The AFL again has reached for its sledgehammer in handing out hefty penalties to six AFL figures caught betting on matches. The walnuts crushed in the league’s massive over-reaction, sorry betting blitz, included Port Adelaide assistant coach Matthew Primus, who placed a $20 multi-bet on a Geelong-Carlton NAB Cup semi-final, a Western Bulldogs director who lashed out $50, and a trainee timekeeper who saved up for his $5 splurge.

A goal umpire, Chris Appleton, was found to have placed four bets totalling $60 on the 2009 Grand Final —  a match with which he had no involvement. So C Appleton, private citizen and a responsible member of the constabulary, on his day off from AFL duties has had a few bets on the footy. Now he’s got the rest of the season to think about what a shocking blunder he’s made, having been suspended by the AFL for that long.

An interchange steward Wayne Siekman placed  13 bets during the 2009 season, and the maximum stake on any one was $17.50. While one bet was on a match in which he officiated — an $8 multi on Richmond and North Melbourne — there was no suggestion he held Brent Harvey back by the jumper and prevented him from taking the field just because he’d backed against North that day. But you can’t be too careful. So down went the AFL gavel and a 20-week sentence was the result for Siekman, too.

John Wise, another interchange steward, made four bets totalling $9 during the 2009 season. Two of the four bets involved matches in which he officiated, although these were multi-bets of $1 and $2. It was felt he should be banned for the rest of the year even though he said he had placed the bets on behalf of his wife, and she confirmed that was in fact the case. Clearly a high-roller, our Mr Wise, and not to be trusted any longer with a clipboard and pen on the boundary line.

Finally, the Five-Dollar Man, AFL timekeeper Matthew Hollington, was hit with a five-week suspension for his betting plunge that involved the smallest denomination banknote. At the time he was only a trainee timekeeper and not even officiating in the game.

So there you have it: a major PR coup for the AFL. Deep-rooted corruption within AFL ranks wiped out by a targeted, highly efficient, anti-betting blitz. Or, looked at another way, the equivalent of Purana Task Force being called in to Taser a little old lady for filling out her bingo card the wrong way.

In announcing the fines and suspensions, an earnest Adrian Anderson said the AFL took a very dim view of the breaches. If he had any half-moon glasses, he would have been peering over them: “All AFL players, coaches, umpires and officials should be in no doubt that betting on the AFL is prohibited,” he said. ”As I first stated in March 2007, all players, coaches, umpires and officials are on notice that suspensions are applicable for a breach of the AFL gambling regulations.”

The AFL has form on this front. Cast your minds back three years, in early 2007, when the walnut-crushing brigade was out in full force — nailing Sydney rookie Kieren Jack for two $5 bets and North forward David Hale for a not-much-bigger outlay.

At the time, a distraught Gary Jack, the great Balmain rugby league full-back, said he couldn’t believe his son had been portrayed as a criminal over such a trifling amount.

”For Kieren to get caught up in this and to be seen on the TV news as being implicated in a big betting scandal, to have his name associated with that for putting on two $5 bets … they’re joking. He’s got caught up in a net. He put two $5 bets on — he’s not even sure what the bets were, he thinks it might have been Richmond and Adelaide — and now here’s a 19-year-old kid caught in this net, and implicating him and me and his family,” Jack said.

“For a lot of people this will be the first time they will have heard of Kieren Jack, and now they will always associate him with a betting scandal, all for $5 bets. They have no clear guidelines on this in place … Perhaps they should have done the audit and seen who was involved and, if it’s a case like Kieren’s, pull the kid aside and have a word to him, but don’t put his name out there where suddenly he’s involved in an AFL betting scandal.”

Hale’s mum, Yvonne, was equally unhappy — not just with the AFL for its sledgehammer approach, but the way North Melbourne’s development officers had effectively abandoned her son to a life of PlayStation and gambling when he wasn’t playing football.

“I am distraught that my beautiful, loyal, loving and trustworthy son has been portrayed as a criminal,” Yvonne Hale said. “… The president of his football club has stated that they are ‘disappointed’ with my son. Well, let me tell you that I am very disappointed in a club that promised me so much when they ‘kidnapped’ my son at the tender age of 17½, just out of year 12.”

So perhaps the league should save the leg-irons and manacles — and triumphant press conferences — for the time they catch out some real crooks.

*Back Page Lead is a new sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.

Peter Fray

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