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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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