If the Gaff incident doesn’t change the AFL’s attitude, nothing will

Ryan Buckland Columnist

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    It’s Andrew Gaff week, and while I’d prefer to be discussing him in the context of a Brownlow Medal win or premiership victory, the reality is neither of these are now possible in 2018.

    Every football writer is duty bound to say their piece about the Gaff situation this week. Plenty of ground has already been covered: Gaff is a good person who did a terrible thing, Andrew Brayshaw didn’t deserve it, the eight-week penalty is about right, the police didn’t get involved but could have, etcetera etcetera.

    Football is a team game with 44 players able to influence the outcome, but the loss of Gaff will dent West Coast’s premiership ambitions for this year. He has been the fulcrum of a midfield which has seen plenty of disruption in season 2018, be it the retirement of long-term workhorse Matt Priddis, the return and exit of Nic Naitanui, and injuries to his running mates (principally Luke Shuey).

    Andrew Gaff

    Andrew Gaff of the Eagles (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    The Eagles now face the prospect of being without three of their best (maybe their three best) players for a crucial stretch of the season given Josh Kennedy’s minor leg injury gets less minor by the day. You’ve read that take too I’m sure.

    There is a need to go further, and that is to discuss the AFL’s judicial system and approach to policing acts of violence on the field.

    This is not a call for a red card – again, you’ve read that take – though given the means by which the AFL is examining every other aspect of the code it must be doing its diligence on this as well. The fact of the matter is the AFL experiences a significant act of violence like Gaff’s once or twice a year.

    It is not endemic to the code; no one is completing the football equivalent of diving at an opponents shins (soccer), ramming helmet first into an unsuspecting ball carrier (American football) or attacking vulnerable fullbacks in mid air by tunnelling them (the rugby codes) on a regular basis.

    No, what the AFL needs is to address something more fundamental in nature: the AFL needs to take action to stamp out all non-football acts of aggression and violence.

    Striking, tripping, jumper punches, rogue elbows and forearms, anything that is outside of the act of legally competing for the football or defending your opponent from doing so has to be stamped out of the game.

    Gaff said it himself: he meant to punch Brayshaw, but in the chest not the face. That he connected with Brayshaw’s jaw was merely an outcome – the intent was to strike, and that is what must be eliminated from the game.

    The AFL’s judicial system has evolved over time to its current form, where the penalty handed down is most dictated by outcome, not intent. Take Hawthorn’s Daniel Howe’s tripping incident with Carlton’s Zac Fisher: his leg flicked out as countless others have before him to have been cited for tripping, but because he caught him so flush Fisher’s leg broke his penalty was amplified significantly.

    Instead of a fine of $1,500 (0.4 per cent of the average AFL player’s salary – or about the equivalent of a mid level speeding fine for someone on the average Australian wage, but that’s another story for another time), Howe was banned for three matches.

    Ditto Gaff’s strike. If Gaff had struck where he intended, he might’ve been on the pine for a week, if not been let off with a fine. As it was, because the outcome of the strike was so severe, his penalty was amplified.

    But that is the secondary point. The fact of the matter is what Gaff did is the prime example of a non-football act. It was something that is not at all related to the play, that does nothing but invite the potential for disaster as we experienced this past weekend. No one benefits from strikes, trips, jumper punches or rogue elbows and forearms. All it does it invite opportunities for incidents like Gaff’s to arise.

    Andrew Brayshaw

    Andrew Brayshaw (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    That is in no way an excuse for his action. Not in the slightest. And from Gaff’s reaction to the incident it is crystal clear he is full of remorse and disappointment in himself. It is to say there is an unwritten code within Australian rules football that says it’s ok to punch so long as it isn’t too hard and it isn’t to a spot that has the potential to cause the opposition player a moderate to serious injury. That is what must change.

    No other sport in the world would say striking an opponent “in the upper chest or neck area” is A-OK. They would say that’s a punch. And if you punch someone in any sport – even the extraordinarily violent National Football League in the United States – you’re gone. Our domestic approach to the action is a relic of a by-gone era and it is time the league moved with the times.

    This requires reform to the league’s judicial arm. At a very basic level, the AFL should introduce a new classification of reportable offences, for what I would call ‘non-football actions’. These are acts that are outside of the legal means to contest the ball or defend your opponent: strikes, intentional trips, jumper punches and the like.

    These acts should carry far heftier penalties than ‘football actions’ like rough conduct or high bumps, which are 99 per cent of the time the by-product of a careless move on the part of the perpetrator.

    It’s arbitrary – we’ve all played the “I think this is worth that” game this week – but any non-football action should carry with it a base penalty of at least one week’s suspension. Crudely: you strike someone, you will miss next week’s game. If you grab an opponent’s jumper and push back in a punching motion you will miss next week’s game.

    Perhaps it should be two weeks as a base, who really knows. The point is, the intent of the action must be punished proportionally to the outcome.

