It always shocks me whenever anybody tries to use precedent as a defence in the AFL.
If the league has proven anything in the last few years, it’s that they have no template for any facet of the game. The biggest example, in this regard, is the Tribunal.
How many sling tackles have been penalised and how many have been overlooked? How many bumps have been pinged and how many have been cleared? Sure, there will always be some rationale behind why incidents are different, but to us punters watching, that explanation treads a line between justification and fictionalisation so fine that it’s anorexic.
You just have to watch the way Jack Ginnivan was umpired last year to know that it’s not one rule for all. Charlie Curnow is the recipient of some free kicks that other key forwards just don’t get. Obviously, Charlie is a terror, and umpires may be hypersensitive to defenders engaging in illegal contact – but as a Collingwood supporter, I’ve had to watch Mason Cox be zealously blocked, grabbed, had his arms held down, and scragged for five years, for very, very, very little reward.
We know players are treated differently, even though they shouldn’t be. Every football fan has an example of their team suffering inexplicable inconsistencies that the AFL will constantly ameliorate.
Naturally, we don’t challenge it, the media rarely question it, and we all just move on, because we know that not only can you not fight city hall, but they’re a bunch of condescending aristocrats who don’t care what we, the minions, think.
The Brayden Maynard collision with Angus Brayshaw should be a benchmark case in footballing administration. Aside from Simon Goodwin, Garry Lyon and Melbourne supporters, most accept that Maynard genuinely attempted to smother, then only turned and braced himself for impact to protect himself, rather than:
a) plummet face first into Brayshaw, or
b) change the laws of physics by defying gravity and floating over Brayshaw.
This is the thing I hate about football, and particularly the AFL’s specialisation in reactions that are so constantly knee-jerk that they’ve become nervous tics: we just don’t accept that sometimes, just sometimes, players are going to get hurt and there’ll be no malice, premeditation, or irresponsibility behind it.
I’m sorry Brayshaw got knocked out and missed the bulk of the game, and will miss the Demons’ semi-final. I’m sorry for the players who have gotten injured, or suffer from concussion, or who’ve been forced to retire from the game, or who played years ago and are now suffering from severe complications after a career’s worth of head knocks.
It’s great that we’ve become more aware of the dangers of concussion and are trying to protect the players of today to the best of our ability by either outlawing, or at the very worst, minimising risks that we have some control over.
But that doesn’t change the fact that we have athletes in excess of 80 kilograms barreling in at brutal speeds and making split-second decisions; occasionally, they will run into one another and unwittingly cause damage.
Like most, I played footy when I was young, and as a teenager broke my right arm in a social game – I suffered nerve damage to half my right hand. That took a year to recover from. If I was playing professionally, I would’ve missed over twelve months of football given there was nothing they could do with the nerve other than wait to see if it would heal.
I never look back on that incident with bitterness or regret or resentment. I chose to play, and while we spuriously believe we’re all invulnerable, once we run out to play, we sign an unspoken waiver with our bodies that getting hurt might just happen.
Anybody playing football knows the risks once they run out there. It’s not like the landscape changes spontaneously around them (as much as the AFL tweak interpretations from game to game).
Players pursuing careers as footballers know they have to train regularly, that they have to watch their diet, that they’ll live under the media microscope, and that they run out and play a game where they might get hurt, and sometimes seriously. Like Hyman Roth says in The Godfather Part II, “This is the business we’ve chosen”.
Most would have dealt with injury at some point in their footballing lives – it doesn’t even have to be at AFL level. They know that standing under a ball waiting for a mark involves the potential for an opponent to bullock into them; that they might be tackled and hit the ground awkwardly; that at some point, in contesting the ball, an opponent might collide with them and inadvertently hurt them.
This year there has been paranoia about football actions that have resulted in damage – especially concussion. We’ve tried to change the physics of the game. As far as tackles go, players can no longer sling an opponent.
Okay, sure, we can try to change the way tackles occur, just like we changed the rules around a player deciding to bump. But we also need to accept that a player can do everything right, that he/she can play entirely within the rules, and still might hurt an opponent; while it’s unfortunate, it’s also entirely accidental.
If we start mandating that genuine football actions will be illegal the moment they cause damage, it won’t be long before players start questioning all football actions and begin choosing not to contest. Then we may as well eliminate physical contact altogether.
There are no precedents for the Maynard case, as much as people try to draw comparisons. But there’s one thing I’m certain about: this will in no way become the standard-bearer as it should be for the way AFL contextualise collisions.
They will remain wonderfully and inexplicably inconsistent, and players and clubs will just have to continue to ride the roulette wheel of justice.
Take the chance.
And accept you never know what you’re going to get.