Think the AFL’s gone soft? Think again

Tim Lane Columnist

By Tim Lane, Tim Lane is a Roar Expert


144 Have your say

    Are you from the old school which forever asserts modern footy’s gone soft? Do you feel infuriated at a game too quick to punish players for no more than old-fashioned hard-but-fair tackles?

    Did you think Ryan Nyhuis’ dumping of Robbie Gray last Sunday in Perth was perfectly within the laws of the game, or, at worst, just lacking a little duty of care?

    Were you frustrated at the three-week suspension imposed on Nyhuis – bearing in mind that he did what footballers have always done: inflicted a bit of pain while stopping a player with the ball from using it to his team’s advantage?

    Are you as mad as hell and feeling inclined to not take it anymore?

    If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions you really should think again. For your thinking is now totally dated and discredited.

    The AFL, for its own sake, not just that of those playing the game, absolutely must impose stiff penalties on players who carelessly cause head injuries.

    Here’s why.

    The week before last, the 2017 injury survey was released. This is an annual exercise that categorises and puts numbers on the various injury-types. The AFL has been providing an annual summary of its injury figures for 26 years.

    Once, not so long ago, it was the knee joint that drew most attention. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries continue to be dreaded by players and their clubs as they mean an almost mandatory period of a season on the sidelines.

    Some players have come back earlier, startlingly so in rare cases, but it’s usually a year. Then there’s the trepidation that goes with the return. Heartbreaking recurrences happen not infrequently.

    Sydney’s Alex Johnson still hasn’t played an AFL game since the Swans’ 2012 grand final victory.

    Yet, as serious and demoralising as such injuries are, the knee has been well and truly overtaken as the red-flag zone on the footballer’s body. That label is now reserved for the head.

    And well it might be, as a bad knee – though it might restrict a person’s freedom of movement, and even cause some ongoing discomfort in later life – doesn’t have anything like the potential for impairment that repeated head knocks do.

    As American football has taught us, a sport that doesn’t do enough to protect its players from head injuries could one day find itself paying out lots of money.

    Here’s what the AFL’s survey of injuries from the 2017 season reported on concussion:

    ‘Concussion rates remain relatively stable with approximately seven injuries per team per year (all diagnosed concussions, not just those that cause missed matches). The incidence and prevalence of concussions causing matches to be missed appears to have levelled off in 2017…’

    The glass-half-full way in which this aspect of the survey is expressed almost makes things sound okay. You read it and think ‘well, seven a club’s not too bad over a long and arduous season,’ and it’s not getting worse.

    Well, it wouldn’t want to. For, as an American might say, ‘do the math’. Seven concussions per club per season, in an eighteen-team competition, computes to 126 concussions across the competition in a year of football.

    That’s 126 brain injuries a year in an industry with a specific work-force of just under 800!

    That’s not a frightening figure. It’s worse. At this rate, if every concussion is inflicted upon a different player, around 16 per cent of the work-force would suffer one each year.

    But, of course, it’s not the case that these injuries are shared around that evenly. There are many cases of players receiving more than one concussion in a season.

    Lance Franklin Shane Mumford Collision

    Lance Franklin-Shane Mumford collision

    This is even more concerning, because it’s the repeat injuries that are more likely to lead to problems in life-after-football for those unlucky enough to suffer them.

    When you think about it, any industry other than a contact sport which brought about concussions at such a rate would quickly find itself under serious investigation. While that’s not to argue that such should apply to footy, given that players sign on knowing it’s a gladiatorial game, 126 concussions in a season is way too many.

    The tendency for administrators and football tragics will be to say there have always been lots of concussions and it’s only now that they are being disclosed. But I’m not sure whether this is a totally honest assessment.

    Having broadcast the game in Melbourne since the start of the 1980s, my recollection is of seeing very few players knocked out in those early years. Yes, there were more brutal tactics employed at times, but there were fewer high-speed collisions in the run of play.

    Furthermore, tacklers were less leniently treated by umpires in those years. Today’s football is more collision-oriented, leading to much more ‘incidental’ high contact and, not infrequently, injurious head knocks.

