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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Breakdown of AFL Discipline Now Complete

The only remaining effective disciplinary power over AFL footballers has been wielded by the league's faux-judiciary. Clubs, police, the courts and the wider public simply have no capacity to moderate the misbehaviour. However, the AFL Tribunal has restricted itself to on-field matters, ensuring a modicum of decency for just a few hours a week. Now, even that tiny window of propriety has broken down, leaving players unchecked to a degree never before seen.

Let's get down to brass tacks: the only thing that keeps players in check is the threat of being banned from taking to the field. All other avenues have been closed off:

  • Clubs and coaches. Ostensibly the players' employer, they are powerless to sanction or ban top players. Mick Malthouse very openly admitted as much during the Tarrant/Johnson affair: "The fact that Chris and Ben are crucial to the on-field success of Collingwood has influenced my decision. Had they been youngsters on the fringe of selection, I might have thought a playing ban was in order."
  • Police. Charged with investigating crime and bringing about prosecutions, some cases have highlighted the incompetence (or worse) of certain detectives when investigating their heroes. Even Victoria's top detective, Assistant Commissioner Simon Overland, couldn't rule out that some police "wouldn't be intimidated or wouldn't have other reasons for perhaps not pursuing allegations against high-profile people as vigorously as they might".
  • Courts. Despite the dozens of charges faced by footballers documented on these pages, footballers end up in diversionary programs, making lame promises to obey the law in future, coping paltry fines, receiving soft sentencing, failing to record convictions - even encouragement for breaking the law! - and just about anything to avoid inconveniencing a player.
  • Public Opinion. They say that shame is the most powerful emotion and is responsible in large part for civilisation. The powerful AFL union and the league have successfully used the courts to prevent players from being named and shamed for their drug test results. Other cases show that, despite the media attention, there is a widespread absence of condemnation from the public and concomitant lack of shame.
  • Sponsors. Commercial realities being as they are, sponsors are reluctant to withdraw their sponsorship in the face of player misbehaviour. Even government officials come out in support of drug-addled disgraces like Ben Cousins.
These systemic failures to address misbehaviour and criminality have seen the players assume themselves (quite rightly) to be untouchable. As a result, the problems have got worse. Perversely, the one person who seems to understand the problem is whipped Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse:

Malthouse said it must be up to the league to make sure clubs do the right thing in dealing with players who have stepped out of line.

He said otherwise, a top-ranked player who misbehaved would always get off too lightly.

"Clubs will make decisions to play those blokes, whereas the AFL hopefully if they won't differentiate between the 44th player and the first player and they will make that decision for the good of the game whereas quite often, let's face it, we make that decision for the good of the club," Malthouse said.

Malthouse reiterated that the AFL had a responsibility to ensure misbehaving players were properly dealt with and the image of the game is protected. (ABC, 12/4/2007)

The AFL as a whole - particularly through its Tribunal - has held the line. But only things that mattered to the league. For example, players betting on matches threatens precious gambling revenue. So that's dealt with. Swearing on telly or criticising umpires gets dealt with. Serious matters like rape, drugs and bashings ... well, they more or less leave that alone. While there are provisions for "bringing the game into disrepute", criminality and other shameful activities don't do that. So how can the league be trusted to "step up" and take responsibility for enforcing player discipline?

The upshot is that the only time that players can be relied on to behave with any decency is for the few hours that they're on the field. Sure, there's a bit of rough-and-tumble and when things get out of hand the Tribunal will fine the players. (Often, the fines for "unduly rough play" are far more than court-imposed fines for dishing out a serious head-kicking in a car park.) The Tribunal also bans players - the one penalty that really bites.

The recent case involving West Coast's Adam Selwood and Fremantle's Des Headland has thrown that out the window. The Tribunal - the last line of defence - is now a toothless tiger.

