During an AFL game on the weekend, a Port Adelaide player struck a West Coast Eagles player to the rear of the head. In the year of Our Lord 2016, it was sickening to watch. A Fox commentator later said that it was a throwback to the 80s. He was too young to know what happened in the 50s and 60s. Then we used to smile about these things, but thank God things have changed in the last three generations, and we have grown up.
My views started to change firmly in the early 70s when I heard two coaches of two teams of public-school old boys calmly discussing whether or not they might have to ‘put to sleep’ a player destined for the VFL and one that neither could handle. If this brutality was happening with amateurs, what might it be like if there was money on the table? Not long after that, a Collingwood player called Greening suffered very serious injuries when he fell on his head. The problem with these attacks is often not the original blow but the consequences in the resulting fall to the ground.
The blow on the weekend was struck with the elbow or forearm and it made contact with the back of the head of the victim – in about that area where Philip Hughes was struck and killed. The victim was not, I think from the replays, in the air at the time of the impact, but he was quite off-balance, with his back turned, in the act of completing a mark, and I think with only one foot on the ground as he was falling toward the earth. He was carried off in a neck brace with concussion. It is not absurd to say that the effect of the blow, either immediately, or consequently on impact with the ground, could have been fatal. There was of course strong reaction from the players, and what is called a melee.
The attack was late, deliberate, vicious, and cowardly. It was the definitive foul – it was dangerous and as unsportsmanlike as you can get. Under the laws of the game as they stand, the culprit played on – and, as it happens, his side got a run on – while the victim was carried off and his medical advisers considered having him taken to hospital.
That is a revolting consequence. It puts the game to shame. There is no doubt that under the rules of rugby as they are played and administered, at least at the top level, the culprit would have been given a red card and sent off for the match – and his team would not have been able to replace him for that match.
The AFL needs to get its act together on yellow and red cards. Rugby was an English invention, from which our AFL derives, that was used to implant what was called character in boys and young men. It is absurd to suggest that such a game, or any derivative of it, should in the year 2016 be a vehicle for this kind of brutality being inflicted without some form of immediate response from authority on the ground. They have done it in rugby for as long as I can remember, in part, I think, because the game is better administered on issues of discipline at the top level, and more independently administered without having to suffer being importuned by the clubs, and in part because rugby justifiably has more confidence in its referees than the AFL or the NRL does.
We can presently put to one side yellow cards, and ten minutes in the sin bin for lesser offences or ‘cynical’ abuses of the rules, and just look at a terminal send-off under a red card. In rugby, if the referee has any doubt he will look with other officials at the big screen replay and then make an immediate decision. In a match in New Zealand about three weeks ago, one player flew very high and an opposing player came underneath him so that he fell very dangerously – he could have broken his neck. In rugby, there is an absolute ban on tackling a man in the air, and although both the TV referee and the referee on the ground said that the tackle was not malicious, there was no doubt that the offender would be sent off for the match, and this was very early in the match, for what was a dangerous tackle. His team played the whole of the rest of the match one down – there was no malice, but the safety of the player is paramount.
The AFL is not discharging its obligations to its players by failing to institute similar disciplinary responses. The AFL is self-evidently not making the safety of the player paramount by adopting a tried and proven response used all around the world.
If the AFL needs it, there are market reasons why it should implement the red card. Mums and dads watching this game and wondering what their kids might do, need assurance that the highest level the safety of players is the first concern of the authorities of all codes. And they might find that it adds to the theatre of the game, and also that it might defuse some of the lunatics on the other side.
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching the great Jonathan Thurston play in the NRL. He was hit after he had passed the ball. He was therefore in a similar position of unreadiness as the West Coast Eagle victim. Thurston spends a great deal of his professional life facing thirteen bruisers who could, on a bad day, do him most serious injury. But when he does so most of the time, he is braced and ready for them – and he wears a head-guard for the same purpose. But, as the commentators pointed out, he is obviously not in that state of readiness after he has just passed the ball – he is open and vulnerable, and that is just what makes these attacks so cowardly and so dangerous.
It was the same on the weekend, and it is time that the AFL matured, and got respectable, and does what it has to in order to protect the players – who, as it happens, are just about the only asset of worth that the AFL has. The AFL should know this – at least one other code does it better, and they already look down their noses at you.
And that is before we get to the sword of justice.