    If this is so, those responsible for the management of the on-field game should be taking a harder line on careless play that leads to head injuries, not a softer one.

    So, next time you howl abuse at an umpire for paying a high-contact free kick when you felt there ‘was nothing in it’, bear in mind it’s actually important that limitations be imposed on the tackler.

    Not only do such limitations protect the ball player, they also protect the game from the threat of legal liability that 126 concussions-per-year might one day bring.

    Tim Lane
    Tim Lane

    Tim Lane is one of the most respected voices in Australian sport, having gained a strong following for his weekly AFL column in The Age. Tim has also called 32 AFL/VFL grand finals and was behind the microphone for Cathy Freeman's memorable gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. You can catch him on Twitter @TimLaneSport.

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    The Crowd Says (144)

    • July 19th 2018 @ 6:39am
      dangertroy said | July 19th 2018 @ 6:39am | ! Report

      Good article Tim.

      Own things that broadcasters can do is to stop referring to players putting themselves into dangerous situations as courageous. Nearly every time I’ve heard a player described that way, they’ve been blindly leaping into a contest with a complete lack of situational awareness. While I’m certainly not trying to blame the victim in these situations, i think players need to be incentivised to protect themselves more. Calling them courageous for getting into dangerous situations doesn’t help.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:28am
        BigAl said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:28am | ! Report

        So true.
        Jonathon Brown could have contributed so much more to his own career, his team and the game itself if he had ‘stayed healthy” as they say in the NFL.

        Robert Walls was one who used “courageous” a lot !
        He also used “unselfish” a lot – which is stupid ! A good player is able to pick what’s best for the team and do it – in the moment !
        Selfish/unselfish is irrelevant

        • July 19th 2018 @ 10:21am
          Aligee said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:21am | ! Report

          Agreed, its seems a bit stupid for team mates ( Browns) having to keep and eye on him as well as the opposition to avoid getting cleaned up.

          No doubt a good footballer, but running wildly with the flight of the ball having no regard for teammates, himself or the opposition is not IMO smart.

          Great footballers judge these situations and also rely on teammates to call them in or out as the case may be.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:36am
        Pope Paul VII said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:36am | ! Report


        Ditto on Brown. Also he is huge. You wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of his courageous acts.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 10:14am
        Guttsy said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:14am | ! Report

        In relation to the “running back with the flight of the ball” courageous act I not sure it is going to be that easy to outlaw it, although I do agree with your sentiments.

        Players run back with the flight of the ball, watching only the ball, all the time in football.

        Are they allowed to run back with the flight of the ball, watching only the ball, if no one is there or if only a team mate is there? Is it only if an opposition player is in their path that it becomes a free kick (or a rap across the knuckles from the commentators or what other sanction are you proposing?).

        In football, because it is a 360 degree game, players are often required to move in directions where they have a limited situational awareness and need to be prepared to accept the consequences. Do we outlaw this?

        • July 19th 2018 @ 12:12pm
          Brian said | July 19th 2018 @ 12:12pm | ! Report

          It’s part of the game and should not be outlawed. Its more cultural whether supporters need to accept that a player did not run against the flight and instead protected himself.

          To use an extreme example in cricket with a bouncer its part of the game to get on top of the bouce and hook a 6 but in the case of Phil Hughes if only he had ducked instead.

    • July 19th 2018 @ 8:05am
      RichieTiger said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      And if umpires were less lenient on the tackler and therefore paid more frees instead of ball ups or at the least caused the tackler to slow down a bit to apply a legal tackle, it would lead to less congestion.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 12:13pm
        Lroy said | July 19th 2018 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

        Agree totally. Players are getting hurt today because they lack the situational awareness to get rid of the pill before the get tackled. The reason, they are not punished when caught with the ball. So it is common sense that if more players are deciding to take the tackler on, more tackles will occur, more guys will get hurt.

        If administrators instructed umpires to officiate the game differently to the past, then it is administrators who are responsible for more guys getting head injuries!! Anyone else see the irony here??