I won't bore you with the relatively trivial details of the case. Suffice to say that Selwood sledged Headland by reference to the tacky tattoo that adorns Headland's arm. (It is an image of a girl - seemingly aged anywhere from 5-20 - that is in fact Headland's 6 year old daughter.) While there's no consensus on what was said, it involved the implication that Selwood had sex with a girl that looked like/actually was Headland's daughter. Headland viciously attacked Selwood on the field and was cited for the assault. He claimed he was provoked by Selwood's remarks (who was in turn cited for using insulting language.)

The Tribunal's response to this? Let them both off. That's right. Some how, Headland was provoked into violence by Selwood's remarks. Yet Selwood didn't say anything wrong. The media picked up on this inconsistency, and the ramifications spelled out further:
The next time an AFL player whacks an opponent, he can plead provocation and get away with it.

Surely that is the message the AFL tribunal sent on Wednesday night in its strange decision to impose no suspension on Fremantle's Des Headland, despite finding him guilty of striking West Coast's Adam Selwood in an incident that was clearly captured on television.

The tribunal imposed no suspension because of what the three-man jury of former players Emmett Dunne, Wayne Schimmelbusch and Richard Loveridge described as 'exceptional and compelling circumstances'.

That was because Headland believed that Selwood had made inappropriate sexual comments to him in relation to his six-year-old daughter.

Yet earlier in the night the AFL tribunal cleared Selwood of making any such comments.

Talk about having a bit each-way!

Having dismissed the charge against Selwood, the tribunal was then duty-bound to impose the three-match ban Headland was facing for the striking charge on Selwood, having cleared him of a second separate striking charge.

But instead the tribunal decided Headland was right to act the way he did, even though the same three men earlier decided that Selwood had not used insulting language towards Headland. (Sportal, 19/4/2007)

One might explain the bizarre verdict by pointing to the use of judicially-challenged former players for these matters. Still, those three - with their macho view of allowable biffo - can always fall back on a career as magistrates in the Northern Territory!

This failure to sanction an egregious case of assault in the one place where footballers can still expect to be held accountable has wider ramifications for the rest of us. The final obstacle to an unfettered and unchallenged footballing horde has been removed. With no need for player restraint or self-control whatsoever, the spate of crimes against the non-playing public can only increase.

*** UPDATE ***

It appears the AFL may be getting serious about taking responsibility for off-field criminality and misbehaviour. As we've long said, things won't stop deteriorating - yet alone improving - until players know that their off-field behaviour affects their ability to play. Certainly, the AFL is making the right noises:

THE AFL is set to crack down on poor player behaviour and will take over the power to punish footballers for off-field transgressions from the 16 clubs.


The new heavy-handed approach put forward and passed three days ago by the AFL Commission under the guidance of new chairman Mike Fitzpatrick, would change the "conduct unbecoming" rule and increase the AFL's disciplinary powers to fine, suspend and deregister footballers for antisocial and criminal behaviour.

The AFL has lost faith in the clubs penalising players guilty of such behaviour. Although the move will cause concern among some clubs and the players' union, the power to change the rules rests with the AFL.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou said last night the move had been largely encouraged by the clubs who recently admitted as a group that they did not believe they were capable of sanctioning the players appropriately. (The Age, 23/4/2007)

Looks good; let's see if the powerful players' union will allow it and they bypass the now-discredited AFL Tribunal. We'll be following this closely.

Citations: ABC, 12/4/2007; Sportal, 19/4/2007; The Age, 23/4/2007

Word Count: 1508

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  • Yeah. I was waiting for that.

    Now this is where the role model argument holds water. How many kiddies are going to whack one of their opponents, and then plead that "He said he fucked my Mum."

    Still, at least it's not as bad as the argument Willie Mason tried on when the Australian Rugby League team played a test match against Great Britain late last year - he tried to convince the disciplinary body that pre-emptive strikes were acceptable after whacking his opponent without any provocation.

    Original. Let's hope that it doesn't come to this.

    By Blogger Dikkii, at 12:06 am, April 20, 2007  

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  • Ah yes, the ol' "I just hit him back first!" argument: the cornerstone of Israeli defence policy for forty years.

