Guilty of Intent - The AFL needs to get serious on punching

Like kicking for goal, the intent is there and often the target is missed. In the moment, there is panic, distraction, and most certainly a lack of composure under pressure. A definite lack of discipline.

If you didn’t figure it out yet, I am referring to punching. You know, that thing you tried out in the playground as a kid. That thing you see in the movies, and think you could do if you needed to, but deep down know you can’t. That thing that is used by defenders to spoil. It is used as a part of the unique skill we call ‘The Handball’. Max Gawn has even brought it back into ruck work recently! Aside from this, generally in sport, particularly football (all codes worldwide), there is a rich history of punching that has nothing to do with skill or competition at all.

A bit of biffo. There is a part of all of us that has to confess that we love it. Blood sport. The ferociousness. The toughness. The strategic use of it to break the opposition’s momentum. It conjures up feelings of nostalgia. A time when the game was rough. Played by hard men. With real passion.

But there are a few things missing in this picture being painted. We are also talking about times of fierce racism and segregation. A time when AFL W would have been openly laughed out of the room. A time that created a generation of ex-players with all sorts of life changing brain trauma.

Footy has many risks. Just ask Shaun Smith, who suffered about 30 concussions during his career (as shared on Open Mike, Fox Footy). Or Alex Johnson who has had more knee injuries than addresses (I presume) in his lifetime. So, when it comes to punching, what is the story? The stance from the AFL seems to be the same as Pauline Pantsdown, ‘we don’t like it’. The AFL has a history of seeing itself as the moral compass and saying all the right things politically. But, after so many years of taking action to stamp out the punch (of any kind), players still close their fist in anger and try to smash each other.

It is impossible to discuss the topic without mentioning the names Gaff and Brayshaw at the time of writing. In the most recent ‘Derby’, Andrew Gaff - a quiet, calm, and considered player fundamentally broke the face of the 18-year-old Andrew Brayshaw. Gaff got 8 weeks. Most pundits agree that this is a satisfactory punishment. Gaff walked away disturbed by the whole incident, and Brayshaw has a long road to recovery including a host of dental surgery’s and jaw reconstructions. This is up there with the worst outcome of a thrown punch.

Then there is the best outcome one could hope for. In Round 22, Essendon player Devon Smith threw everything he had into a punch that sailed past Kamdyn McIntosh’s chin. Smith was fined $1500. No one got hurt. The AFL have stated their rules and stuck to them. These are King Hit examples of recent times, and if you smash someone you get the book thrown at you. If you miss, you get off. Right or wrong? We’ll come to that later.

It gets a little more confusing when you start looking at gut and jumper punches (by the way, is there a difference? I’m not sure. But who really cares, we all know what we’re talking about).

I was at the MCG watching the Collingwood vs Port Adelaide game on the weekend. In the 3rd Quarter there was a stale mate between the arcs. It seemed like an eternity of epic battling. Collingwood could not break past Port’s defensive wall on the 50-metre line. Port couldn’t string any possessions together in the face of Collingwood’s pressure. It was a real war of attrition with only two kicks in it on the scoreboard. Then Steven Motlop lost it. A Gut Punch. A 50-metre penalty was awarded. Collingwood goal. Collingwood proceed to then run over the Power as if they were a second rate SANFL side. Port’s season is over. Collingwood are real contenders.

The next day, no matter what AFL talk show I watched, or listened to, no one could agree on Motlop’s Gut Punch. Pundits on the same show were outwardly disagreeing on how this situation should be handled.

‘Motlop was unlucky!’

‘You can’t be giving 50-metre penalties for that – there would be 20 a game…’

‘If we suspended players for that, there would be an uproar’

There was one thing that was clear – no one has a clue about how punching needs to be sanctioned. It’s a mess.

In 2017, the AFL publicly put on the record that they were going to stamp out the gut punch with free kicks and 50-metre penalties. A year later, we can all agree that the implementation of this has been sporadic at best. Sometimes players get fined (up to Round 21 there has been 61 counts of misconduct raising $91 500 in fines revenue). Michael Christian on numerous occasions has stated that if players start getting suspensions for gut punches there would be ‘carnage’. Many pundits agree with Christian saying that half the squads would be wiped out. The counter argument is that this is exact action that would stamp out any form of punching in anger going forward.

Whenever any of us watch a soccer match, the one thing everyone hates is the diving. The simulation. And, in this day and age why retrospective penalties are not handed out on the basis of video evidence is beyond me. Within a week of suspending players for diving there wouldn’t be any diving ever again. It would be easier for the referees, the quality of the matches would be better, and it would attract more fans to the sport immediately. But, we are talking about FIFA here… that is a whole other basket-case I will leave well alone.

The bigger question about punching in Footy, is the question of King Hit Punching in general society. This is scary stuff.

For a moment, imagine you are sitting at the dinner table. You go to reach for the salt shaker. As you lean in your arm hits the wine bottle or water jug. Before your brain has registered that you touched anything, the spill has occurred. Hopefully it was the water! In these types of scenarios, it is a reminder that the smallest movement can result in more force than we think. It is like tripping over a bulge in the carpet, or driving into another car at 5km/h. The fall or dent is larger than you’d think.

Then relate this to a grown man or woman closing a fist and hitting a person’s head with every bit of effort they have. Technique may go out the window, but anger (or any extreme emotion via adrenalin) can provide a lot more force on top. It is gruesome. A study performed in 2017 out of Queensland stated that there were 90 fatalities Australia wide between 2000 and 2015 due to King Hits. These are frightening statistics.

Take this further and imagine some of the strongest, fittest blokes in Australian society (AFL footballers). Imagine the damage they could do… Well, you don’t have to. Andrew Gaff timed it to perfection. He couldn’t have gotten a cleaner hit. The biomechanics and timing were impeccable. There is an argument that Brayshaw may have been lucky. And, if this sounds dramatic, it is not.

The way the AFL is ruling on punching, is like only giving fines to drivers that cause harm. Think of it like running a red light and only being fined if you hit another car in a major accident. Or killed someone. It doesn’t sit right. There is something missing here.

Just like woollen jerseys, the punch is out-dated. It isn’t tough. It isn’t interesting. It isn’t clever. It is stupid. It causes trauma (to all parties involved). It shows a lack of discipline and definitely sends the wrong message to grass roots players as well as the wider community.

If you intend to punch, you get rubbed out. The bigger the intended punch, the bigger the suspension. The idea that the severity of the injury is the basis for the punishment is a perspective that has to go. This causes confusion on so many levels for every stakeholder. There is no way a player can measure the consequences of his acts in real time.

There is already a plethora of ways a player can be hospitalised in an AFL match when everyone abides by the laws of the game. There is absolutely no room for punching. The AFL community cannot afford it. Other than the personal tragedies, do we want to see Buddy, or Robbie Gray, or Dusty, or Nat Fyfe retire early because some idiot got a little upset?    

The game is richer without punching. Sanction players on their intent, rub them out and the act will get thrown onto the scrap heap along with blood-soaked uniforms and the substitute rule.

 

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