Tackling – The Big Issue

It’s been long enough for emotions to settle and the dust to clear following the “dangerous tackle” decision that has now seen St Kilda’s Dan Butler suspended for a week.

Oh, he’ll appeal and I hope he gets off, and if he does, I am sure there will be a lot of people feeling vindicated by the decision.

However, for those who love the game and care for its future, something about the entire situation just doesn’t seem right. And that covers both perspectives.

On one hand, you have the people who want to retain good, hard, physical tackling as part of the game we grew up with. They go to the footy expecting their players to crash in and win the footy, tackle opponents to the ground, and generally play footy like they bloody well mean it.

On the other hand, we have people who are resigned to the fact that the AFL, and as a result, footy in general, will move completely away from the physicality that made the sport so special. They believe it is time to get ahead of the game and put restrictions in now to save the future.

Is there a right and wrong, or as per usual, are we operating in a grey void once gain?

Whilst my feet remain firmly in the first camp, desperate to retain the types of tackles we saw from Butler, I understand why the other side feel the way they do. I mean, nobody wants to see someone sick and sorry from a head knock – I’m not a sadist. What I do like, however, is a sport where controlled aggression is not punished as part of a movement. And right now, this “protect the head at all costs” stance is a movement. Like all movements, it has its champions.

Dan Butler’s tackle on the unsuspecting Nick Blakey opened up a can of worms.

Yes, the tackle was powerful and aggressive.

Yes, he took Blakey down hard.

And yes, Blakey’s head hit the ground.

There was no sling and though some argue that there was a “second action” in the 0.5 seconds from contact to the players hitting the ground, it looks to me as though Butler is shifting his weight as he tackles to avoid two things – landing in Blakey’s back, and burying Blakey’s face in the turf.

What an asshole, right?

In the eyes of some, the head hitting the ground is enough to warrant a suspension, and if you think that way, more power to you. I don’t judge you or how you view football. I’m an adult.

However, from where I sit, Blakey’s complete and utter obliviousness to the situation (the second time in the same game, mind you) was as much the issue here as Butler’s tackle. By punishing Butler for tackling Blakey so hard, we’re almost excusing Blakey’s lack of awareness and inability to protect himself.

Sadly, they are aspects of the game that have been creeping in for a while, now.

I grew up watching footy in the 80s and 90s, and whilst I tend to avoid the “footy was better in my day” schtick that people get tired of very quickly, one facet of the game that has deteriorated in recent years in the innate sense of a player to protect himself in a contest. At the moment, we tend to see players relying on the goodwill of an opponent and the AFL rules to protect them.

Unfortunately, not everyone in a fast-paced, contact sport possesses copious amounts of goodwill, and the AFL are only going to protect you after the fact. Oh, you were knocked out? The player who dropped you is in sooo much trouble!

The league is like the principal’s office at school. You do something wrong, you get sent there, and you accept the punishment. It does not prevent the action in the first place. That is entirely dependent on your opponent.

And you can’t depend on your opponent. Hell, some can barely even rely on their own teammates.

What this creates is this feeling of invincibility on the field, and that is dangerous in and of itself.

I was accused yesterday of being “alarmist” for voicing my concern about where the game is headed. Whilst I completely understand the league’s stance on preventing head injuries, continued changes to the game in the name of safety are making the sport a bit less appealing to those who remember a time when being hard at the footy was not just lauded, but expected. It was a non-negotiable in the game. Now, it seems like there is an environment where you could have a chat about it. The number of times I have seen two players approach the footy and kind of just… stop and wait has been alarming. It’s not what I pay to watch.

I often ask the question – “what’s next?” when it comes to changing the rules and making the game safer. Alarmist, right? Are we a Jeremy Cameron forearm to the face of Harris Andrews away from the league considering whether running with the flight of the ball is too dangerous?

Don’t laugh – tell someone from 20 years ago that tackling would be assessed the way it currently is and they’d laugh at you, as well. If they are serious about head injuries, there have been quite a few over the years running with the flight of the footy. Just look at Jonathon Brown for verification.

What about knees in the marking contest? Are we one unconscious player away from calls to abolish this aspect of the game? I mean, why can’t players just change the way the game has been played for over 100 years to make it safer? Keep your legs straight and vertical. No biggie, right?

However, some claim to see the bigger picture in regard to tackling and overall physicality in the game. They may be right, as well. They see the storm on the horizon in regard to litigation – hell, you’d have to be as oblivious as the Thursday night version of Nick Blakey to miss it. They know the league is about to be hit with a heap of claims for financial compensation due to historical head knocks and concussions and it may one day cripple the league, financially. Their concern for the welfare of players is commendable, as well – as much as I bang on about players protecting themselves and having some sense of self-preservation, I don’t want those who don’t possess these attributes to get hurt.

Nor do I want them protected because they don’t protect themselves. They’re professional footballers – not the charity case on the local team who you have to look after.

The AFL is at a crossroads at the moment. Whilst I don’t buy into the whole “the future of the sport is at stake” rhetoric – I do belive it will survive because despite all this, the product is still magnificent – there is a real sense that the game is not, and cannot ever be the same beast it was at the turn of the century. The league is now determined to legislate against anything that could come back to haunt them.

But I’m not sure they can, and that worries me, because the league will continue trying in reaction to every incident that results in a player being hit in the head. they have t – they are actively trying to avoid the lawsuits of tomorrow.

Hell, did you know that some schools have banned running in the playground for fear of injury and litigation? It is the world we live in, sadly.

Regardless of which side of the argument you find yourself on, only the completely bone-headed would be incapable of at least seeing the other side. As the league barrels along the highway to their own version of Gaelic footy, I guess we’re all in a situation where we either go along for the ride, or we don’t.

If the league swings too far away from the game you love, or doesn’t do enough to protect players for your liking, you have the choice to either support it, or not.

Or, you could be the Nick Blakey in the situation. Stand there, do nothing, and hope for the best.


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