        The Port player getting hurt was just an unfortunate situation. It was a very hard tackle, but completely within the rules.

        If he is going to get rubbed out for that then you may as well ban tackling as it is completely subjective as to what constitutes a dangerous tackle and what doesn’t.

        I said the same thing when Dangerfield got rubbed out, perfectly executed tackle and he get suspended.

        Get caught, get hurt. End of story. If umpires paid holding the ball as the should this problem never would have arisen.

        I dont have a problem with the head high hip and shoulders being outlawed, that was always a grey area for me, knock a guy out with a swinging arm = bad…knock him out with your shoulder = good.

        A tackler is not a clairvoyant, ergo he cannot predict how the tackle will go, so its ridiculous to punish him if the recipient gets hurt.

        The workplace ”occupational health and safety ” angle is absurd as well. Footy is a sport, you voluntarily play a contact sport in which you know you could get hurt. Same goes for motorcycle racing, sports parachuting, abseiling, rock climbing, base jumping, scuba diving, at some point the participant assumes the risk, if you dont want get hurt, dont engage in that sport!!.

        Has a base jumper successfully sued a national park after hurting himself ?? Has a footballer in any country in the world successfully sued the regulating authority over injuries he sustained during the normal course of playing a match??

        There was a case (15 years ago??) where a player tried to sue Roy Keane (Man United) for a particularly spiteful tackle which was outside the laws of the game. Keane admitted later he had tried to maim the guy due to personal animosity they had for each other, and it was Keane, not the Premier League that was sued. That was a special case in which one players behavior clearly over-stepped the normal parameters of how the game is played.

        So the whole occupational health and safety thing is actually a crock, its a 100% hypothetical argument over imaginary cases which by definition, mean that they never happened!!

        • July 19th 2018 @ 12:25pm
          RichieTiger said | July 19th 2018 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

          I completely disagree with you on that tackle you are referring to. There is no need to slam a player into the ground. You only do that to hurt someone. That action is not part of a good tackle.

          • July 19th 2018 @ 3:15pm
            Lroy said | July 19th 2018 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

            You sound like someone who has never played the game. Since when has driving the opponent into the dirt not been part of a tackle??

            At what point is the tackler supposed to realize his tackle might hurt the opponent’? Once he makes that realization, what alternative action do you propose he should have taken in that millisecond of realization?

            Once your committed, your committed, you dont need a PHD in human movment to work that out.

            Throwing your opponent to the ground is the whole raison detre behind the tackle. Cleverly Pinning the arms is one form of a tackle, driving your shoulder into his body and drilling him into the dirt is one other way.

            If you are saying players shouldn’t go of their feet when they tackle, well it has to be written into the laws. As it stands, it isnt, so therefore its legal.

            Guy got hurt, so what? That will teach him to get rid of it sooner in future, this will open the game up, allowing the more skillful footballers to showcase their wares.

            Seriously, theres guys playing AFL today whose only skill seems to be they run a good 3.2 km time trial.

            Dont want to get hurt, dont get caught in possession. Guys getting hurt in a tackle is incidental, it happens. Jesus, people have died during the Tour De France, are we going to ban cycling??

            • July 19th 2018 @ 4:44pm
              Bob said | July 19th 2018 @ 4:44pm | ! Report

              Well, in the Nyhuis case, I reckon when he crossed the line would be a good indicator of when the tackle should have stopped…

              • Roar Guru

                July 19th 2018 @ 5:02pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | July 19th 2018 @ 5:02pm | ! Report

                They pretty much fell over the line though.

                While I agree with all efforts to stamp out those sort of concussions (and the suspension was warranted), I’d say Nyuis was trying to make sure Gray didn’t slip out of the tackle and was trying to bring him to ground to ensure this.

                In doing that there wasn’t a whole lot of control for Nyhuis on whether Gray’s head would slam into the ground or not. In fact, Gray actually had an arm free to brace himself (likewise you see both of Nyhuis’ feet were prone as he exerts in the action to bring Gray to ground), but didn’t and just slammed into the ground, which suggest that it’s was all a bit of a whirl and not a whole lot of control at the critical moments.

