I’m about to write an article filled with inflammatory and controversial claims. So to set the tone, I’m going to kick it off with the most controversial claim first:

I like Mark Robinson.

He may get it wrong a lot of the time, and he’s about as literate as I am after half a slab…but that’s kind of what makes him so endearing.

If he wasn’t a famous AFL journo, I imagine he’d be sitting in the stands, hypocritically calling the umps ‘bald-headed flogs’ with the rest of us.

He’s a man of the people. The fan’s fan. A heart on his sleeve, passionate advocate for footy.

On AFL 360 the other day, Robbo was discussing the recent backlash from fans over the controversial new dissent rule, and the extended interpretation of the dangerous tackle rule.

This is a twelve minute video, so if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, I’m just going to be looking at his comments from 3:22 to 4:48, and 8:46 to 10:56.

I know, I know…many of you might be cringing over the use of the term ‘woke’.

I’m not here to tell you if this is the correct usage of the term, or even what that term means in the first place; too me at least, that’s all pedantry.

Instead, I want to try and be charitable to what Robinson is saying; because I think he has a point. To do this, I’m going to be making up my own ill-defined term:

Safety-first-ism.


In life, we all make decisions – and take action on those decisions.

Some of those decisions are easy, like ‘should I go drink some water if I’m thirsty?’, or ‘should I microwave my Essendon Bombers membership?’. Both are simply a matter of answering in the affirmative, and taking appropriate action.

Some are much more difficult, like ‘what should I strive towards in life?’ and ‘when should I let my kid go to the footy by themselves?’. Unlike the simple ones, difficult decisions require tradeoffs. There are competing values, goals, and interests that you have to weigh up.

To take the footy example, most parents struggle with decisions like this for their kid’s entire childhood.

On the one hand, the world is a scary place, filled with strangers and axe murderers. Also, children are very stupid and impulsive, so you don’t know what terrible mistakes they could make.

On the other hand, children need to grow a sense of responsibility. Showing you trust them enough to go out by themselves, helps them build a level of maturity; besides, how are they going to learn if they don’t get out there, and make mistakes for themselves?

So what age is the right age? Six seems a tad young, but if they’re still locked up at sixteen, you’re probably wrapping them in cotton wool.

The thing about these decisions, is that there isn’t really a correct answer. We all agree that we need to balance their safety and their independence, but the point at which the scale tips over is frustratingly ill-defined.

It comes down to a value judgement. It’s on you.

I think the conversation about dangerous tackles and the like is similar. Clearly, the more we know about CTE, and the more our umpiring stocks start to dwindle; this should prompt us to take some measures to mitigate these issues.

But just as obviously in my eyes, is the fact that playing AFL footy comes with a set of risks. Players accept these risks by going out to play, and moreover, these risks are part of the fabric of our game. Umpires should accept that players will get impassioned from time-to-time, and the threshold for offensive behaviour is a little bit higher than that for our daily interactions.

So back to the term I made up – Safety-first-ism.

I believe that this is the attitude Robbo is trying to describe. Here’s my trusty friend paint.net to explain what it is.

When we have a narrow claim, we don’t need to weigh up sets of values. These are questions such as ‘what is the impact of a concussion on an individual’s health?’ or ‘too what extent will a twelve-day protocol mitigate the potential of developing CTE?’

We may not have a full understanding or answer, but the value judgement to the question is baked in. An individual’s health is important and getting CTE is bad.

There is no weighing up of values because these sorts of questions aren’t attempting to take any sort of action. It’s just a matter of ‘if X, then what is Y?’

If the claim is broad, however, we have to weigh up multiple values.

Lets say the claim, in this case, is ‘how do we balance limiting harm on players with maintaining the integrity of the game?’

This opens us up to a whole set of potential actions we could take to mitigate the risk; but this risk mitigation mustn’t tear apart the fabric of the game – it can’t kill the Golden Goose.