    By Blogger Greg, at 12:30 am, April 20, 2007  

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  • Personally I thought that they both should have got weeks but once Selwood was found Not guilty (and it was that he was found not guilty and not that he was declared Innocent as some have said) I think that Headland getting nothing is an acceptable decision.

    I think the AFL should (as they are some what) laying down the law, and trying to end seldging. It really is unnecessary.

    Its good to see you didn't miss the opportunity to say something totally and utterly stupid in your last sentence. Surely the legal world gave the AFL Tribunal the idea for this defense. People are let free even after killing people using the Provocation defense.


    By Anonymous Phillip Molly Malone, at 11:30 am, April 20, 2007  

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  • The provocation defence is an archaic and old-fashioned idea from a time when attacks on personal honour and perceived slurs were excuses for violence.

    Victoria has scrapped it and a it is generally on the wane in common law countries.

    How typical of the macho bullshit culture of the AFL that their pretend judiciary has now introduced it.

    So there you go: even the learned figures in the AFL have the moral sophistication of schoolyard bullies and are out of step with community standards.

    But then, why would the AFL listen to the community when they'll keep buying $8 pies?

    By Blogger Greg, at 4:16 pm, April 20, 2007  

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  • The AFL couldn't do any worse than the clubs. In a classic piece of under statement John Worsfold has asked why Ben Cousins should be suspended for the rest of the year by stating he is not aware of any rules Ben has broken. Classic. Other than the law, bringing the game into disrepute and letting his team mates and fans down, why should he possibly be suspended. The Eagles have all the professionalism of a mini league team. They should be sanctioned for their arrogance and have points deducted.

    By Blogger Simon, at 10:28 pm, April 26, 2007  

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  • And therein lies the rub: any coach or official worth his salt would happily sell the entire league down the river if it meant a 2% gain in their club getting a premiership.

    Even Mick Malthouse understands this and that the clubs simply can't be trusted.

    The only question remaining is: can the league itself be entrusted to look out for the long term interests of the game?

    I think the test will come this weekend after West Coast is called in for a "please explain".

    By Blogger Greg, at 10:43 pm, April 26, 2007  

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  • Hi,

    I read a suggestion that the players not the officials should "please explain". Not a bad idea.

    I imagine the club will present the AFL with a slick action plan with contingencies that will include educational programs, fines, electronic monitoring of players after hours, Play Station and Footy Show ban, etc.

    The UK Premier League faces the same issues and behavior as the AFL. I wonder when we will hear of similar issues with soccer players?

    By Anonymous Ozscot, at 12:24 pm, April 27, 2007  

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  • Surely we want any AFL player (or person in general) that develop a drug problem to seek help and try to beat the drug problem.

    What message does it send to the players if when/if Ben cousins gets over his drug problem, the AFL goes:
    "Thats nice, have the rest of the year off".

    The message it would send to me is, keep quiet and try to get by. Surely the theory should be if you come clean and try to get over this, you will get a chance. Sure test weekly these players. Set a high standard, but I really don't think you punish him.

    Okay, so we know he has broken the Law but he wasn't caught. To be honest it has been speculation (most likely correctly) that it was an illegal drug. For all we know it could have been a legal drug that he was addicted too (it most likely isn't). And if we start punishing people for admitting doing something criminal, the roads are going to be a lot clearer once all those people lose their licences with this new rule you are bringing in!


