The overruling of Patrick Cripps’ two-match suspension by the AFL Appeals Board on Thursday night is the surest sign yet that a system supposedly designed to protect players is repeatedly failing them.
Time and time again in recent seasons, the league and its associated appeals process has had the chance to ratify, beyond all doubt, the view that player welfare, specifically in regard to head contact, is sacrosanct.
And time and time again, any time a player does anything short of iron out an opponent a la Tom Stewart on Dion Prestia, there remains a more than decent chance that they can get away with it if their team is prepared to take it far enough.
The AFL keeps maintaining that, amid a growing number of former players revealing harrowing battles with mental health caused by repeat concussions during their playing days, doing everything in their power to stamp concussion-causing incidents out of the game is the top priority.
It is getting harder and harder to take them seriously with every incident like this.
Forget comparing Cripps’ collision with Callum Ah Chee to other cases, whether in positive – it was no worse than the one Willie Rioli was cleared of on Matt Rowell in Round 1 – or negative terms – if Marlion Pickett got a week for a bump on Dylan Moore, Cripps had to get two.
On its own, the Carlton captain being free to play, overturning an incident serious enough under Match Review Officer Michael Christian’s guidelines to receive not just one but two weeks on the sidelines, is nothing short of a disgrace.
I’m fully expecting to cop it in the comments from Carlton fans – and probably the kind of opposition supporters that constantly bemoan the game ‘going soft’ – but it’s worth noting that Blues fans celebrating Cripps’ escape now would surely have a different view of things had it been Ah Chee ironing him out instead.
That’s just how barracking for a footy team works.
There is already enough inconsistency baked into the fabric of the suspension system – most obviously that two identical bumps will carry a different grading and different ban depending on whether the person collected has their brain rattled or not. (Evidence: Zak Jones escaping a ban for bumping Luke Parker high in Round 15.)
The bottom line, though, has seemingly rested at this: if as a result of your actions, a player is concussed, then you are in trouble. It’s pot luck depending on who you hit, but at least it’s some measure of accountability.
As Cripps has proved, though, even this has layer upon layer of technicalities and loopholes big enough to drive a bandwagon through.
In order to unpack exactly what went wrong – or if you’re a Blues fan, what went right – with the Cripps verdict, it’s worth taking a look at the club’s defence at both the Tribunal and the Appeals Board.
Fundamentally, the Blues’ case rested on the fact – and a completely reasonable one under the circumstances – that Cripps was going for the ball. Therefore, he could not be considered to have bumped Ah Chee, with any contact between them purely incidental.
There is no doubt in my mind that Cripps was attempting, at least partially, to contest the ball when he leapt for the footy on the Gabba wing and collected Ah Chee in the process.
Blues fans have been analysing the incident from all angles like it’s the Zapruder film all week, and the angle from behind – that shows Cripps’ arms waiting to cushion the ball, NOT that they’re outstretched and going for it like some seem to claim – does give enough evidence to reasonably conclude that he leapt from the turf to attack the footy.
The problem is that the Blues’ successful defence carried with it the standing that as long as the ball is there to be contested, anything goes.
And my argument is that in this case, Cripps’ attempt to contest the ball made serious injury – and yes, a concussion is a serious injury – likely if not inevitable.
Fundementally, I refuse to believe Cripps, unless he is remarkably shortsighted for an elite athlete, would not have been aware of Ah Chee also heading for the ball. And that, unless said player was Oscar McInerney standing on Eric Hipwood’s shoulders, jumping for the ball was most likely going to result in dangerous, high contact.
That would be true for anyone in the game, from a 195cm beast of a man like Cripps to Brent Harvey circa 2016 – if a player with all the conditioning of an elite athlete collects an unsuspecting opponent in mid-air, and that player is driven to the ground as a result, they’d be very lucky to not concuss said player.
I also refuse to believe that Cripps had no other option but to attack the ball in this manner. Forget waiting to tackle Ah Chee, the ball was not so high overhead that he could not have reached his arms up to take the ball at its highest point and try and win it himself that way.
His jump is to attempt to take the ball at around chest level – if you want to go full Zapruder on the footage, that’s why his hands are down low and never extend to either spoil or grab it with outstretched hands.
Had he done that, then it wouldn’t have been Cripps’ bicep that collected Ah Chee in the head. It would have been Ah Chee, who also jumped, in trouble had he collected Cripps, who had remained on the ground, high.
But that’s not the path Cripps chose to go.
Whether he had the time or the wherewithal to make the decision to contest the footy in another way is beside the point; many of the split-second incidents in the game that result in suspension have no prior thinking or malice attached to them. We’re taught that actions are meant to have consequences.
In this action, Cripps left off the ground, turned his body sideways, and knocked Ah Chee into next week. If that is not an action that warrants automatic, unchallengable suspension under the rules of the AFL, then the system is broken.
In addition, the notion that under any circumstances, the notion that a player’s right to contest the ball must be upheld is silly. It is a free kick if you contest the ball and make the barest of front-on contact wth a forward; if you contest the ball at ground level and catch a player in the legs, that is also a free.
Modern AFL has been slowly but surely removing the outdated and dangerous concept that players can go like the blazes without a duty of care to themselves or anyone in their path; the latter example above an obvious example, in the wake of Gary Rohan’s horrendous leg break caused by Lindsay Thomas in 2012.
Other sports have caught on to this far quicker than the AFL: Springboks player Kurt-Lee Arendse copped a four-week suspension for taking out All Black Beauden Barrett in mid-air on the weekend.
The contact is hideous, it’s totally dangerous for Barrett (and Arendse too) and was the most obvious red card to any rugby union fan.
It’s a Cripps incident taken to the extreme, to be sure; but under the Blues’ own successful defence, because Arendse always had eyes for the ball, he wouldn’t get a single week’s suspension for it.
The solution is simple: call it the ‘Patrick Cripps’ rule if need be, but it is time for the AFL to tighten its laws around players’ right to contest the ball above and beyond any other circumstances.
As it stands, unless you make the conscious choice to bump (that is, lead into a contest with your shoulder) you’re a good chance of getting away with it even if your actions concuss an opponent.
Fix that to ‘any incident where there is a reasonable alternative to contest the ball that would minimise the chance of injury’, and you ensure incidents like Cripps’ fall under the bracket, while protecting others such as Aaron Naughton against Lachie Whitfield in 2020, who maintained a straight line pursuing the ball and surely had no realistic other alternative except to pull out of the contest.
While we’re at it, also remove a player’s right to ‘brace for contact’ in an incident like this, which is part of what got Rioli off his precedent-setting suspension in Round 1. If you put yourself into a dangerous situation for both you and the other player involved, as Rioli did, why should your decision to protect yourself come at the expense of a Matt Rowell on the receiving end?
And before you argue that to implement this would be the death of the game as we know it, and evidence of the game going soft, I’ll point out that the same exact logic was peddled out 10 years ago about ironing out the bump and getting rid of the dangerous sling tackle; and our collective psyche has evolved since then to look at any such incident in the modern game and immediately conclude that a deserved ban is forthcoming.
Put simply: Patrick Cripps acted dangerously, recklessly and avoidably when he concussed Callum Ah Chee. The AFL, in overseeing a system that allowed him to escape sanction for it, has not only let down Ah Chee, but every past player with traumatic lifelong issues arising from their head knocks, about whose experiences the league have repeatedly promised to learn from.
Failing to act would be to establish a precedent that will leave players far more liable to be concussed during a game, in a manner that can quite readily be rectified.