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The AFL Outrage Culture - How Far Is Too Far?

All you have to do is speak to someone over the age of 40 and they’ll have no problem telling you that footy was tougher in their day.

Whether you choose to listen, however, is entirely up to you.

The AFL has done a lot to stamp out physical violence in the game over the past 20 years. Whilst highlight tapes continue to emphasize the physical nature of the game as it was – the infamous Dermott Brereton shirtfront of Paul Vander Haar in the 1989 second semi-final, the bone-crunching hit of Lethal leigh Matthews on future CEO Andrew Demetriou, and Collingwood’s Stan Magro pulverising Carlton (and St Kilda!) legend, Alex Jesaulenko are just as much part of what made footy great as the high marks, long goals and supreme skill.

But the AFL is a progressive organisation - kicking and screaming at times, but with a new generation of kids coming through, they desperately needed to tidy up the game. Mums and Dads didn’t want their sons playing a game where blokes would whack them behind play for being a little too quick for them. They’re not exactly fond of it happening to their daughters, either. There was now competition for the hearts and minds of the children, and if families started steering kids into basketball, or soccer, the strange hold the AFL had on the next generation would slip.

They needed to clean the game up, or risk its future.

Personally, I was torn on the changes – I have always loved the gladiatorial aspect of footy. the instances listed above involving Derm, Magro and Matthews sent chills up my spine - still do, but I understand why there was a need for change, and I have accepted it. I now watch intently for the moment someone can connect with a fair bump, or a hard tackle and not be penalised for it. It still exists, but the outrage culture surrounding any physical clash threatens its existence now, more than ever.

After all, won’t someone think of the children?

Yes Mrs Lovejoy… we will.

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I got a bit of a backlash for a comment about Shane Mumford’s collision with Marc Murphy on the weekend. As Carlton supporters grumbled about the impact and the legality of it, I looked over and said “play on”. If looks could kill, I may not be here to write this, however a difference of opinion in person is a lot different to the outcry on social media, where you’d think Mumford must have whipped out a shank and stuck Murphy in the ribs as though they were in a prison yard. It was a split second between Murphy releasing and Mumford arriving on the scene, and the ball was still bobbling around within two metres of Murphy.

Again…play on, and ticked off by the match review. It didn’t stop the outrage, though, did it?

I’m all for stamping out snipers, but that was a genuine contest. You wouldn’t know it by listening to those who have been indoctrinated to think that physical contact = bad. Mumford was already found guilty and sentenced according to some, and the outrage grew when there was no case to answer.

Outrage. It’s everywhere, and when everyone is outraged, no one is outraged.

But this isn’t about acts of physicality in football. They’ll always occur and will be addressed, discussed and put to bed on a needs-basis. In a sport where 36 blokes are running around at once, there’s bound to be collisions at times. It’s inevitable.

However, the AFL has not been content with just stamping out the physicality – they made some much-needed changes to address the matters of racism in the game, with several players given the opportunity to firstly apologise, and secondly go on to learn about cultural sensitivity with some AFL-provided training after their slip ups.

It was a very positive move by the AFL, addressing an issue that had been part of a toxic culture, not just in footy circles, but community-wide.

We saw Adam Goodes call out a young girl in the crowd for a racist remark, one I hope she learnt from. We heard the boos follow Goodes around for the remainder of his career, at least in part due to his stance on racism in football. The soon-to-be released documentary on Goodes’ time in football may be eye-opening at the least, and more likely embarrassing to the AFL.

But the sledges haven’t stopped at race, religion and sexual orientation. There have been instances where players have made comments about family members, or personal situations to get under the skin of an opponent. When it’s worked, the result is usually for short term gain, but the perpetrator is in for long term pain.

Following a series of altercations between Essendon’s Mark Baguley and Carlton’s Jed Lamb in 2018, it was revealed that both men had made remarks that took their contest from the professional realm into the very personal one.

It was reported that Baguley made comments about Lamb’s late father during the game, which sparked an incident between the two, resulting in a $1500 fine for Lamb. When questioned about it, Baguley claimed he had apologised for making the remarks, was unaware at the time that Lamb’s father had passed away, and was responding to Lamb’s comments about Baguley’s physical appearance.

Baguley has a birth mark around his mouth, and it is understood that Lamb had made mention of this both in the 2018, as well as in previous clashes. Lamb went below the belt and Baguley went lower. So, where do you draw the line? If Lamb was going to sledge, did he cop his right whack back? Or did Baguley overstep? It’s a tough one to call.

Looking from the outside in… both these blokes were in the wrong. It made the papers, and both players probably wished they had their time over again, as headlines dragged their names, actions, as well as Lamb’s family situation through the mud.

Short term gain. Long term pain.

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Fast forward 12 months and on the heels of Dane Rampe being fined for saying an umpire sounded “like a little girl”, we have Daisy Thomas walking out of the tribunal $7500 poorer after calling boundary umpire, Michael Barlow “a f**king cheat”.

According to Thomas, umpire Barlow was giving advice to GWS players on their set up, which Daisy believed contravened the rules, and he wasn’t happy about it. Feeling that Barlow was more of a coach than on-field adjudicator at that point, Thomas let fly, and was $7500 lighter in the hip pocket as a result.

