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The Roar


TOM MORRIS: The immediate change AFL must make to save Brownlow Medal from embarrassment

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5th June, 2023
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Of all the myths in football, the ‘leave the game alone’ catchcry is up there with the silliest.

Attacking footy is more prevalent for the stand rule (2021), safer due to players becoming liable if they bump an opponent in the head (2011), and more skilful thanks to the abolition of the flick pass (1924). The down the field free kick (1945) was an important safety measure when it was introduced too.

The law makers have tinkered with the game constantly for 160 years, largely for the betterment of the code. (LINK: )

From 1897-1904, there were no boundary umpires. From 1904-1910, boundary umpires punched the ball back into play, and from 1910-1955, they signaled with a white handkerchief instead of a whistle.

And until 1964, coaches were not permitted to address players on the field at quarter-time. This was the same year as protective padding was introduced on goal and point posts.

The sport has never been stagnant. The ‘leave the game alone’ crew ignore this.

Compare footy to other chaos sports: soccer, basketball and rugby have all evolved with new rules and technologies, but look similar to what they did in 1980. Footy, on the other hand, is entirely different to what it was even 20 years ago.

And while rule changes have been ever-present in between seasons, they have historically been less common mid-season. That is, until recently.


In 2020, the global pandemic forced the AFL to cut the fixture from 23 rounds to 17 after every team had already played a game.

Quarters were shortened to allow teams to play more often or at late notice.

These rules on the run allowed the AFL season to recommence in June and run through to late October.

Covid taught us many things, one of which is that the league can do whatever the hell it likes, whenever it wants, to make the sport better. The AFL is as agile and flexible as it wants to be.

Last year, the AFL placed umpires in a frankly invidious position, instructing them to penalise any form of dissent.

On one occasion in Canberra, Daniel McKenzie, a softly spoken St Kilda defender, put his arms out when he gave away a free kick. The umpire, under instructions from the league, immediately penalised him.


This autocratic, black and white style of officiating was never going to last.

Common sense prevailed – as it always should – and by June the AFL had “recalibrated” its definition of dissent.

It was a mid-season change for the better. Very few complained the law was adjusted on the run, because everyone could see the initial interpretation was admirable in print, but ridiculous in practice.

The same degree of common sense and flexibility should apply for the 2023 Brownlow Medal. An unintended consequence of dangerous tackles becoming punishable by suspension weekly threatens to impact the most decorated awards night on the footy calendar.

It is true the Brownlow winner is the fairest and best player annually. But what it means to be “fair” has changed almost as much as football itself in recent years.

Jimmy Bartel’s idea to separate football acts from non-football acts is incredibly simple if you are familiar with the operations of the Match Review Officer, as he is.

Incidents which Michael Christian judges careless are football acts. They are tackles, bumps and spoils gone wrong.


These actions – even if executed illegally – should not preclude a player from winning the Brownlow Medal.

Zach Merrett should still be eligible despite receiving a one week ban for tackling Tom Sparrow over-zealously, and though you can debate Jordan De Goey’s recklessness, I happen to believe his split-second misjudgement should cost him weeks, match payments, possibly a slither of reputation, but not a Brownlow.

Zach Merrett of the Bombers leads his team out onto the field during the round 10 AFL match between Essendon Bombers and Richmond Tigers at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on May 20, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Zach Merrett. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Contrastingly, if a player intentionally strikes an opponent – think Barry Hall on Brent Staker or Tom Bugg on Callum Mills – this must continue to warrant expulsion from football’s night of nights. The same would apply to Dayne Zorko, who intentionally made unnecessary and unreasonable contact to the eye region of Luke Pedlar.

So what are we waiting for? The AFL has the scope to make changes mid-season. Only recently they cut short an “independent” investigation because it was not working for the parties involved.

Is it going to take an embarrassing situation where Merrett, an objectively fair player, misses out on the highest individual honour there is because the AFL was slow to react to the flow-on effects of its own legislation?

To repeat: Intentional – cannot win the Brownlow. Careless – can win the Brownlow.


Make the change now and move on. Of all the complicated matters engulfing the AFL right now, this is not one of them.