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Gaff's gaffe: What role do character assessments play in tribunal decisions?

Andrew Gaff of the Eagles looks on at the break during the round 20 AFL match between the West Coast Eagles and the Fremantle Dockers. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
7th August, 2018
35

In the wake of Andrew Gaff’s one-hit punch on Fremantle’s Andrew Brayshaw on Sunday afternoon, the football world was lining up to condemn the Eagle for his actions, which left Brayshaw with a broken jaw and four displaced teeth.

Social media commentary centred around the likely suspension Gaff would receive, but mostly on the extent to which his good character should play a role in his time on the sideline, and in the way the act should be treated by the footy public.

In the 175 games he’s played, Gaff has never put a foot wrong, both on and off the field. He’s a well-respected player, which makes Sunday’s act all the more difficult to comprehend.

He hit Brayshaw off the ball, straight to his jaw, with no obvious provocation (not that this excuses his actions) – from what we’ve seen over Gaff’s career, it was an act completely out of character.

That’s where the debate raging over the introduction of a send-off rule, harsh sanctions, and even possible criminal charges – floated by a Perth lawyer – becomes interesting. At the heart of this debate is to what extent a person’s character should count in both their tribunal sentencing and public perception.

Condemnation for Gaff’s actions was swift, with the majority arguing that his previous good record should count for nothing, given the severity of Brayshaw’s injuries.

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In the ‘real world’, assessments of character play a role in court cases. Judges take into account the accused’s remorse, as well as their past behaviour, when deciding on an appropriate sentence. For the more horrific crimes, this may not have a massive impact on the outcome, but in many cases, this assessment can reduce a sentence.

While at the discretion of the judge to decide how much of an impact it has, the principle is there to ensure that people who have shown themselves as decent do not have their life ruined by one misguided act.

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Consideration is also given to the ability of the accused to be rehabilitated, and their likelihood of reoffending – those whose actions were dangerous, but silly, and who are unlikely to reoffend, are often given a less harsh penalty to enable them to serve their time and then move on with their lives.

In this respect, the AFL’s tribunal system shows that character assessments are inherent in football. Until last season, player’s records were taken into account when deciding on suspension penalties – a player with a previously ‘bad’ record (i.e. one who had been suspended previously) would receive a higher penalty than a player for whom the offence was a first. That was changed by the AFL this season to include fines for lesser offences and misdemeanours, rather than suspensions, and regardless of previous behaviour.

Andrew Gaff

Andrew Gaff (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The precedent for Gaff’s type of actions is six or so weeks – in the Tom Bugg-Callum Mills incident last year, where Bugg’s punch to Mills’ head left the latter with concussion, Bugg was suspended for six matches, with his lawyer arguing that his immediate remorse and guilty plea should play a role in his suspension.

However, Bugg had a reputation as a serial pest and, having previously been suspended for lesser acts when the Mills incident occurred, public commentary centred around Bugg’s proclivity to be involved in stupid or dangerous on-field acts.

In Gaff’s tribunal defence last night, his lawyer spent the first ten minutes listing all of Gaff’s sporting and academic achievements, noting that his client had never received a citation of any kind, at any level. Gaff also had ten written character references – yet the public commentary still seems to condemn his actions in rather black and white terms.

In the end, Gaff received an eight-week suspension, the equal-longest suspension of the past decade, but at the lowest end of the ‘severe’ and ‘intentional’ scale.

Will this penalty set a precedent, where character considerations are given less weight than the consequence of the act, or the act itself?

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