Apparently, being a called a cheat is probably one of the worst thing an umpire can be labelled. I thought it used to be “white maggot”, but the AFL started making the umps wear a rage of different colours, which confused the simpler humans amongst us, rendering their insult bank virtually empty.

But really, is being called a cheat that bad? Even with some colourful language attached? Outside race, religion, or sex, is anything that bad that it should cost seven and a half grand? And should the AFL continue down the path it is on, punishing players who insult umpires, or perhaps even each other on the field?

Carlton were also issued with a ‘please explain’ from the AFL concerning their cheer squad chanting that an umpire was “a wanker”.

Well, aren’t we all at times?

What is there to explain?

Then there was the vitriol for Nathan Vardy after he chose to gloat over the fallen Max Gawn last Friday night. It came thick and fast. It wasn’t a great look for Vardy, after being absolutely destroyed by Gawn for three and a half quarters, to throw his couple of cents in as his opponent tried to recover from a Liam Ryan aerial assault that left him floored in the goal square. Gawn was obviously hurt, and Vardy gave him a little shove – Joel Selwood was reported and reprimanded for doing something similar to his own brother after the two clashed on the boundary in 2012, leaving Adam Selwood groggy on the deck.

The criticism for Vardy came from all angles – critics of his overall performance, as well as those who just really disliked his attempts to rub Gawn’s aching nose in it.

But was it that wrong? And did the outrage culture that is currently so prevalent within AFL fandom just find something new to be upset about for an evening… until something else came along?

It begs an interesting question or two – how far is too far? And will the AFL react too quickly to stamp out something that does not need stamping out?

At what point do you think the AFL are required to step in and make either a report, issue a please explain, or hit a player with a fine for his verbal conduct on the field, if at all? It used to be a case of physical violence, when you got caught, being punished. Then with the introduction of video footage at all games, it became all physical incidents via delayed charges. Next up we had race, religion and sexuality out of bounds, and now sledges about family and personal situations seem to have been taken off the table.

I’m not going to sit here and advocate that a player should be able to wander up to Jack Silvagni and tell him that they got a REALLY good deal in the gift shop with his Mum after a Sale of the Century taping back in the day, but part of me wonders how much is going to be policed, if not by the AFL, then via trial by social media?

With the acceptance of mental health as the debilitating and serious condition many have dealt with for years in the realms of sport, is it incumbent on the AFL to ensure that players are not subjected to psychological, or emotional abuse whilst in the workplace?

It’s a legitimate question, and one that pains me in the asking, as I have never really looked at footy as a workplace in that regard… yet that’s what it is to hundreds of young men each week.

Old school supporters will be shifting uncomfortably in their chairs as they read this. To them, and to me to an extent, this may be further indication that the game has gone completely soft. What happened to sticks and stones, right? But the day and age of sledging someone for the hell of it seem to be slipping by at a rapid rate.

Mental strength has been a long-admired aspect of players in our game. The ones who can fight their mental demons in a game, and overcome them, get lauded as not only champions of the game, but as men whose commitment and professionalism was unshakable. Those who react; the ones who are thrown off their game… their ticket is stamped another way, and once they are known as someone who doesn’t like a bit of personal attention, the label sticks, and the attention intensifies the next time.

Let’s be clear here – I am not at all suggesting that we abolish sledging in footy, but after seeing the scrutiny placed upon our cricketers over the past few years, and reading the landscape we’re currently in, can some sort of ruling on this type of thing be too far away? All it will take is one incident to truly trigger it.

And then the AFL will act. They’re not a proactive organisation at times, but they’ve proven to be a pretty sharp reactive one.

Here’s a bold prediction. By the end of the 2020 season, the AFL will be considering reporting players for abusive or unsportsmanlike language directed at other players.

They are almost compelled to when you think about it. They’re already protecting umpires from it whilst in their workplace. The players are in theirs as well.

Picture this - a player at one club begins to experience mental health issues. As the AFL is a workplace, the player is afforded the same rights as you are at whatever job you’re at, but on a Friday night he goes into what is ostensibly his office, and some co-worker decides to harass him for two straight hours about his girlfriend’s infidelity…

Sticks and stones?

Yeah, I think so, but I have a lot of trouble coming to terms with footy fields being workplaces, and I know not everyone thinks like me.

How about if it happens again? Then again? And it becomes too much for the young fella, who walks away from the game…

… or worse.

Sport as we know it is at a crossroads. We live in an age where the easily offended are protected more and more each day, and they’re very loud voices. At some point, a player will take offence again at something an opposition player has said, and the wheel will start turning.

It may never stop.

And at that point, you’ll have to decide whether you want to barrack for a team of robots in familiar colours, petrified of doing or saying something wrong, or find something better to do with your time.

Yes, the football landscape has changed and will continue to. We have an elite women’s league, a dedicated football channel, sites on the internet such as this one, banging on about issues in the game, and more coverage of our sport than ever before. Most things that are said on the field are picked up by some microphone somewhere. Every single action on the field is scrutinised.

At some point the AFL will decide it needs to reflect society, whichever way society is heading. Maybe they will become outraged with the behaviour of their players? Maybe they will be the ones who decide that enough is enough and football doesn’t need sledging of any sort.

Or maybe they’ll shy away from these kind of calls, leaving it up to you and I to discuss on the internet, with no outcome in sight.

It’s a whole new football world on the horizon. I guess it’s our choice as to whether we live in it.

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