Another week in the Australian Football League, and another controversial issue. This past week it was the Steven Baker striking charges, which landed him a severe nine-week ban. Amidst the public discussions about judicial inconsistency or the harshness of the penalty, AFL coaches Ross Lyon and Mark Thompson acknowledged that Baker’s behind-play or off-ball type of contact is not good for the game. Lyon indicated also that this type of behaviour is no longer defensible by the (bygone era) credo that “what happens on the field, stays on the field”. Mick Malthouse has also come out to say there is no place for Baker’s type of behaviour in the modern game.
Before the introduction of additional umpires and trial-by-video, ferocious tagging, along with melees, racial vilification and other types of abusive sledging, would have been considered “all part of the game”. Melees could be put down to “the boys letting off steam” or “flying the flag”. Racial, religious and sexually oriented sledging was considered simply gamesmanship, that is, tactics to put an opponent off his game. Nothing serious, nothing personal; all is forgotten at game’s end, the reasoning might go.
AFL is under the spotlight like no other sport. Rather than being a haven from community standards of behaviour, football is now being held more accountable to them. Some may say that the standard of behaviour set for on-field and off-field behaviour of footballers is unrealistically high, setting up the athletes for a fall, but that is another story.
The Baker incident demonstrates the AFL’s sensitivity to issues of violence and deliberately injurious tactics, and the severe penalty to him indicates the lengths to which the AFL will go to protect the image of the game. One only has to recall the efforts of the AFL to minimise media coverage of the horrendous facial injuries suffered by James Hird in 2002. The introduction of the anti-melee rule and of video surveillance has reduced the number and seriousness of excessively violent on-field actions.
AFL is competing in the marketplace with other sports. The image of football as violent and as excessively injurious, especially when players intentionally exploit an opponent’s injury for a strategic gain, may be unsporting and offensive to enough parents to have them think twice about registering or keeping their children in junior football. The AFL cannot risk having such a threat to grassroots participation.
There is an industrial health and safety issue here as well. It is not good for the game when the football contest is about a player’s ability to dish out or withstand off-ball or behind-play battering, racial slurs or other forms of intimidation, which would be considered illegal bullying or harassment in any other workplace. The football field is a tough enough workplace, and it is also not good for the game to have players’ careers and livelihood threatened by belligerent acts of aggression.
The AFL players, their managers, and the AFL Players’ Association should also be backing tough decisions when it comes to a safer football workplace. An AFL match is a dangerous workplace to begin with, and players expect that they may be injured in the course of tough competition. However, the workplace is made unnecessarily dangerous with behind-the-play or off-the-ball tactics designed to attack the player. Players, player managers, and the AFLPA should be equally “up in arms” about tactics that can exacerbate injuries, and potentially shorten or end playing careers.
In 2002, the Western Bulldogs agreed not to exploit the marital difficulties of Anthony Stevens, who at the time was in a highly publicised and sensitive situation due to an extra-marital affair that had occurred between his wife and then Kangaroos’ captain, Wayne Carey. Even though it would have been tactically advantageous to do so, the team considered Stevens so well respected that they decided to rule out the use of sledging as a tactic against him.
This example points to the capacity of footballers to self-regulate behaviour.
Rather than rely on the introduction of even more referees, more intensive video surveillance, and harsher penalties, players can take matters into their hands. A greater measure of mutual respect and player solidarity may be just what’s needed to deal with the on-field violence that threatens the integrity, health and careers of players. And that has to be good for the game.
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