The thing about the Golden Goose though, is that we don’t really know when it dies. It’s more like Schrodinger’s Goose, hypothetically it could be dead already.

All those black circles on the right-hand side of the scale are cultural claims. Because of this, they aren’t really something you can measure.

When does the crackdown on dangerous tackles, become just a crackdown on tackles?

When does the game become not tough enough anymore?

When does umpire dissent crackdown cause the players to lower their passion and intensity, thereby making the game less entertaining?

These are unanswerable questions. You can’t look at scientific evidence, or commission a full-scale report into these considerations.

But you can do this with the safety side of the scale.

I think this is the key mistake the Safety-first-ism people make. They see themselves as fully informed, because they know the ins-and-outs of those red circles. If people don’t see it their way, it’s because they’re misinformed.

Obviously, we should factor in the potential harm of concussion and the impacts of CTE, when deciding what actions we can take to change the game. It’s tempting to think that you’re just looking at the facts first. But if you only look through this angle, you create a certain bias yourself.

If we just look at the objective and narrow things that we know, and apply it to a broader claim and a broader set of actions; this will lead us into a perpetual spiral of safety and cotton-wool – because that’s the only side of the coin we can prove anything about.

Robbo is right that this attitude is seeping into the broader culture at large.

A classic example is discourse around COVID restrictions.

There are set of narrow, measurable claims like ‘what will this vaccine do if I inject it?’ and ‘how much will the spread of the virus be limited if we implement X restriction (and therefore how much harm will be reduced)?’

The first one requires the simple action of taking it, because there is a lot of objective knowledge about its benefits and risk. The second one is measurable too, but can we just plug that in to the broader claim of – ‘is this lockdown worth it?’.

Personally, I think most of – although not all of – the restrictions were justified. But I’m not going to deny that this is anything other than a value judgement.

If you implement a massive scale restriction on human movement, clearly you have to factor in the value of freedom, and also the multitude of potential other harms you can cause if you do it.

But to those who say ‘it’s about keeping people safe’ and those who say ‘no, it’s about freedom and tyranny’. Guess what…you’re both right. It’s about trading off the two.

I’ll give you that it’s possible to have informed value judgements and misinformed value judgements. But to the safety-first-ism crowd, it’s perfectly possible to be fully informed and across everything in those red circles, and still be against some sort of restriction. You know this because you yourself would strike that balance in some cases as well.

In China, they were welding people into their apartments to stop the spread. Say what you will…very safe and effective approach. But clearly it’d be far too much of a crackdown on people’s individual liberty.

To anyone that might be disagreeing with this part, I’m not actually saying what I think the restrictions should be, that’s for you to decide.

My point is that if you are taking a broader action…it requires some value judgements. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t.

Ok back to the footy, let’s address the head first.

I often hear the phrase ‘protect the head at all costs’…

…really? at all costs. There isn’t anything else we need to consider? You think it’s possible for there to be no cost when altering rules and interpretations of the game?

Let me show you some incidents.

 

 

This first one with Max Lynch is an example where I think most people would agree with the protocols the AFL has put in place.

If a guy gets a head knock, the play stops, we wait for him to get off the ground, he goes through the concussion protocols, and if he fails them he gets a twelve-day suspension.

The reason this doesn’t feel like too much of an imposition on the soul of the game, is that these protocols don’t really change what the product is.

The play stops, where in years gone by it might have been played out. Lynch has to take a week off and miss the rest of the game, where in years gone by he may have been put back on, and certainly wouldn’t miss the next week.

This isn’t a big deal, and the twelve day protocols especially are considered to be incredibly important for the long term health of the player.

One of the other things to note about this incident, is that it’s completely incidental contact. It shows the stupidity of the ‘protect the head at all cost’ attitude. What exactly is the action that we can prevent Fort or Lynch from doing there?