              • July 19th 2018 @ 8:36pm
                Bob said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:36pm | ! Report

                Gray had his right arm free, but was slammed on to his left side. I’m not sure about you, but I’d find it pretty hard to brace myself effectively in that situation.

              • Roar Guru

                July 19th 2018 @ 11:54pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | July 19th 2018 @ 11:54pm | ! Report

                I’m not sure what your point is with that post.

              • July 20th 2018 @ 10:14am
                Bob said | July 20th 2018 @ 10:14am | ! Report

                My point was to show the ‘he had his arm free’ argument that Freo fans are spouting holds no water.

              • July 20th 2018 @ 11:39am
                Don Freo said | July 20th 2018 @ 11:39am | ! Report

                While the ‘he had both arms pinned’ argument that blind people are spouting is just an untruth.

              • Roar Guru

                July 20th 2018 @ 3:18pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | July 20th 2018 @ 3:18pm | ! Report

                Given the fact he had his arm free I’m not sure how it can hold no water.

                Nevertheless, my point was that the speed and tangle of the movement made it fairly difficult for Gray to brace with his arm.

                Certainly he could of made an appreciable difference if he brought his arm to firmly brace at chest level, but that’s beside the point I made

            • July 19th 2018 @ 5:12pm
              Aligee said | July 19th 2018 @ 5:12pm | ! Report

              If you do or have played footy, you must get lots of free kicks against you, carrying players forward or pushing them in the back has been a free kick against the tackler and a rule for around 150 years.

              He clearly carries or pushes him forward, in fact he looks like he slams him forward.

            • July 19th 2018 @ 6:59pm
              RichieTiger said | July 19th 2018 @ 6:59pm | ! Report

              “You sound like someone who has never played the game” is just a standard lazy comment that does nothing to argue your case.
              This was not some incidental fall to the ground. He was slammed into the turf and over the boundary line as well. Thus was an action to maime not part of a tackle.
              The tribunal and most people on this site seem to agree with me.
              The cycling analogy is plain stupid.

            • July 19th 2018 @ 8:31pm
              The Joy Of X said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

              @ Lroy 3.15 pm

              Sling tackles are specifically banned in the AFL and community football.

              There is also the old, general Rule “Rough play in the circumstances which is unreasonable” -often abbreviated to the ” Unduly Rough Play Rule”.

              Courts have ruled that players MUST obey the Rules of their sport -and that players have a Duty Of Care to forsee the possible/ likely consequences of their actions.

              The AFL and community football bodies have provided regular warnings to players about the need to not cause injuries to opponents’m heads and necks.

              • July 22nd 2018 @ 10:53am
                Lroy said | July 22nd 2018 @ 10:53am | ! Report

                Again, its not a sling tackle its just a tackle.

                Re your comment about the courts, you just repeated what I had already said, i.e. the courts wont get involved if its within the rules.

                Injuries to heads and necks, head high contact has been banned. This player wasnt hit head high, he hit his head on the ground, completely different scenario.

                The question people like you have to ask your self (and really, I dont know why this is such a hard thing to grasp) is this;

                ”at what point in the tackle could the tackler have changed his motion or action to prevent the final outcome”.

                If you can’t answer that all your wailing and bleating is irrelevant.

            • July 19th 2018 @ 8:35pm
              PeteB said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:35pm | ! Report

              Played the game for many years and never had to slam someone into the ground to dispossess or earn a free kick. It’s a thug act.

    • Roar Guru

      July 19th 2018 @ 8:14am
      Peter the Scribe said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:14am | ! Report

      Patrick Cripps leads the free kicks for count with 53, 33 more than Luke Parker.
      Joel Selwood sits third with 44, twice as many as Ben Cunnington
      Patrick Dangerfield sits 6th with 38, twice as many as Ollie Wines.