    There are inherent grey areas in all of this, but there always has been greys and there always will be greys. It is not possible to codify everything – indeed, that was what led to the current system, after the desire to place every incident into a neat box on a matrix collapsed confidence in the system was lost. All we are seeking to do here is draw a very clear line around what is part of football and what is not.

    If you don’t like the match review finding that you have executed a non-football action? Challenge it at the tribunal. Prove that you didn’t strike the person you struck.

    The AFL’s own little ‘law and order’ set up has become a farce at times this year, with legal counsel for the league attempting to play a game of gotcha with the seriousness of the OJ Simpson trial. But all told, it is hard to argue any incident that has gone before the Tribunal has been resolved incorrectly in 2018. This aspect of the AFL’s judicial reform has mostly worked well and as intended.

    But to date, the AFL has continued to ignore its tacit endorsement of strikes and other non-football actions. These acts have no place in modern football. If any good can come out of Andrew Gaff’s strike on Andrew Brayshaw, it is that the AFL will realise its approach to this issue must be addressed.

    Could this extend further? The AFL has made it clear through all its “state of the game” talk that it wants the best and most skilful players afforded the time and space to do what they do best.

    We see week in week out the best players are held, impeded, scragged and cajoled away from the ball, or right before the ball is in play. These, again, are inherently non-football actions, albeit of a far less extreme nature than putting your fist through your opponent’s chest. This, too, is something of a piece of nostalgia that has hung on for no reason other than it is what we’ve always done.

    I don’t write this to be a reactionary. It is a long held belief of mine that the AFL doesn’t get it right when it comes to actions on the field that have nothing to do with playing football. The Andrew Gaff incident is merely an opportunity to start that conversation. I hope HQ seizes that opportunity.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (106)

    • August 9th 2018 @ 7:18am
      Lee said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:18am | ! Report

      Totally agree – suspensions should be based primarily on intent, not outcome.
      How is this: https://twitter.com/afl/status/1020870692303245312?lang=en only two weeks?

      • Roar Guru

        August 9th 2018 @ 11:02am
        JamesH said | August 9th 2018 @ 11:02am | ! Report

        I might be in the minority on this but I think the balance between intent and outcome is pretty reasonable at the moment. I would go as far as saying it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the approach taken in criminal law (which, while more extreme, is still analogous).

        If you punch someone in the street and give them a black eye, you probably only get a fine and would likely avoid a conviction if you have a clean record. If you break their jaw and put them in hospital you’d be lucky to avoid at least a suspended jail sentence. Same act, same intent, different outcomes = different penalties. It’s a fundamental part of any justice system.

        That said, I would love to see non-football acts stamped out through tougher penalties. The fact that you can punch someone as many times as you want and (as long as you hit the body with ‘low’ impact) only get fined is ridiculous.

        It blows my mind that Zac Jones was only fined $1,500 for punching Zach Merrett in the face because the force was deemed ‘insufficient’ to warrant a charge of striking. Yet a week later, Aaron Francis was fined $2,000 for what looked like a legit bump on Jaeger O’Meara (which made the AFL’s highlights package for the round!) when there was no conclusive evidence that any contact to the head had been made. Yes, I’m annoyed that EFC didn’t contest it.

        • August 9th 2018 @ 8:11pm
          Glenn said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:11pm | ! Report

          I’m a Swans supporter and I would love them to have suspended Zak Jones for some of the stuff he’s gotten away with. He’s stupid, unpredictable and a liability.

    • Roar Guru

      August 9th 2018 @ 7:42am
      Peter the Scribe said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:42am | ! Report

      Tha AFL literally has blood on its hands over the Gaff incident. In empowering Michael Christian to hand out fines for body punches, he and the AFL have provided a carte blanche environment for highly paid AFL players to throw punches and only lose some loose change. Christian himself on the AFL “verdict” tribunal summaries has said repeatedly….”the player was able to run away….there was no medical report….the player did not have to spend time off the ground….” as justification for only handing out fines. The AFL basically condoned body punching and it was only a matter of time before someone missed the body and got the face flush. Time for mandatory loss of one game for any punch and if they are worried about disguised jumper punches, make then an automatic one game. The players themselves have said this would pretty much stop it overnight.

      • August 9th 2018 @ 10:05am
        Macca said | August 9th 2018 @ 10:05am | ! Report

        I agree here Peter, but it’s not just body punches, its also hits to the head “below the level required”.

        I have always found the outcome driven enforcement strange particularly when some can put on a legitimate bump that results in a concussion getting multiple weeks but a deliberate punch gets a fine because there wasn’t enough damage.

        Non football acts should be penalised at a premium to football acts IMO.

        • Roar Guru

          August 9th 2018 @ 10:16am
          Peter the Scribe said | August 9th 2018 @ 10:16am | ! Report

          Agree totally Macca. I also agree taggers are a blight on our game. I just thought it wasn’t the time to discuss it in sentencing articles on Gaff. How good would it be if the great players and forwards of our game were free to play?

