Sports administration at any level is difficult. From being a treasurer or manager at a local footy club where everyone is a volunteer right through to the chair of a multi-million-dollar-a-year sporting code, difficult decisions must be made.
This year’s NRL season has been notable due to a mid-season directive that is currently playing out. Mid-season changes are rare and should really be avoided at all costs and this has been a significant argument against the current high tackle furore, alongside the argument that they are changing the fabric of the game itself, whatever that may mean.
The NRL crackdown is certainly rare, but not unique as there is a parallel situation to the NRL crackdown unfolding on the other side of the world: one that is many, many times bigger than the NRL. This sport is going through a similar identity crisis at this very moment.
Major League Baseball is undergoing one its most significant crises since the steroid era in the late ’90s and early 2000s. This crisis is similar to the issues with high tackling in the NRL. The organisation is tasked with operating the league has spent so much time ignoring the issue that it now has come to a head midway through the season.
Baseball is one of the most statistically measured sports on the planet. There would be very few sports that have even a tenth of the measurements available that can be used to measure and more importantly predict outcomes. But one stat is getting a great deal of attention: spin rate, or more accurately, the massive increase in spin rates.
Measuring spin rates is a relatively new phenomenon but has been increasingly scrutinised as a measure for a pitcher’s ability to make batters miss. But something new is happening in 2021. The delicate balance between hitter and pitcher match-ups has tilted too far and pitchers are dominating. Batting averages are falling, and strike outs are rising, fast.
There are a couple of aspects at play causing the ball to be in play less, including the increase in batters hitting for power and a change in game balls over the off-season. But the ultimate issue at play is the use of a foreign substance by pitchers.
An MLB rule states that pitchers may not have “on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance”. This rule has some fascinating historical context, but it’s quite clear that use of foreign substances is illegal and has been for a long time.
Yet the MLB had previously gone down the same route that the NRL has with high tackles, turning a blind eye to the initially minor infractions and allowing the issue to fester for too long.
MLB pitchers have been experimenting and using increasingly better substances that improve the pitchers’ grip, which in turn increases spin rates and the amount of swings and misses.
These substances have become so sticky and the rule breaking is so clear that the MLB has had to act 60 games into the season. From next week pitchers identified to have used foreign substances will be suspended for ten games and more importantly cannot be replaced in the roster.
Already, with this attention, there have been a couple of pitchers whose spins rates have dropped significantly and a farcical mid-game confiscation of a pitcher’s hat. Will it change the balance between pitchers and batters back? But more importantly, is the change wanted by opposing players, as more grip did ensure better pitch command and less accidental hit-by-pitches?
And this is where the point of sports administration being difficult comes full circle. Sometimes a decision must be made that is unpopular, for the benefit of the game – or in the case of the NRL, player safety – even if the problem has come about through inaction by the administrative body to police their own set of rules.
Whether the average fan likes it or not, high tackles are illegal in the NRL and high tackles with direct contact with the head or neck, which are deemed forceful, have always been an offence that is listed as an act of foul play that can result in a player being temporarily suspended from the game or removed entirely.
The sin bin for high tackles, if anything, has been under-utilised for several seasons now. The NRL has allowed foul play to creep into the game to a point that became untenable.
The rule for high tackles is quite clear. A player commits a misconduct when affecting or attempting to affect a tackle makes contact with the head or neck of an opponent intentionally, recklessly or carelessly. But the NRL have failed, time after time, to adjudicate this rule at its most fundamental level, so we got to a stage where a player had their jaw broken in a tackle without a penalty.
The anger by fans that the game has been changed is understandable in many ways. League fans have become accustomed to high tackles being play on despite the rules directing the referees otherwise.
Many fans see this as an attack on the fabric of the game, but that’s a redundant argument as the word spectacle does not appear in the rule book. Nor does the word accidental appear alongside high tackle.
The NRL has been incredibly ham-fisted with the mid-season change. Not through making a direction, but the inability to produce a protocol for referees to follow when appraising the level of punishment required.
It’s an administrative blunder as bad as not adjudicating high tackles until the middle of 2021 or allowing the sticky stuff to dominate baseball.
The way forward for the NRL is easy enough: create a protocol and stay the course. If the high tackle directive is walked back, and it seems it might be heading that way, the NRL as an organisation have failed at its primary role: to administer and run the league.
Administration is hard, but that’s why the likes of Peter V’landys and Andrew Abdo get paid more than the local footy club treasurer.