      So the other side of the coin is that players are rewarded putting themselves in dangerous situations by ducking, dropping the knees, etc. Heavily rewarded in those mids above. Great players yes but also aware how to draw a free and as such an easy clearance.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 9:37am
        Pope Paul VII said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:37am | ! Report

        Wines, Cunnington and Parker are twice as good.

      • Roar Guru

        July 19th 2018 @ 9:49am
        Col from Brissie said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:49am | ! Report

        Peter, are you seriously suggesting Patrick Cripps is a ducker. He is the most contested footballer in the league so he is in situations where players are holding him, pushing him and occasionally taking him high. He is also a very good tackler. In an article at the end of May he lead the frees for with 37 – 27 of them were for holding. Doesn’t seem the stats for a ducker.

        On the other side of the coin at the same time he was ranked 2nd for frees against – another indication of being a contested ball player.

    • July 19th 2018 @ 8:23am
      Don Freo said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      So why does Tex Walker not get suspended for a shoulder charge to the head? Why does Buddy Franklin not get suspended for an elbow to the head. One was intended, one was careless but both had only one possible outcome…damage to an opponent. Tell Joel Hamling his concussion was ok but only because it was a name player that did it.

      Nyhuis…and others like him…get suspended because the outcome was the least possible. Loss of consciousness. There are scores of those tackles each week. It is a football action. Only when someone is knocked out does it get a penalty. This comes from the Matt Stevic school of thought. (My team is in trouble, let’s penalize the opposition.)

      Walker and Franklin are names. Nyhuis is not. Walker and Franklin get off for non-football acts, Nyhuis is penalized for a football act. The umpire had a ‘duty of care’ to award Nyhuis a free for his run down and tackle. If he (they) did, Nyhuis would not have had to take him all the way to the ground.

      As long as this inconsistent adjudication continues, the debate about duty of care lacks integrity.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 8:55am
        Bob said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:55am | ! Report

        If you think the umpire had a duty of care to Ryan Nyhuis in this situation, it’s probably time to stop following football. You’re so out of touch it isn’t funny.

        • Roar Rookie

          July 19th 2018 @ 9:39am
          Pedro The Fisherman said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:39am | ! Report

          Yep – It seems that Don also thinks that a hip and shoulder bump is a “non-football act”. Walker definitely had intent but players have been delivering bumps since Moses played at CHB for Jerusalem. It is not against the rules to bump.
          Whatever fits the story this week!

        • July 19th 2018 @ 10:08am
          Don Freo said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:08am | ! Report

          Oh no…very clear. Gray dropped the ball when tackled. Not penalized because he is Robbie Gray. This stuff happens.

          You didn’t see that? By your standard, you probably need ‘to stop following football’. Although, your penalty for your own lack of observation lacks logic too. I’d say you need to watch more

          • July 19th 2018 @ 10:29am
            Pope Paul VII said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:29am | ! Report

            It’s a dangerous, sling type tackle Don. Which results in a free to non tackler. Doesn’t matter what happened to the ball. You don’t get a free kick for getting a tackle half right. The ump also adjudicates in real time. No doubt the ump was considering a free before your fool decided to smash him. I assume Port were awarded a free?

          • Roar Guru

            July 19th 2018 @ 10:34am
            Cat said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:34am | ! Report

            Did he have prior opportunity?

            • July 19th 2018 @ 1:08pm
              Don Freo said | July 19th 2018 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

              Well and truly. He ran about 15 metres after a chain of handpasses. Nyhuis’ run down was brilliant.

              This event ensures a rookie update and a continuing contract for Nyhuis.

              If Gray plays this weekend, let’s hope they reduce the suspension.

          • July 19th 2018 @ 10:37am
            Jon Boy said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:37am | ! Report

            Comments Don that show how out of touch with your knowledge of football ,everybody and the tribunal DID see it for what it was……You appear the only one that missed it.

          • July 19th 2018 @ 10:45am
            Bob said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:45am | ! Report

            Hate to break it to you Don, but he would have gotten three weeks no matter who he rammed into the ground. The fact it was Robbie Gray has nothing to do with it.

