1 in that Round 22 match all had excellent games, so Dangerfield may have simply been judged to be the fourth-best player on the day, but to most football fans, the best player on the day was, for whatever reason, denied a clear three votes.

Patrick Dangerfield Rory Sloane Geelong Cats Adelaide Crows AFL 2017

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Media/Getty Images)

To maintain the history and integrity of the award, and continue to encourage sportsmanship and fair play in line with the award’s original citation, the fairest component has to remain.

Dangerfield himself this week suggested that incidents resulting from acts of intended fair play shouldn’t result in ineligibility, echoing ex-Match Review Panel member Jimmy Bartel’s call for the MRP to distinguish between ‘football’ and ‘non-football’ acts.

To take pressure off umpires, could each match have a former player, coach or umpire judge the three best players, while taking input from the officiating umpires into account? Or, as Michael DiFabrizio wrote on The Roar earlier this week, could suspended players remain eligible, but – like the NRL’s Dally M Medal – start the count with a handicap?

Changes can and should be made to how suspended players are handled. As for voting, there has always been a certain beauty around the unpredictable nature of the count, but there is scope to streamline the process.

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Two umpires awarded their own set of 3-2-1 in 1976-77. Vote tallies in these seasons have been adjusted.

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