Do we want to stop players bodying each other out in the ruck/marking contest? Because stopping that would lower the risk head knocks happening. Again it’s obvious looking at this incident, that there are going to be risks that we wouldn’t be able to mitigate, unless we completely removed contact from the sport.

At that point, we wouldn’t have AFL anymore.

For the second incident, Holman thankfully didn’t get punished for committing a dangerous tackle at the time. The incident was assessed and considered dangerous by the MRO, but thankfully it was overturned on appeal.

Now if you’re a safety-first-ism practitioner, you might say ‘but Josef, if it was considered a legal action, then is this really an example of the Golden Goose being slain? The Goose went to court, and was cleared of the death penalty?’

Glad you asked!

In his article on this topic, our oppressive editor at The Mongrel, H.B. Meyers, wrote the following:

Why bother tackling? You’re more likely to hit someone high, push them in the back, be penalised for holding too long after the ball-carrier drops it, or be pinged, and suspended, for a dangerous tackle than you are to win a free-kick.

You have to wonder whether physical contact is an aspect of the game those in charge at AFL House don’t actually want in the game, at all? The rules and their more recent implementation seem to indicate that this could indeed be the case.

This could seem hyperbolic, but I agree with this point.

There’s a legal concept that is used, normally in the context of free speech called, ‘the chilling effect’. The gist of it is that if you get threatened with legal action not to say something – that you are perfectly within your rights to say – you might react by saying, ‘well…why should I say it, it’s too much of a hassle?’

Hypocrite that he is, it’s like when I ask HB, ‘hey, do you mind not inserting a metric shit tonne of commas in to my article?’ He then responds ‘who let you out of your cage? Get back on the typewriter and dance for me, monkey!’

This causes me to think, ‘well…why should I bother challenging his authority? I don’t want him to lower my weekly allowance of gruel.’

If the line between getting suspended and laying a fair tackle is a microsecond decision, what is the point of tackling at all? If you could come under scrutiny from the MRO, you’re probably going to think twice about doing anything that – although may be fair and legal – could result in a suspension.

If we wanted to say that these harsher suspensions for incidental head high contact wouldn’t remove legal tackles and bumps from the game. We would have to presume that every player in the AFL had the ability to perfectly assess the outcome of their given action, in a microsecond. They would have to know one hundred percent that what they were about to do, wouldn’t end up making contact with the head.

I don’t know whether the AFL has ever listened to an interview with one of their players; but most of them have the intellectual capacity of a milk carton. Even the smarter ones aren’t going to be able to make split-second judgements about their actions.

We are just going to be seeing more and more players (and we already have to some extent), electing not to take the risk – at all.

Applying that to the Pickett bump, the line between getting suspended and not getting suspended, was whether he made contact to the head.

If he didn’t collect him in the head, that would have been a terrific bump, freeing up space for his teammate to dispose of it well.

Because he didn’t get low enough, it’s a suspension (and should have been a free kick).

But let’s think about what would have happened if the AFL didn’t have harsh penalties for these sorts of actions.

He’s not trying to collect Moore in the head, so the outcome would likely be the same in terms of that individual incident. He hits him high, umpire misses the free, we move on.

The difference would be in all of the other scenarios where players can elect to bump or not. Having these rules, will remove some incidents where a player tackles dangerously, or a player carelessly knocks someone in the head.

But it will also remove a multitude of other scenarios, where a player elects not to bump or tackle, where if they had chosen too, they would have done so fairly and legally.

Here is the issue though. I can’t point to the evidence that this is removing the physicality of the game, because by their very nature…these incidents don’t exist.

Incidents where someone does get collected high, and the evidence for why head knocks can be very serious…this does exist. Crucially, it can be placed in those red circles.

But incidents that don’t happen, incidents that would support the other side of the argument? They aren’t even incidents, they’re just a gradual eroding of physicality in the sport. So the safety-first-ism people ignore them.

Now let’s move on to the other kind of harm, that of the emotional variety.

