The AFL executive makes its fair share of mistakes, however, there is little doubt that the executive (and Match Review Committee) has made the brave and correct decision in creating the head-high contact rule and applying it in this week’s controversial Lance “Buddy” Franklin case. Franklin last night had his appeal against a two-match ban for rough conduct dismissed. Franklin had earlier been cited for making head-high contact on Ben Cousins last Saturday, in an incident that led to the Richmond star being concussed and unable to play on.
Claims that removing the head-high bump from AFL football turns the game into some form of non-contact sport are preposterous. Unsurprisingly, the allegations are often leveled by obese, alcohol-swilling onlookers who most likely lack the fitness to run onto the field, let alone compete in one of the most physically demanding sports on earth. As AFL has become a professional sport in recent years, the strength and conditioning of players has increased exponentially. The level of contact and ferocity at AFL level is a far cry from the near-amateur days of behind-the-play contact and all-in brawls of days gone by. It takes far more courage to absorb a bone-crunching tackle from a 190-centimtre, 95-kilogram machine than to cannon into a player’s head while they are trying to pick up the football.
It should be noted that Franklin elected to bump Cousins, knowing that his action may lead to head-high contact. Franklin could have avoided the collision, or sought to tackle Cousins. As The Age noted this morning, the law is straight-forward, it is a reportable offence if “in the bumping of an opponent (whether reasonably or unreasonably) [a player] causes forceful contact to be made with any part of his body to an opponent’s head or neck and, instead, of bumping, the player had a realistic alternative to [a] contest the ball; or [b] tackle the opponent.'”
The benefits of the law do not manifest immediately but the intent of the rule is clear — to prevent a player from becoming a quadriplegic as a result of head-high contact during a match. The situation is certainly not outside the realms of possibility — in 1975, the 24-year-old Footscray player, Neil Sachse, tragically damaged his spinal chord and was rendered quadriplegic after an accidental incident with Fitzroy’s Kevin O’Keefe. In the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup, prop Ben Darwin suffered a career-ending spinal injury as a result of contact to his neck. Darwin was perilously close to permanent neck injury or quadriplegia,
While critics have flooded talkback and opinion pages with claims that the Franklin verdict will turn AFL into “netball”, the reality is very different. It takes little courage to mount a head-high challenge to a player, often unaware, in possession of the football (especially when the person making contact is far larger and stronger than the victim). It takes far more courage to actually pick up the football. Hawthorn football manager Mark Evans claimed that “the point for me still remains that I am not sure this law is in the spirit of the game [and] we look forward to lobbying the AFL about what we can do to get that reversed to a much more reasonable position” — which leads to the question: is AFL a game that rewards the courageous and fearless, or those who use physical stature and unawareness of a victim to gain an advantage over their opponent?
There are also subsidiary commercial benefits from the AFL’s stance in recent years. Since the violence has been largely removed from football (replaced by fitness, strength and a remarkable improvement in tackling) female attendance continues to increase. Doubling the potential market for any business makes good commercial sense. As does preventing people from becoming quadriplegic.