It’s worth looking at how the broadcast rule has evolved in the rugby codes. In the olden days, when violent and dirty play was both planned and enjoyed, partitions were reserved for the brazen debauchery of what everyone was doing anyway: punches to the head were de rigueur, but blatant publicity can get you sent. Coat hangers and spear-tackles were tolerated, except for really bad ones. “Intention” wasn’t much of a problem, because violent intent was everywhere. The dismissal was for intent plus what you might call criminality.
One of the worst incidents was Les Boyd’s strained elbow against Darryl Brohman’s head in the 1983 Origin series, which left Brohman with a broken jaw that ended at the end of the season and gave Boyd a 12-month suspension. Even then Boyd didn’t really get kicked out because, um, that’s Origin? It all happened too quickly and making such a big call puts too much pressure on officials, on the whim, to get it right. It was stupid reasoning in 1983 (as evidenced by the length of Boyd’s ban) and if you think the AFL’s anti-broadcasting lobby is still enforcing it in 2022, you wonder which code is more populated by the dazed and confused .
Rugby codes have changed and intentional violence is now rare. There is deliberate mockery and swearing, punishable by sin-binning under the heading of “professional transgressions,” like that which caused controversy in Sunday’s second Origin game. Send-offs are now reserved for accidents: high tackles and javelin tackles for which the player usually apologizes to his opponent before the referee has even reached him. In Union, the red card is used for blows to the head in a sometimes frustrating way. But at least players know where they stand when the other guy is on the ground. Did you hit someone on the head? You disappoint your team and the fear of being sent away is the strongest deterrent imaginable. Send-offs, as annoying as they are, have really led to positive behavior change.
And yet the AFL – some 33 years after one of the most cynical acts of willful violence in any sport, when Geelong’s Mark Yeates sprinted across the field with the sole intention of hitting Hawthorn’s Dermott Brereton hard enough to break his ribs and tear his kidney in the first seconds of the 1989 grand finale – is still embroiled in debates about whether broadcasting would detract from entertainment.
How would it work? Would the ejected player’s team have only 17 players on the field, or could they still have 18, but draw only three, instead of four? Would the threat of a knockout put off Tom Stewart, making him think twice in the seconds he had to change direction after Prestia tossed the ball (hint: yes)? Would the structure of the game be damaged — the oft-heard groan of “touch football” — if a player who used his shoulder to smash into an opponent next week was gasping for an early shower?
While Nero plays, Rome burns. the AFL has a similar concussion problem as the other codes. There were at least 76 concussions and matches lost due to concussion protocols last season tripled between 2020 and 2021. The AFL treats concussions seriously — after they happen. In the future, it will treat concussion even more seriously – after facing the same existential threat that rumbles down the road to the other codes.
Oh, a rugby state person would support a send-out rule (but it works, and has always worked; it changes behavior).
Would a broadcast rule lead to one less concussion than we see now? We don’t know, but, as the rugby codes have discovered, what matters is what value these sports have on their players’ brains when weighed against ‘the entertainment’. What is a player’s life worth if it is placed on the scales against that sacred shroud, the “weave of the game”?
During Stewart’s hearing this week, AFL tribunal president Jeff Gleeson, SC, said the Geelong player ‘broadly violated duty of care’† You have to chuckle at the idea of coaches addressing their team before a game: ‘Go in hard, and MAKE SURE YOU DO NOT BREACH YOUR DUTY OF CARE!’
A duty of care is being violated on a much larger scale, and it is not Tom Stewart who is violating it. The world will not end if the AFL introduces a rule rejection of the rules. But the world could end sooner than anyone thinks if it doesn’t.
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