AFL Rule of Law

With the current season not yet complete, Adrian Anderson is already floating thought bubbles about rule changes for next season. Here we go again, it seems.

So ingrained has this ritual become it’s possible to forget a time when constant tinkering with the rules wasn’t a given.

Before we had Rules Committees, Umpires Directors and Football Operations Managers, it was normal that one season would pass into another with nary a rule change contemplated, let alone dominating discussion.

Now, lest I start sounding like some Footy Show curmudgeon,  I’ll happily concede that society changes, and that sport will inevitably change with it. AFL footy is now a Very Serious Business with lots of money and many careers at stake. People like to justify their salaries.

But wouldn’t it be nice to feel confident this effort was really improving the game?

I don’t particularly want to single out Mr Anderson. He works within a large organisation and would often be doing the bidding of others. But as the man nominally charged with managing football operations, he sits atop a process that warrants increasing scrutiny.

It was only in 1993 that the relatively new AFL Commission took control of the Laws of the Game.  They promptly formed the Rules Committee, the body now charged with oversight of laws.

This committee consists predominantly of former players and coaches, with Anderson presiding as chair. Current players are in a distinct minority, and current umpires aren’t represented at all.

It should also be noted that nowhere in this structure is formal provision made for seeking the opinion of the people who really pay for the whole shebang: the fans. Though we fund the whole exercise directly or indirectly, we don’t score an invitation to the table.

Just who is the audience the AFL has in mind when changes to the game are contemplated? And to what particular ideal are they working?

Andrew Demetriou would seem to have made a broad statement of AFL philosophy in 2005, when he criticised the Swans’ “boring, defensive” playing style. The fact the Swans went on to win the flag that season proves even AFL CEO’s aren’t omnipotent. But the stated desire for a fast, open spectacle has left its legacy. Nothing unusual there, when the boss wants something, it’s natural people listen.

Few of us would find fault with the desire for an open, skilful game. This isn’t exactly going out on a limb. It is of course purely coincidental that this is hoped to appeal to a broader TV audience in less committed regions.

But the devil is always in the detail. How successfully has the AFL delivered on its stated intentions?

They’ve certainly helped make the game faster. In fact, there seems a slightly manic insistence on speed. The majority of contemporary rule changes have focused on quickening the pace. Kick-in rules, prior opportunity situations, the time a player has to dispose of the ball after marking…  you can all add your own I’m sure.

But is faster always better? Hasn’t great drama traditionally valued its pauses, as well as its action?

I would argue the desire for speed has its limits. And that other qualities of the game have been sacrificed in the rush.

Let’s take one of the most contentious perennial issues: the holding the ball rule. When the Swans adopted a style that favoured more frequent stoppages, the AFL felt the need to react to keep the ball moving . The spectacle had to be maintained.

A fair enough intent, but what of the implementation? A fundamental tenet of the game has always been to attack the ball. To be first to the ball was supposedly a true mark of a player.

But now, any player who dives on the ball bears an onus to move it on, or suffer the likely penalty. The balance of the law has moved drastically to the second-man-in. When the ball carrier is upright, the weight of consideration has moved to the tackler.

Who decided this fundamental shift in footy philosophy? The ball is released a bit quicker, but at what cost to the spirit of the contest? Who decided tackles now take precedence over ball-winning?

When laws aren’t officially altered, we now have a proliferation of changes to “interpretations”,  which are effectively rule changes without the formal process.

As Exhibit A here, I would cite the hand in the back rule. Since the first kick in anger, defenders have sought to thwart forwards through fair means or foul. It has been an eternal source of argument for game watchers .

But now we apparently dislike shades of grey, and there’s a black and white interpretation which forbids any hand contact to the back in a marking contest, whether it makes a material difference or not. If a forward backs into a defender now, that defender holds his position by using his hands at his peril.

This is a major change to the way defenders can ply their trade. It has caused the most incidental contact to transform into a regular goal-conceding offence. By whose judgement and criteria was it decided?

The most frustrating aspect of modern footy watching is the proliferation of trivial incidents which now impact on play. All manner of minor infractions concede 50 metre penalties, free kicks or goals. The flow of the contest is too often derailed by the blowing of the whistle, followed by general bafflement as to the miniscule infringement demanding punishment.

I think much of this results from forcing the umpires to work under instructions that remove their powers of discretion. As each week brings new scrutiny, the overwhelming tendency of those who govern our umpires seems to be to impose another black and white ruling in pursuit of so-called consistency. But is it achieving consistency? I think it’s tending to erode the sense of natural justice on many occasions.

Umpires used to have more room to control the game combining their discretion with a feel for events. It wasn’t a perfect system, but I think it retained more of the integrity of the contest. For a contact sport, we seem to have developed a lot of no-go areas on players anatomy. I doubt the umpires would have naturally arrived at many of these “interpretations” unless directed to them.

The AFL would inevitably claim many changes have been a response to those pesky coaches, who keep adapting the way they do business. This is fair enough in a sense. Coaches are paid to find loopholes and push envelopes. But they will only exploit what has been made available to them. And I’m not convinced that pursuing their every move with rule responses is a profitable exercise. It would seem more likely a recipe for chasing your own tail.

It’s possible the AFL may now be having its own doubts about the need for speed. The current debate on interchange caps is largely about the different impacts that the feverish pace of events are having.

