Friday, August 12, 2011

AFL - Australia's answer to professional wrestling. PART 1

There seems to be a lot of commotion lately about the current "state of the AFL" (referred to as if it were a nation of some sort- if it were a nation it would be Italy). The truth is the 'sport' has been sick for a while. Indeed, the primary function of the AFL is not to provide competition or sport, but rather the goal of the AFL commission is growth of the game. Part of the problem is that being such a unique (and basically nonsensical) game means that the guys running the league are also in charge of promoting the game. This doesn't exist in other sports. FIFA runs soccer, not EPL and FIBA promotes basketball worldwide, not the NBA. Now in both these cases it could be quite successfully argued that the competitions are more popular than the bodies and (outside of World Cup time) I would tend to agree. These are two of the most popular leagues in the world and they do so by having a healthy respect for the game and ensuring that there is actual competition. The AFL is the game and it is a game that only exists in Australia. There are a large number of factors that stop it growing beyond our borders and, in fact, may actually see it collapse on itself if they don't start to take a more global view. Part of the problem is that the AFL actually seems to be repeating some of the mistakes that we see in EPL (only five teams are ever even threats to the title) and NBA (the team costs have spiraled out of control after way too much expansion).

Before we think about the global aspects, lets examine the local problems. Firstly this is the only sport where missing a goal is rewarded. From an international perspective this makes no sense. You don't get something for nearly scoring a touchdown, you don't get one point for hitting the ring on a two point field goal, you don't get a point for kicking to the left of the goalie (actually you don't even get the ball back if you miss that one). But by no means is this the stupidest rule. The current state of advantage, holding the ball and incorrect disposal means that not even local supporters understand what the hell is going on. So bad are the interpretations of these rules that the PLAYERS (you know, who have grown up playing the game at a high standard and GET PAID to know the rules) don't even seem to know what is going on. As much as soccer players like to shrug their shoulders and plead innocent on illegal tackles, you know that they understand the rules that prevent what they have done. You can't say the same for footballers. The advantage rule actually makes the game worse, since the whistle stops the players unless someone grabs the ball and runs. Complicating this situation is the holding the ball, head high contact and incorrect disposal rules that seem so randomly called that players are lucky if they even know which way the umpire will point when the whistle blows.

This is where the AFL starts to look like WWE. No the match outcomes aren't predetermined (no matter what non-Collingwood supporters say) but the ref seems to apply their own rules to suit the situation. My favourite was a couple of years ago when the Bombers played the Hawks and a Bomber player was pinged for (I shit you not) "spinning 360 degrees". The player in question was grabbed by the waist and swung around before he hand balled. Now at what point has there ever been a rule that dictated being swung around for a full revolution meant you'd held the ball too long- especially when you disposed of it correctly? This the equivelent of some WWE referees suddenly calling a DQ when a wrestler uses the rope illegally. It is not even a rule!

Then there is the head high contact, deliberate out of bounds and deliberate rushed behind. These are applied so inconsistently that fans have little chance of figuring our what constitutes a violation or not. It is frustrating and actually stops new people getting into our game. How can there be 'no head high contact' when a player ducking his head can get smacked and it is called 'play on'? In basketball the basic rule is that there is no contact. Most good refs allow incidental contact and consistently let the same things go. However, no player can complain for being called for a foul when they initiate contact. The AFL doesn't follow this premise as they essentially have sub-rules for their main rules. This only adds to the confusion for all.

Don't even get me started on the rules that require players and umpires to acknowledge distance- the 15m to a mark rule and the 50m penalty rule- that are physically impossible to govern correctly. How can you judge a ball has traveled 15m when there are no markings on the ground to help you out? How can an umpire accurately move a player up the field 50 meters when all the grounds are different sizes (and again don't have regular markings)? Its not like we give them 20 minute quarters and no way of knowing how long is left. (Oh wait...)

The solution? Stop changing rules for one.
  • Go back to pure interpretations of incorrect disposal (if it isn't a bloody handball then call it!) A player who is tackled and spills the ball should be pinged every time. It'll will quickly find its way back to the clubs and players will start training under pressure to make sure they know how to get an effective disposal away from a tackle (well except Richmond- it'll take them years to figure it out).
  • Rule that any head high contact will mandate a free. Players will figure it out. However, incidental contact to the head that knocks someone out shouldn't result in suspension. Just a free is enough. The MRP should only rule on deliberate violations of the rule- not accidental. Accidental ones can be paid a free kick against and that is all.
  • Get rid of the distance requirements for marks. Any kick by foot to a player is a mark. Most players play-on now anyway! Just save fans and umpires the stress of having to guess.
  • Get rid of 50m penalties. Instead, when there is a transgression after a free kick has already been paid, the ball should come to the top of the center square closest to the offensive team's goal. If the transgression is already closer than the center square then the ball goes to the goal square (which is what happens in this situation anyway). This means opposition forwards are on notice. You'll give up more than 50 meters if you abuse an umpire or infringe on the mark. As a full forward there is nothing worse than watching the full back kick a goal.
  • Don't let the umpire call advantage after blowing the whistle. If the whistle goes then the game stops. Simple as that.
  • Don't have different time limits on when a player who has marked the ball needs to play on. Whether kicking for goal or field kicking the rule should be the same.
  • Keep the behind rule. It is kind of charming and certainly makes the game unique. It will never make sense but is easily explained.
Fixing some of these rules will make life easier for the umpires and make the game a hell of a lot less frustrating to watch and play. It might even convince more people to play it.

In Part 2 I'll look at the entertainment part of the equation and why the AFL can't call itself a competition...
The recent expansion has watered down the teams.
The league itself is stopping teams being competitive.
The AFL isn't sport at all, but is all about the money.

And I'll suggest how to fix it.