          • August 9th 2018 @ 10:29am
            Macca said | August 9th 2018 @ 10:29am | ! Report

            I wouldn’t say taggers are a blight on our game – there are just some who take it too far. You need to have defensive players and they need to be able to defend (especially in a one on one contest) but the umpires need to ensure they don’t cross the line.

            Also you don’t have to continually punch someone (or hold someone) in order to stop them getting the ball. The best way I found was to get the better body position, try and use their force and weight against them where possible and win the ball yourself – if you have it they don’t.

            • August 9th 2018 @ 12:33pm
              Aligee said | August 9th 2018 @ 12:33pm | ! Report

              100 % correct, there are also fantastic defenders and taggers within the game, who can tag within the rules and win one on one contests.

            • Roar Guru

              August 9th 2018 @ 6:22pm
              Peter the Scribe said | August 9th 2018 @ 6:22pm | ! Report

              If the scragging and holding is stopped even Mason Cox might get a free occasionally. If they aren’t able to scrag and block him, he could kick 60 next year.

        • August 9th 2018 @ 11:17am
          Razzar said | August 9th 2018 @ 11:17am | ! Report

          The Gaff incident should act as defining moment. The AFL have been soft on players punches. Now a miss aimed punch has now made the AFL lacking in fulsome rules to help aviod serious injuries to a player at his place of work.
          Rule changes plus player culture need addressing forthwith.

    • August 9th 2018 @ 8:33am
      Geoff Schaefer said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:33am | ! Report

      Totally agree Ryan. No other sport in the world condones illegal physical actions outside of direct play. Any aggressive strike to intimidate off the ball should be penalised. Whether that be a free kick or a suspension I’m not sure, but a penalty which results in a team being disadvantaged will soon bring a stop most of these actions.

    • Roar Guru

      August 9th 2018 @ 8:37am
      Dalgety Carrington said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:37am | ! Report

      I think you’re likely to have more success in targetting the upper end of the scale of those acts you want to stamp out, but it’s finger in the dam stuff exponentially as you go down the scale of degree.

      As I said yesterday, footy is a physical and combative game in its essence. Extracting all of those physical and combative actions out of all barring a 5-metre radius of the ball would require a level of policing that seems pretty unpalatable.

      It also doesn’t seem that realistic to cover them all, especially as the umpires didn’t even pick up the swinging punch that broke a blokes jaw.

    • Roar Guru

      August 9th 2018 @ 8:49am
      Dalgety Carrington said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:49am | ! Report

      I think you’re likely to have more success in targetting the upper end of the scale of those acts you want to stamp out, but it’s finger in the dam stuff exponentially as you go down the scale of degree.

      As I said yesterday, footy is a physical and combative game in its essence. Extracting all of those physical and combative actions out of all barring a 5-metre radius of the ball would require a level of policing that seems pretty unpalatable.

      It also doesn’t seem that realistic to cover them all, especially as the umpires didn’t even pick up the swinging punch that broke a blokes jaw.

      • August 9th 2018 @ 9:45am
        Macca said | August 9th 2018 @ 9:45am | ! Report

        “Extracting all of those physical and combative actions out of all barring a 5-metre radius of the ball would require a level of policing that seems pretty unpalatable.” Only until behaviour changes – and that will happen pretty quick when free kicks and suspensions start getting thrown around.

        • Roar Guru

          August 9th 2018 @ 10:58am
          Dalgety Carrington said | August 9th 2018 @ 10:58am | ! Report

          Overly simplistic and unlikely.

          As I said the upper level and obvious ones you can police out (as represented by the Papley bump into Goddard’s back, even then umpires have milking to contend with), but eliminating the whole means umpires having to increase their grey area decision making exponentially for starters. So the debate is most usefully placed around where the bar is set.

          The piggy backing that has come about from the emotion around the Gaff strike seems to have a fuzzy ill defined goal at its core.

          But I’m not going to get suckered into the Sisyphean task of engaging in a nuance debate with you, which you’ve repeatedly shown yourself to be unable to deal with.

          • August 9th 2018 @ 12:00pm
            Macca said | August 9th 2018 @ 12:00pm | ! Report

            You are making it more complicated than it needs to be. If you punch someone you get suspended, if you hold someone without the ball you get a free kick against, if you block someone’s run more than 5m off the ball you get a free kick against – you simply have to enforce the rules and once you do behaviour will change – history clearly shows that.

            As for engaging in debate – interesting that Brayshaw’s dad supported pretty much everyhitng I was arguing the ohter day and the Eagles managed to find footage of multiple acts of blocking etc against Gaff you said didn’t exist. Perhaps you only find it difficult to engage in debate with me because you inhabit an alternate reality?

      • Roar Rookie

        August 9th 2018 @ 1:10pm
        andyfnq said | August 9th 2018 @ 1:10pm | ! Report

        agree

    • August 9th 2018 @ 9:19am
      Brian said | August 9th 2018 @ 9:19am | ! Report

      Totally agree and if lynch had concussed wakelin in 2004 we would be further along this path, however devil is in the detail. Take mitch robinson falling on sicily head. A clumsy fall or a non football act since the ball was dead when he fell.

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