But will altering interchanges really bring the effect sought when so many other rulings would still seem to be pushing in opposite directions? If so many rules seem to reveal a terror at the thought the ball may become stationary, will reducing interchanges alone heal what ails?

There would seem to be contradictory impulses at work. This isn’t surprising when the intense scrutiny of modern footy brings pressure to respond to weekly events. But the AFL should regard their ambit as wider than the weekly news cycle.

Rather than leap to further change, might not the time be ripe for a considered overview? The modern AFL collects a mountain of data on all sorts of issues. But does it give itself the time to clearly understand what this information is really telling it? And is it asking the right questions, or just those it suspects will draw favourable answers?

The game is still a great one, but it’s possible this owes more to its inherent qualities than some of the  decisions of its custodians. The game’s practitioners will drive enough change with their own explorations. We don’t need legislators forcing the pace.


Having cast some stones, and not expecting to be asked by the AFL anytime soon, I’ll offer a couple of suggestions myself.

1)      Regarding that holding the ball rule: if packs are to be so fearfully avoided, couldn’t you penalise the player who piles on top of the bloke with the ball? Currently this is sometimes paid as in the back, but too infrequently. If mandated that you could only grab the player with the ball instead of jump on him and lock the ball in, then there should be no pack, and you could still reward the initiator, not the follower.

2)      High marking: if there’s one unique quality of Aussie Rules we’re all in surely in favour of, it’s the specky. So why the rule against hands on the shoulder? You shouldn’t be able mug the player underneath, but who deserves reward, the player with the guts to go for the mark, or the step-ladder?

But these reflect my personal taste. Others will have their own ideas. I would welcome a canvassing of opinion.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Always thought that the gaelic footy rule of not being able to pick up the ball if you are off your feet would work well. It would still enable players to be fierce at the ball but they would have to develop a tactic to be able to hit the ball to advantage – not unlike in a ruck contest

  2. Terrific piece JB.

    I totally agree that the basic tenet of being rewarded for “going in and getting it” has been massively diluted due to rule changes. It was the case (not that long ago) that winning the tackle count was not seen as a positive, as it was an indicator that your team was consistently second to the ball. Sure, the quality of tackling has increased significantly – now having a much greater influence on the individual contest, and this deserves some reward in itself. Great respect was always afforded to the player who was consistently “last up with the ball” to hand it back to the umpire for a bounce. Now, the risk associated with adopting this position will have the player regularly pinged – delivering derision from supporters rather than acclaim. That just seems wrong to me.

    One of my “broken records” is that (and you make the point well) the increased speed in the game has occurred due to changes in the rules and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the more athletic nature of the modern day professional footballer. The increased speed (we are reliably informed) has led to increased player injuries. The game therefore “needs” to legislate to slow general play down to reduce the amount of injuries, providing a safer workplace, etc, etc. The irony is, of course, that the AFL is having to legislate now (via interchange limitations) to overcome a problem that was (at least in part) of its own making via its previous legislation.

    Can we just leave the game that has served us well for so many years be?

    Apparently not.

    That is all

  3. John Butler says

    Thanks Arma

    It seems we are in much agreement.

    Mark, that’s interesting food for thought.

    Although I’ve just been arguing against too much fiddling with rules. See the temptation! :)

  4. JB and Arma.
    insightful as always. Well played both.

  5. John

    I’m totally with you on this. There’s definitely a mindset at AFL headquarters that they need to tinker with the rules in order to make the game faster/more exciting/more appropriate for a modern audience. However, I’m struggling to think of a recent change of rule or even a change of interpretation of a rule that has clearly improved the game. Cracking down on head-high bumps is certainly justified, although even here in their efforts to eliminate the dangerous actions, over-zealous officials often penalise trivial or unavoidable contact.

    I’ve been watching a fair bit of EFL footy this year and I must say it’s a pleasure to see the old interpretations (i.e. laissez faire) still apply at this level to many rules, most noticeably holding the ball, hands in the back and bumping/shepherding players not in possession.

    On the topic of rule changes, it didn’t surprise me that the proposal to shorten games was raised recently. In AFL-world, shorter games tick lots of boxes – greater flexibility in scheduling and TV programming, more appeal to the attention-limited modern audience, reduction in injury/fatigue. But it would also be another point of difference lost between our game and the other major football codes, all of which are played in considerably less elapsed time. I’m personally pleased that the proposal appears, for now, to have been canned.

  6. David Downer says

    Comprehensive as usual JB – this stuff gets my goat too…

    The trivial free-kicks paid currently, especially the innocuous fifty metre penalties are driving us all mad. It’s a lottery depending on the mood of the umpire on the day, if they have/haven’t paid a few already, AND the weekly hot topic. I imagine the Giesch gathers the troops each Tuesday night thus: “Ok guys, this week we need to concentrate on blah blah blah”. Blah being anything from contact behind play, to holding the ball variations, to goal-line technicalities etc. After the first game of the round you can usually pick out what the hot topic is.

    As you allude to, Holding the ball in many situations is nothing more than a chook raffle. Last week I noticed a couple of these paid, and the bloke awarded the free didnt have to wait for the ball to be tossed back ..he was the one who already had it!

    And the umps are obviously feeling the “its a black and white rule-book” pressure as deployed by Giesch – and whoever’s pulling his strings. If only they could be given rope to revert to a more Michael Caton-ish “law of bloody common sense” approach, instead of paying all the irrelevant, ineffectual (yet “technically correct”) decisions …like fingernail/hand resting on the back type stuff.

    End rant.


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