    By Anonymous Phillip Molly Malone, at 2:43 pm, April 27, 2007  

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  • The thing is if Ben Cousins isn't punished then it says it is ok to behave in this way. As it stands at the moment, he is not really being punished at all. The club are paying for his treatment, which has at best a 50% chance of long term success. If he was in the normal workforce it is very likely he would be sacked and even if he wasn't it is highly unlikely that the workplace would pay for his rehab. This would be even if he was a star performer. While I am sure everybody is wishing him to get better, it should not be to the detriment of the entire competition. The West Coast Eagles players are a very big deal in a very small pond and their players continue ( Chick Selwood etc) still act as if they have learned nothing. The AFL look like idiots in the face of the Eagles, Worsfold and the players association. No player or club is bigger than the game and the AFL should act accordingly. In the last couple of days 8 Austrian cyclists have been banned for life for having performance enhancing drugs and oxygen dosed blood in their hotel rooms. None of them have ever tested positive at anytime, nor have they ever been accused of it. It is cycling's paranoia about drugs that is driving a shift to guilty until proved innocent. ( I do not doubt the cyclists were guilty but just having access to these drugs does not mean they all took them). If the AFL do not act in a reasonable and clear way, a environment of paranoia and finger pointing amongst the clubs will surface. ( Chairman of Melbourne's comment about Cousins) This is likely to effect the game. By the way, the AFL constant assertion that they are the only code anywhere to test not on game days and to test for recreational drugs is a complete and utter lie. Rio Ferdinand was banned for 8 weeks by the English premiership for ' forgetting ' to turn up to a drug test. You can imagine the conspiracy theories. His club Man United halved his payment during the suspension. This was only for forgetting to turn up on time!! It does show a little more conviction to cleaning up the sport than has been shown by the AFL. Two Chelsea players lost their careers in the UK ( Bosnich and Muto) for testing positive to cocaine in a random test. The premiership players do behave badly, but at least some of them are sanctioned. The AFL assertion that their drug testing program is tough and fair to all is an insult to their fans, and a pandering to the players association. They have to work out who they want to back, the people who pay $8.00 for the pies ( as long as you don't take them out of the stadium) or a bunch of overpaid thoughtless adolescents in the bodies of men. The meeting with the eagles will give some indication.

    By Blogger Simon, at 2:02 am, April 28, 2007  

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  • Simon, I think you will find that Rio was with a day or so of the game which to my understanding is considered in competition for a sport like Football.

    The AFL's testing is during the players time off. Seeings as everyone wants the AFL players treated the same as everyone else, this is the equivilent of the drug testers from your employer waiting at the bottom of the Batman ride at movie world for you and the kids to get off the ride and then asking you to pee in the bottle. Aparently the AFL Players Ass. are the only sports to agree to that for these illegal drugs (that aren't directly performance enhancing).

    The AFL have been very consistent in both what they say and what they have done. Like it or not, they believe in rehabbing wayward players, perhaps we should be asking why other employers aren't following what the AFL is doing rather then the reverse.


    By Anonymous Phillip Molly Malone, at 5:24 pm, April 30, 2007  

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  • You AFL people sure do toe the company line. Big Chief Andrew told you no-one else tests and you believe him, tells you they are the only ones testing for recreational drugs out of competition and you believe him.

    It may surprise and shock youto learn that it took just 2 NRL clubs to administer the same number of tests as the entire AFL combined last year. IIRC the AFL did something like 700 tests last year, less than 1 per player, the Cowboys NRL team with 25 players on thier books administered in excess of 300 over the same period.

    Ask the RL players who get woken up at 5am for a piss test if they get tested out of competition, when was the last time the AFL did that? Hell, the AFL can't even organise a surprise test without it being leaked all over the place.

    AFL has no moral high ground, lip service and hyperbole is all AFL HQ can come up with - and the fools in the stands and the sycophants writing the headlines just lap it up.

    AFL is the Criminal Code.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:04 am, May 15, 2007  

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  • According to poster above - Molly.

    "Personally I thought that they both should have got weeks but once Selwood was found Not guilty (and it was that he was found not guilty and not that he was declared Innocent as some have said) I think that Headland getting nothing is an acceptable decision."

    Fair dinkum mate. Do you have stars in your eyes or what? Are you ever gonna see through your adulation of footballers to understand that the whole sport is a sham?

    Sickens me reading this crap you come up with

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:39 pm, May 17, 2007  

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  • it is beyond the joke and ridiculous that afl footballers, are treated with such soft punishments, when at times their actions deserve jail terms e.g. rape. The players are national heroes, and to keep them on a pedastool after acting inconceivable.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:57 pm, May 23, 2007  

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