          • July 19th 2018 @ 11:01am
            Porta said | July 19th 2018 @ 11:01am | ! Report

            Umpire did pay holding the ball therefore rewarding the run down tackle. However, he reversed his call after Nyhuis slung Gray into the ground. Watch the umpire.

      • Roar Guru

        July 19th 2018 @ 9:45am
        Joel Erickson said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:45am | ! Report

        The fact that the incident happened after the players had gone out of bounds makes your “duty of care” point completely incorrect.

        • Roar Rookie

          July 19th 2018 @ 10:44am
          Pedro The Fisherman said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:44am | ! Report

          And after a free had been paid to Freo for incorrect disposal!
          Did Don actually watch the game at all?

          • July 19th 2018 @ 7:16pm
            Don Freo said | July 19th 2018 @ 7:16pm | ! Report

            Make up your minds boys. Did Nyhuis get a free kick for tackling someone out of the field of play? That’s something new.

            You two are agreeing with each other while disagreeing with each other.

            It’s amazing what folk will do just to keep arguing.

            For clarity, he tackled him in the field of play. He landed outside the line.

            • July 19th 2018 @ 8:39pm
              PeteB said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:39pm | ! Report

              Oh let me guess..Nyhuis must play for Freo

            • Roar Guru

              July 19th 2018 @ 8:41pm
              Joel Erickson said | July 19th 2018 @ 8:41pm | ! Report

              Nope, not disagreeing with each other. And nothing incorrect was said either. The tackle started in the field of play, which was why the original free kick was paid to the Dockers. However the incident we’re talking about (you know, the part where Nyhuis slammed Gray’s head into the ground) happened outside the field of play.

              If Nyhuis had done the normal thing and kept the tackle up in the air after hearing the whistle or crossing the boundary line, he wouldn’t be suspended. But he didn’t do either of those things, he chose to drive Gray’s head into the ground outside the field of play.

              He pleaded guilty as well, so he knows what he did was dangerous. I’m not sure why you’re trying to defend him to be honest.

              • July 19th 2018 @ 9:00pm
                Don Freo said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:00pm | ! Report

                Yep. You’re disagreeing with each other.

    • July 19th 2018 @ 9:25am
      The Joy Of X said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:25am | ! Report


      We know AFL players are heavier, stronger, and more fitter than ever before. Also, because of the 4 man bench, and interchanges up to 90 per team, they are more refreshed. Therefore, we have much more congestion, as more players can get to many more contests, much more often.

      We know that the average tackles per VFL game in the 80’s were 40 per game-20 per team; now,140 per game total.

      Leigh Matthews has said that player collisions are more ballistic than ever before, due to the above reasons. This is likely to lead to more concussions/head knocks.

      Do you agree, therefore, to eliminate these more ballistic hits, we should revert to 2 on the bench only – and reduce interchange to less than 5 per team, per game?

      Do you believe (apart from the ugly congestion)

      • July 19th 2018 @ 10:39am
        Kris said | July 19th 2018 @ 10:39am | ! Report

        Fitter and stronger, but not heavier. The move to being an endurance sport has actually slimmed down a lot of players. it is really the speed that is the issue. all that physics about bodies in motion coming to rest.

      • July 19th 2018 @ 11:08am
        The Joy Of X said | July 19th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

        Tim Lane

        @ my post 9.25 am above
        Last sentence should read

        Do you believe (apart from reducing the ugly congestion) that reducing the bench to two only, and only 5 interchanges per team, will lower the overall injury rates ie not just head knocks? LFewer players would be able to get to contests, so fewer bumps and tackles and collisions.

        Such a change will likely bring the tackle rates to the much lower average 40 per game of the 80’s. It is now an average of 140 per game -and many players get other injuries in tackles.

        @ Kris 10.39am

        Players are, on average, heavier and taller now -in comparison to the 1980’s.

    • Columnist

      July 19th 2018 @ 9:35am
      Ryan Buckland said | July 19th 2018 @ 9:35am | ! Report

      Excellent column Tim.