The AFL, where image trumps consistency
As Ben Cousins said this week, it’s a strange position to be in when you feel sympathy for Steven Baker.
When the AFL handed down its War and Peace sized list of charges against Baker this week, you could only feel the little tagger had been made a scapegoat.
There’s no doubt the AFL was correct within the letter of the law when it charged Baker with various counts of striking and “interfering with an injured player”, only it’s a letter that the league had previously ignored. Like the umlaut in Joachim Low’s name.
The four charges laid against the Saints’ niggle-meister were mostly for actions that had gone unnoticed when dealt out by other players earlier this season.
According to the match review panel, Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt had no case to answer for slapping an opponent’s sore hand in Round 9.
And just two weeks ago, the saintly – note small s – Chris Judd had escaped any sanction for an elbow that drew blood. But that had been on a Saturday night game against the Dockers.
Baker had the misfortune to unleash the tagger’s repertoire of black arts against Norm Smith Medallist Steve Johnson. And done so in the round’s showcase game – a Grand Final re-match on Friday night footy.
Since the weekend only contained two other games – it was the second week of the split round – the incidents had plenty of oxygen. By Monday it was a raging fire that the league needed to douse.
The AFL is in a unique position. It is both runs the game’s showcase product and is its governing body. Which makes it possibly the most image-conscious sporting league in the world.
It’s like FIFA and the Premier League rolled into one. This seems to result in rules being changed for aesthetic purposes as much as any other reason.
The most significant rule changes over the past five years have been designed to encourage a faster style of play after the league’s CEO criticised the slow-it-down game plan of clubs like Sydney.
The AFL’s willingness to constantly tinker with sections of the rule book stands in stark relief to FIFA, which this week promised to “look” at goalline technology after Frank Lampard’s “goal that wasn’t”.
FIFA – in particular its president, Sepp Blatter – has been so ardently against using video, it’s like he’s the anti-Paris Hilton.
I’ve always thought the beauty of sport was that at the end of a game, there was a winner and a loser decided within the confines of pre-determined rules, with none of the grey areas that make analysing areas of real life so difficult.
No matter how many times a team was robbed by poor decision, FIFA has refused to change their rules. It was as though they were unleashing some sort of Kafka-esque trial on soccer fans, testing how much indiscriminate punishment they could stand.
In the AFL’s system, it is the players who are the guinea pigs, forced to adjust to new rules interpretations in the middle of a season.
Yesterday morning, Baker’s manager warned of a player revolt if the league’s match review panel didn’t become more consistent.
I would argue it has been very consistent – public image always comes first.
NB: If you needed any proof of the sharp change in rule interpretations that occurs mid-season, check out the extraordinary number of 50-metre penalties handed out in last night’s Brisbane-Carlton match.
- Finn Bradshaw is editor of News Limited’s national AFL site, SuperFooty. Follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/finn_bradshaw
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