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Opinion

Brownlow reforms are desperately needed for a fairer count

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Roar Guru
20th September, 2021
25
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Another year, another comically high number of votes to the winner.

Ollie Wines collected a record-equalling 36 votes en route to winning the Brownlow. One might think that he must have played the season to end all seasons, blown all before him off the park and is already the undisputed GOAT, right?

Nope. Because Wines was one of a record four people to chalk up 30-plus votes. Only twice before had two players polled 30-plus votes in the same season – Dane Swan and Sam Mitchell in 2011, and Dustin Martin and Patrick Dangerfield in 2017.

The VFL switched to a 22-round season in 1970. Excluding the 1976 and 1977 seasons, when the voting was different, the first player to cross 30 votes was Greg Williams in 1994 when he and Peter Matera ran a two-horse race for the Brownlow. Robert Harvey was next when he blew all before him with 32 votes to beat Nathan Buckley by eight. Then Chris Judd got 30 in 2004.

Note the names: Williams, Harvey, Judd. Players who belong in the absolute elite ranks of the game. None of them managed a 36-vote season. None of them even managed a 33-vote season like Marcus Bontempelli. Williams and Judd couldn’t even manage to best Clayton Oliver’s 31.

Ollie Wines poses with the 2021 Brownlow Medal.

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

You would say it started to get a bit ridiculous in 2011 when Dane Swan – who, to be fair was an excellent footballer – picked up 34 votes. Then Danger got 35, Dusty got 36. Lachie Neale would have slaughtered all records if given a 22-round season. In 17 rounds he still picked up 31 votes. He would have translated that total to 40 in 22-round season.

The pool of players to score any votes in a season is getting smaller each year, as is the number of players to score the full three votes at least once in a season, yet we are seeing a greater number of players ticking 20 votes or more in a campaign.

The votes are being concentrated among fewer and fewer.

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None of the above would surprise anyone, nor would the revelation that midfielders are just hoovering up the votes. It’s a midfielders award now.

Nonetheless it’s a fact that would be vehemently rejected and denied by the AFL and the umpires. The voting system or current voting trends by umpires doesn’t simply favour midfielders to win the medal but favours them to the point that other key positional players who are best on ground or have had super consistent seasons are being ignored to the point of embarrassment.

Let’s have a quick look at some of the votes All Australian key positional players picked up in 2021.

Steven May: one vote
The All Australian fullback got a single vote. One single vote. In Round 1. He didn’t get a vote for the rest of the season. Amazing.

Bailey Dale: three votes.
That vaunted Bulldogs defence gets no respect from umpires.

Tom Papley: four votes
He scored the second-highest number of goals by a small forward. Still, that’s better than Charlie Cameron, who got one vote for his 47 goals.

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Jake Lever: five votes
He got no votes in the second half of the season.

Toby Greene: six votes
He kicked 45 goals this year and somehow managed to go nearly the whole second half of the season without a vote. That game in which he kicked five against Collingwood? Two votes. Callum Ward got three votes for 37 possessions (21 handballs), fewer tackles than Greene and no goals.

Daniel Rich: six votes
He went 14 rounds without a vote, all during Brisbane’s solid middle-season ladder climb.

Aliir Aliir: seven votes
The intercept king. He fed a ridiculous amount of ball to Wines. He had four votes by Round 7 and didn’t pick up a vote again until a best-on-ground performance in Round 20.

Tom Stewart: eight votes
A man considered so important to Geelong that they were out of contention the moment he was injured got eight votes.

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Max Gawn: 16 votes
Gawn was the only key position All Australian player to get more than ten votes.

The injustices could be debated all day, but it’s time to pivot towards a solution. How can we create a best and fairest award that gives everyone a fair shake?

Max Gawn leads the Melbourne Demons out

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

I don’t have time to argue the positives and negatives of a variety of voting systems – I hope you introduce such a thread in the comments, and I’ll gladly respond. Instead I’ll put forward what I think is the best idea and let you have at it in the comments.

What we need is an enhanced version of the Norm Smith Medal voting system.

The Norm Smith Medal is a contest key positional players have a legitimately strong chance of winning. While midfielders stand the most chance of winning this medal, it is not anywhere near skewed to the extent that it is in the Brownlow. Why? Because it’s a blind vote. It’s not done on stats, it’s not done by committee and, most importantly, it’s not done by three men sitting in a room with a stats page in their hands playing favourites.

Five esteemed people within AFL circles are picked to hand out votes in a 3-2-1 system, and those votes are then tallied up. The player with the most votes wins. In the event of a tie, a countback is done. Simple.

The beauty of it is that rarely are the five panellists actually near each other during the match. Whether by design or by accident they tend to be apart and can formulate their own opinions on the match.

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Its current flaw is that the majority of panel positions each year tend to be occupied by media people. I’m not suggesting the media pundits don’t get it right, but they undeniably do have an agenda at times with certain favourite players at the expense of other players without the same profile, whose glorious grand final performances are at risk of getting lost in the limelight.

Umpire Ray Chamberlain gestures during the round 18 AFL match between the Western Bulldogs and the St Kilda Saints at Etihad Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

AFL umpire Ray Chamberlain. (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

There would need to be a diverse panel covering all elements of the game.

It’s also easy for the Norm Smith voting to be conducted as a one-off match. How would this be implemented throughout the season?

I would suggest that the Brownlow adopts the Norm Smith voting model with the following adaptations:

  1. the panel is composed of one media representative, one AFL official, the two competing coaches and an umpire from the match representing the three umpires officiating that day;
  2. the AFL official is the chair in so far as they have the responsibility to collect the votes within ten minutes of the full-time siren, which will make sure it’s harder for all – though not necessarily the coaches – to confer with the stats sheet before making a decision;
  3. the competing coaches cannot vote for their own players – their three votes must be given to the opposition;
  4. the umpire nominated to be on the panel speaks collectively for the umpires, not for themselves, and the AFL official will confer with the other two umpires to validate the votes provided by the voting umpire;
  5. voting is blind. All five participants must not meet to determine votes; and
  6. tied voting in matches need not be split by a countback.
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With more people voting and the maximum votes being increased from three to 15, there is significantly more opportunity for more players outside of the midfielders to pick up some votes, thus spreading around the voting to more players who had good matches. And we’ve seen this in the Norm Smith voting. Even when a midfielder wins it, a key position player has generally picked up second place.

Getting 15 votes is rare. Only one player has done it: Dustin Martin – in fact, freakishly, he did it twice. The current voting system means it’s too easy to hand a single three-vote award to the same player eight to ten times a year.

And what of suspended players? My proposed voting system would mean that a winning player can tally upwards of or exceeding 100 votes, which means there are plenty of votes that can be used as a penalty system for suspended players.

I would still include any suspended player, and they would be docked a suitably harsh 15 points per suspended round, 15 being the maximum votes a player can pick up in any given match. It means that the philosophy of ‘fairest’ is still preserved while also acknowledging that if they can overcome their handicap, the philosophy of being the ‘best’ is also maintained.

We used to have a Brownlow Medal that recognised the performances of many players throughout the year in an even way.

Sound good? I’m looking forward to seeing your comments.

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