AFL is the most elite, professional and highest standard of Australian rules football available – anywhere. That’s a fact.
Whilst appropriate risk mitigation and controls are completely necessary, the AFL decision-makers run the distinct risk of over-sanitising the game to within an inch of it’s life.
Community competitions whilst inferior in skills and talent are becoming more watchable and closer to the entertainment that average fan want to see. These competitions do not have the funds, resources and infrastructure to manipulate games as deliberately as the AFL does. In essence they are raw and untouched, not overpowered by manipulation and manufactured outcomes.
We all understand the importance of safety, protecting players as much as possible and reducing the risk of serious injury. I’m 55 years of age and have played junior, community, country, representative, AFL and state football. I have also coached country, community, representative and AFL levels along with media involvement, commenting and providing opinions on the game. My playing, coaching, media career spans 47 years. In that time I have never witnessed a death due to the game. The most dangerous situation over that time was the terribly unfortunate incident involving Footscray’s Neil Sachse, who became a quadriplegic due to contact whilst contesting the ball in Round 2, 1975 – 38 years ago.
Players have also broken legs, arms, shoulders and jaws along the way. Too many to mention but not enough to surprise. In a bid to encourage parents to support their children to take up Aussie rules against the other sports, the AFL has seen it fit to sanitise the game to a degree that renders it a shade of its former self in a few critical areas.
The AFL competition should not be the guinea pig for appeasing parents. It should be the most brutally contested and fiercely fought showcase of the game. After all it is played by the greatest athletes this country can muster, it is the most elite form of the game, is supported by the highest levels of professionalism, science and medicine available and is the showcase globally.
In boxing, amateurs wear headgear and use bigger gloves which mitigates the risk of being hurt. Professionals don’t have headgear and use smaller gloves because they are the best in the world and have trained accordingly. In essence we want to see the absolute elite given the best chance to show off the full gamut of their talents and skills.
By all means put constraints and “governors” on community and junior football if you want to attract the number of participants (if you think that works), but let the big boys play and let the pro’s show their complete bag of tricks.
It warrants that the arena is a risky environment.
The thing that develops ability and progresses skill is fear.
The greatest asset – as I see it – that our great game provides is the fear factor. It’s the thing that gets the fans on the edge of their seat. It’s the thing that stretches players capacity to the limit which is where improvement and development emanate from.
Fans desperately want to see physical combat, fierce competition and duels of strength (physical and mental). Coaches are reducing the amount of contested footy by demanding strict disciplines of playing patterns aimed at maintaining possession and avoiding turnovers which also minimises combat situations. Uncontested ball numbers are going through the roof at the expense of contests.
Through umpire interpretation – at the direction and discretion of the AFL – players are no longer allowed to desperately lunge to win the neutral ball. Players are crazy to attempt a bump or engage in a physical test of strength in a marking contest or ruck duel.
Teams are instructed to allow their opposition to win the ball in congested situations and are set up to assist that outcome. Teams have a preference for a counter-punch attack rather than winning a contested situation at a stoppage. How many times have we seen two or three players refusing to pick up the ball in a dangerous part of the ground at a critical time in the game because they fear having a free kick paid against them? Reward is for the player tackling rather than the player attempting to win the footy.
All of these factors combine to reduce the most salivating, enthralling and inspirational part of our game – physical contests.