I’ve written before about umpire dissent, and I’m actually quite sympathetic to cracking down on players arguing and carrying on with umpires.

I think it’s beneficial for players to keep their cool, and not get sucked into a cycle of anger that just gets them more fired up and more likely to give away a free-kick.

But the argument from the AFL is different from mine. They suggest that the issue is about umpire retention, and that stopping this sort of dissent means that umpires at the local level will feel more comfortable participating in the sport.

The key piece of evidence that they point to is a recent report they commissioned into the experiences of female umpires at the local and state level.

Like the AFL obsessive I am, I actually went through and read the report. Sure, it may have been to neglect the five hundred other responsibilities I have in my life, but I did it for you.

Now, I have my own problems with the report. The stories that were told by its participants were obviously very serious instances of abuse and mistreatment. However, I think a lot of the conclusions of the report were drenched in the ideological presumptions of safety-first-ism; the same sort of thing that the AFL and almost all other corporations listen to nowadays.

Even given my reservations about some of the conclusions of this report, the clear focus of it is absolutely not about players on-field, dissenting with umpires.

The report barely mentions incidents of players on-field, instead finding that retention problems came down to four categories:

  1. Selections and merit
  2. Infrastructure – especially changerooms
  3. Gender-based harassment
  4. Coaching and feedback

Even amongst category three, the vast majority of the incidents were perpetuated by fellow umpires, coaches on the sideline and spectators.

For the AFL to suggest on any level that these dissent rules were needed to protect the local umpires feelings; is cynical at worst, and condescending to female umpires at best.

The AFL wants to look like it’s taking action on this report by introducing these rules, but actually they’re just absolving themselves of much more costly and much more time draining actions that could actually make a difference.

Umpires understand that in the heat of the battle, players are going to get upset with their decisions. I think that getting the players to limit their response is a good thing, but you can’t just indefinitely regulate against it.

Players are going to have an immediate and emotional reaction to decisions that go against them. I put my arms out when someone cuts me off in traffic, how do you expect someone who is playing a contact sport not to immediately remonstrate when a contentious decision occurs?

Once again though, I can’t actually point to anything that would demonstrate that this takes a level of aggression out of the game. And I certainly couldn’t point to any evidence that aggression is actually a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is. But because it’s based on a feeling, a raw emotion within the fans, who love to see the passion and the intensity; the safety-first-ism crowd won’t listen – they are incapable of seeing it.

Not to get too biblical on you, but what we are seeing is the crumbling of an institution, the institution of AFL footy.

I still love footy, and its death won’t be a quick one, the Golden Goose hasn’t kicked the bucket just yet.

It will instead die slowly, gradually drifting into the pit of oblivion, its golden eggs fewer and farther between.

But there is a way to save it…

The AFL sees itself as a corporation – and it is one. But it’s also a corporation that pulls cultural levers.

If you have a regular corporation – like an insurance company – it doesn’t really matter what ideological shape they take on. Go ahead Allianz, promote safety-first-ism all you want. The only thing it will result in is longer work health and safety videos, that your employees inevitably won’t listen to anyway.

But if you’re the AFL, you have to balance your attitudes about safety with maintaining the integral cultural richness of the game. You can’t just always be safety first.

The solution could be to have a separate body that dictates the rules of the game, similar to athletics commissions that control regulations around fighting sports. The question then becomes, ‘who controls that commission?’ But I’m just throwing out suggestions.

If the AFL does keep control of the rules, there needs to be someone at the helm who can stand-up to the short term political whims of the time, and righteously argue for the long term sustenance of the sport.

Just because every other corporation is doing it, it’s not in the AFL’s long term financial and cultural interest to slowly degrade the aggressive nature of its product. They’ll wake up one day, and it just won’t be footy anymore.

Anyway my point being; Robbo is right, don’t stay safe out there kids.

 

You can find more from Josef at his Substack located here: https://josefmack.substack.com/

 

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