There has been a significant shift in AFL fandom over the past decade, one that I am not sure I am on board with.
Actually, I take that back – I am completely sure I’m not on board with it.
We live in an age where the phrase ‘duty of care’ is bandied about in footy circles as though it has always been a part of the game. I get it – the landscape has shifted and player protection is now on the minds of the league as they prepare to fork out big money to players who claim to have adverse effects from head knocks. I don’t like it, but I accept it.
However, in the wake of this new wave of consciousness, there is a segment of footy supporters who would like to see just about all heavy collisions removed from the game. It seems that way, at least. The complaints come thick and fast whenever one occurs, accidental, or not.
A few weeks ago, a frustrated Charlie Cameron applied a late hit on Jeremy Howe as he kicked the footy out of defence in the Grand Final. It was paid as a downfield kick – correctly, as it was a body-to-body clash momentarily after the ball was disposed of. No head contact. The right decision was made.
It was later revealed that the hit broke Howe’s ribs, and he played out the remainder of the Grand Final in pain. When I heard the news, I was impressed with Howe – that took guts. Courage has always been a part of the game. He knew Charlie was coming. He was wide open and took the hit. But for some, the downfield free kick was not enough. On various social media avenues, people cried foul, and asked why Cameron was not reported. Some stated that any action resulting in an injury to an opposition player should warrant a suspension.
That’s a slippery slope.
It brings me to a piece of action in a recent AFLW game, where Dominique Carruthers ran with the flight and was collected by an oncoming Eloise Jones. As a side note, I’ve loved watching Jones play over the last few years – she is as hard as just about every maths test I’ve ever taken. It was a huge collision, as you can see below.
In this case, the arguments from fans were different. This time, they were calling for Carruthers to “have more of a sense of awareness” about her and the way she approached the contest.
I’m not sure what your coach ever asked of you playing footy, but mine was to keep your eyes on the footy and never, ever shirk a contest. Yes, the outcome was unfortunate for Carruthers, who was unable to continue due to concussion protocols, but no one will ever doubt her willingness to put her body on the line in a contest. It is in moments such as these that players prove to teammates that they will sacrifice – in some cases their own well-being – for the good of the team.
Another comment informed me that I was “glorifying this type of incident”.
Well… yeah, it is part of what makes footy great – there still remains a gladiatorial aspect to footy, and it is still an important part of the game. One player trying desperately to get back and make a spoil, the other player, eyes on the footy going for the mark, and the ensuing collision… it’s all part of the game. Hell, the AFL, and AFLW will no doubt use that clip at various times as part of their highlight packages to promote how tough the game is – bank on it!
Others questioned whether Carruthers was courageous, or dumb for running with the flight the way she did. I found it insulting to her.
It was the same type of argument I heard at the tail end of Jonathon Brown’s career, when he was injured running back with the flight. Of course, these arguments came from quite a few of the same people who loved his amazing mark with the flight of the ball less around ten years before.
Yep, they lauded his courage and rewarded him with Mark of the Year in 2002, but suddenly, this courage was being equated to stupidity?
Far out… people.
To a lesser degree, Tom Doedee copped the ire of the “I know better” crowd when he ran back into the contest to impact a marking duel between a teammate and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti back in 2021. The clash left Doedee concussed. The caption of the video below indicates how I felt about it – courageous to a ridiculous level.
Yet, he was questioned over his actions by AFL supporters. Was he supposed to not go for the footy? Just allow Walla to mark it and hang his teammate out to dry in the process? How would he have been portrayed had he pulled out of the contest? How could he look his teammate in the eye knowing he could’ve gone at the contest and elected not to? I cannot see Adelaide fans at the time defending him by saying “he was displaying awareness”.
It sounds like the Captain Hindsights of the world would love to apply the logic of “having awareness” as an out for players not committing to the contest, and it is this aspect that I cannot get on board with.
Maybe I am a dinosaur. Maybe the game has pivoted and changed so much that aspects that appealed to me – courage, putting yourself at risk in the hope of making a difference – are no longer valued as highly as I think they are. Maybe self-preservation is the way of the future, and possibly even the current. However, I know what I would value more from my teammates, and I know that the ones that go at the contest irrespective of what is coming the other way are the ones I would respect most.
Blokes like Mark Harvey, Glenn Archer, Beau Waters, Joel Selwood, Paul Kelly… they’re the blokes that’d walk over hot coals for their teammates.
And there is still a place for them, and their reckless, self-endangerment in the game. Hell, it is their actions, at least in part, that made the game great.
Finally, as a way of demonstrating how much going hard is valued by teammates, check out the disappointment of Mitch Robinson in the video below, when the “aware” Daniel Rich opts not to contest.
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