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Changing the Brownlow rules asks more questions than it answers

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Expert
20th June, 2018
34
1016 Reads

Given I was alive when Neil Roberts won the 1958 Brownlow Medal, it’s obvious that what follows is the work of a baby-boomer. Which is a nice way of saying getting on a bit, even if vigorously resisting the notion.

‘Coco’ Roberts is an inspiration to many of my vintage. For he shows how youthful in spirit a person can remain into one’s seventh, eighth, and even ninth decades.

Despite having just turned 85, he still looks good enough to play the part of a mature-aged leading-man in a Hollywood movie.

Then there’s the Coco who can be seen on one given Saturday in early January each year. As competitors step onto the ramp to head down into the water for the annual Pier-to-Pub event at Lorne, there’s Coco shepherding them along the way.

And, when you yell a slightly tense g’day to him, he recognises you even behind goggles and under a bathing cap.

As for his humour, it’s old-school but – so long as you don’t mind a bit of irreverence – invariably funny. Which makes the position he’s always taken on the ‘fairest’ aspect of the Brownlow Medal so significant.

Coco has long said that if ‘they’ ever take that condition out of the award, he’ll send his medal back. He takes this very seriously.

Now the debate’s being warmed up again and the worry is that, so prone to pragmatism is the modern AFL, this might be the time when it rolls over. Since 1924, the ‘fairness’ clause has been a symbolic plank of its competition.

You can imagine the furore if Nat Fyfe is the leading vote-getter this year. The talk will be of a tarnished medal won by the hypothetical unfortunate who wins it. The fact that it would be the second occasion on which Fyfe was ruled out through suspension, when a leading contender, will be highlighted.

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Fyfe will have been ‘robbed’ of a second medal; denied ‘football immortality’.

The AFL will, of course, be nervous about such an outcome. As I’m sure it is about there being any other candidates ruled ineligible before the big night comes around in late-September.

As I’ve previously discussed here, this year’s stripping of any last vestige of independence from the Match Review process was one of the AFL’s most reckless decisions. If nothing else, it can leave judgements made by the judicial process open to a perception of being compromised.

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If the concept of justice being seen to be done is worth anything, management should have nothing to do with how the game’s judicial cases are assessed.

Last season, Patrick Dangerfield was controversially suspended for an injurious tackle on Carlton’s Matthew Kreuzer in Round 19. Dangerfield was the previous year’s Brownlow winner and appeared the only player who might upset Dustin Martin on the big night of 2017.

His suspension rendered the contest for the medal a one-horse race.

A horse named Dusty duly bolted in and the disqualified Dangerfield was the only player within a bull’s roar. The AFL’s ‘Night of Nights’, and the high-rating telecast thereof was thus diminished by the predictability of the outcome.

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Who could possibly want that to happen again?

Of course, it may be pure coincidence but some of the stars of this year in Tom Mitchell, Luke Parker, Nat Fyfe (once, before copping it for a second breach), Buddy Franklin, and this week Dusty Martin, have already survived near-death experiences in relation to the Brownlow.

Martin’s anxious moment in recent days prompted some extraordinary footwork from Match Review Officer, Michael Christian. Previously, players accused of deliberate contact with umpires have been sent straight to the tribunal.

Indeed, when the tribunal didn’t impose a suspension on Carlton’s Ed Curnow, the AFL took the matter of contact with umpires so seriously that it appealed the case – and Curnow was suspended.

Yet Martin, whose action appeared at least as deliberate and, I would argue, more disrespectful than the actions of Tom Hawkins (who was suspended over a Round 7 incident) and Curnow, was adjudged to have made only careless contact with umpire Jacob Mollison. And this was ticked off without demur by the AFL.

The point of all this is that the debate as to ‘fairness’ now has a new ingredient. One can imagine the AFL’s major events honchos would be heavily in favour of such a dated – and inconvenient – concept being given the old heave-ho. There would be those in the offices of decision-making who might be swayed by the appeal of their argument.

So, what happens then? Does Coco Roberts finally get to send his 1958 Brownlow back? Do Chris Grant and Corey McKernan receive retrospective Charlies because they lost on the fairness criterion?

Most importantly, how would such a change be framed to ensure a player found guilty of a serious infraction (which these days might cost him only three weeks) couldn’t receive the award?

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Plenty to look forward to. And, of course, we’ve still got ten weeks of MRO-watching to anticipate and study before all this year’s votes are in.