As if on cue, the “tanking” debate has arisen with vigor among AFL commentators and supporters as the home and away season draws to a close. Accusations of tanking reached a crescendo after last Sunday’s performance by Melbourne, which lost to Richmond by four points after the siren following some bizarre coaching moves by the Demons’ Dean Bailey and the decision not to play Colin Sylvia, the man many believe has been Melbourne’s best player in 2009. The controversy reached new levels with recent claims by bookmakers that betting markets were being compromised by the spectre of clubs not playing at their full capacity and one bookmaker suspending betting on the “wooden spoon”.

The concept of “tanking”, or sides managing their list so that they perform at a sub-optimal level, has dogged the AFL in recent years. Under current rules, clubs receive a “priority” draft selection if they win less than four matches in two consecutive years. In addition, the order of draft selections is based upon where the team finished on the ladder, with the bottom side receiving first draft selection, second bottom side receiving the second selection (after priority picks) and so on.

Melbourne’s performance, whether it intentionally lost or not, highlighted the farcical nature of the current system. The clear perception was that Melbourne intentionally played below their best in order to retain the priority pick and receive access to the highly rated potential number one draft choice, Tom Scully. Melbourne supporters certainly did not appear disappointed by the result, bombarding social networking sites like Facebook with celebratory posts after the narrow defeat.

In 2007, Richmond coach Terry Wallace told media before the club’s round 22 match against St Kilda that he had “conflicted emotions” about winning the match. (Richmond ultimately lost the game and was able to select champion youngster, Trent Cotchin at that year’s draft). Commenting on that match in June this year, Wallace claimed that “it was a no-win situation for everyone in the coach’s box … we decided the best way to operate was just to let the players go out … I didn’t do anything. I just let the boys play. There weren’t any miracle moves in the last couple of minutes.”

It appears that the only person in Australia who doesn’t think “tanking” is a problem is AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou. Demetriou has repeatedly claimed that clubs don’t tank and that “nothing’s going to change”. Perhaps Demetrious wasn’t able to witness the scenes of jubilation from Melbourne supporters when it lost to Richmond on Sunday. Demetriou also got his facts wrong, alleging that no priority pick selection has ever gone on to win a premiership (in fact, four priority selections have won flags, and that number may increase substantially if St.Kilda or the Western Bulldogs win this year’s premiership).

Former Melbourne champion and media personality, Garry Lyon, disagreed with Demetriou, criticizing current situation telling The Age that:

…a 13-year-old in the car, having played junior footy and you’re sort of moaning about Melbourne kicking a goal, and he’s looking at you going, “What are you dad? What are you doing?” You try and explain that to him … it’s hard to separate the dispassionate and the passionate. If you’re a passionate footy supporter, it goes against everything, or passionate football person, it’s counter to everything you believe in as a person and as a competitor, to think, “Oh jeez, I hope the side doesn’t win”.

Brisbane coach and former Brownlow medalist, Michael Voss, was even more equivocal, noting in a press conference after his side’s loss to Collingwood that, “let’s remove all doubt and get rid of complete perception and just put in a system that warrants you being able to go into a lottery of some sort.”

The solution to the problem is exceptionally simple. First, the priority selection must be immediately removed. Second, the order of draft choices should either be random (in an NBA-style lottery) or even reversed, such that the team which finished 9th receives the first selection, 10th the second selection. While such a method may make it more difficult for poorer performing clubs to rapidly improve, it would certainly provide teams and supporters with motivation to win and significantly improve the excitement for all supporters, not just those vying for a finals position. (Further, Demetriou himself has claimed that drafting is not a science, so reversing the selection order will merely alter supporter perception, but not necessarily harm the bottom sides).

While Demetriou and the AFL celebrate the completely irrelevant defection of Rugby League player, Karmichael Hunt (who many suspect will struggle to perform at AFL level), perhaps they should focus on the game at hand, and rectify a problem that is destroying the integrity of the AFL.

Peter Fray

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