AFL: The state of the game and the truth of the matter.

“If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in the AFL, our game will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” (With apologies to Samuel Adams.)


Football is not a game of rules, it is a collection of understandings. It must be so because a game that is played across a vast open field with an odd shaped ball by 36 players who are permitted to tackle and bump and maintain physical contact cannot be subject to rules. Its like suggesting that a war be subject to the off-side law.


So, it is a collection of understandings that governs the behaviour of the players. They will not act dangerously and push an opponent in the back, they will not trip each other, they will not strike each other with intent, they will not throw the ball, they will not tackle each other above the shoulders. These notions are what we might call football’s “truths”.  The umpire is only there to adjudicate when a player goes beyond these boundaries. True, there are rules around certain aspects of the game, like the scoring, but the essence of the game is not found in government.


It has been said that a good government stimulates production. In a footballing sense this can be interpreted to mean that a good governing body will guide the game not rule the game. The guidance centres around the administrative issues like the fixture and the venues and the tribunal. The “production”, or the spirit of the game, will develop and evolve and mature. Human behaviour, within the bounds of the collective understanding or the game’s “truths”, will determine how the game gets played. It will change. It will face challenges just as human history has faced challenges. But it will persist just as humanity persists, so long as it remains unshackled.


The Renaissance encouraged production. The Sistine Chapel would never have been painted under Stalin.


It has also been said that a bad government encourages consumption. Consumption, for its own sake, is not sustainable, because it is essentially pointless. If we consume without producing, we are feeding off ourselves. In a footballing sense this can be interpreted to mean that a governing body that encourages consumption of the game without nurture, is doomed. To encourage consumption a governing body must control, because through control it determines the distribution of resources. And this distribution will in turn be governed by self-interest. There is a fallacy at play here: the notion that control leads to influence. Control destroys influence. Control aims to crush the human spirit. A governing body that simply encourages consumption is ignoring the collective understanding and imposing its own (flawed) order. It is attempting to re-shape the game’s “truths”.


The AFL is concerned about the state of the game. The question needs to be asked why? What game do they have in mind? Their game? The game that speaks to satisfying stakeholders? The game that positions itself to maximise TV rights deals? The game that encourages the obliteration of history via the introduction of clash jumpers? (The Tigers winning the 2017 Premiership in a clash jumper was like the French winning the World Cup wearing orange). The game that emboldens the growth of swollen football departments? The game that thinks it needs mindless, thumping music at half time to entertain the people? The game that bullies its way into Good Friday and ANZAC Day and Thursday nights (look out Christmas)? The game that encourages a rapacious media to gorge on its carcass seven days a week? The game that sits on the throne of football in Australia like Jabba The Hutt? Is this the game they are concerned about? Why would they be worried about this game? It’s thriving.


But this is not the game. This is a product. The modern game is like the camel produced by a committee that was designing a horse. It has been constructed and anything that can be built can be destroyed. The spirit of the game can’t be built. The human spirit can’t be built. Or conquered.


I don’t have concerns about the game. The game will be fine. It will find a way. It might require us to endure a dour patch until free thinking coaches and brave players take on the orthodoxy. But isn’t that what makes it interesting? It might need a retreat from committees rather than embracing them. We don’t need more rules we need to revisit the collective understanding that brought forth our great game in the first place. The AFL lives in a fool’s paradise if it thinks it owns football and can paint its canvas. Imagination is mightier than the sword.

For further recent observations on the state of the game, See E Regnan’s

and Max Hatzoglou’s


About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. I do like Big Picture discussion. And this is Picture Magnum. Philosophical.

    So much to take up. But, in principle, I agree with your assertions, it is a game of the Gospel, not of the Law.

    Which has become a game attracting Temple Traders and Pharisees.

    Love this lunch-time stimulus Dips.

  2. Citrus Bob says

    I could not agree more with Dips and JTH. Thanks for the reading Dips I will now use it (if you don’t mind) to broaden the horizons of those who think the game is in trouble.
    The only trouble is the numbers of “experts” being paid by every club and their master the AFL to detract from what is the greatest game in the world and turn it into Show Biz.
    A warning to them – you had better have a look at what is happening at grass-roots footy before that wonderful social epidemic is killed off by the powers that be.
    Australian football has a position in the Australian psyche that is second to none long may it reign without interference by bean counters and their cronies.

  3. DBalassone says

    Nothing’s black & white to me, but I like your take re a collection of understandings rather than rules. If umpires were to apply the letter of the law, there would be 100 free kicks a quarter. They only need to pay the obvious ones. As Sam Newman says, “it’s not the ones they don’t pay, it’s the ones they do pay” that is the problem. I agree with him. Let the game go.
    I also wonder about some of these proposed changes that have been put forward e.g. If players aren’t allowed to kick backwards, wouldn’t that mean they are forced to kick back to a contest where there are 30 odd players waiting to fight over the pill? How does that free up to the play?
    Would dropping from 18 players to 16 players make any difference to eradicating the rolling mauls? It might actually make it worse, because there would less players on the outside to run & carry when the ball finally spills out.

  4. Dave Brown says

    Love it! This is what happens when we let a competition consume the game. An organization that employs teeming hordes of ‘journalists’ but not one cultural historian.

  5. Citrus Bob says

    DB – You have hit the nail right on the head – BUT NOT ONE CULTURAL HISTORIAN! The journalists are told what to say and when to say it in most cases. Good journos move on. Would love to do a football quiz with them!

  6. Rulebook says

    In general totally agree Dips and it is a great discussion point leave the game alone ( Disagree re clash guernseys ) must admit personally watching less and less afl footy SANFl and community footy for me it’s more real and can have a real involvement I am not just a nothing commodity

  7. DB – the Footy Almanac stands ready to be the AFL’s cultural historian. But I won’t hold my breath.

  8. Stainless says

    Dips – as one who has worked in government for many years (hopefully more for good than bad), I think your comments about governments’ and governing bodies’ roles are very apt.
    The first question we ask in government when we consider the case for changing policy, law, regulation or providing new funding is – “what’s the problem that needs to be solved?”. Define and evidence this clearly before you do anything else. Having done this, the equally important next question is “what is the role, if any, of the governing body in solving the problem?”. In many cases, changing laws or rules can be blunt, heavy-handed responses and may create more problems than they solve. I’ve seen precious little to convince me that the AFL is addressing either of these two questions systematically.
    Unfortunately, in the case of the AFL we have an organisation that is a flawed combination of governing body and business proprietor. This inevitably creates a conflict between acting in the best interests of the game and acting in the best interests of the shareholders. This is exacerbated by a bloated, lazy media that has very little of substance to report on. In their desperate competition for oxygen is it any wonder that they manufacture “problems” to the point where all and sundry believe that they exist, even if no-one can actually agree what they really are.

  9. Great piece Dips.
    If the AFL was interested in getting feedback from fans, they would read The Footy Almanac.
    The tail is wagging the dog: Tim Worner wants more goals so that it is easier to squeeze more advertising into the ‘product’.
    Would be wonderful see some teams collude and play out some goalless quarters just to counter his demands.
    I have faith in the game and in community clubs, and none in the Australian Football League’s administrators.

  10. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    You’ve been hanging around Harms for too long, Dips. I reckon your becoming somewhat of a light red commie. This isn’t the pragmatic Dips I used to think I knew !
    Seriously, mate, this is a terrific piece of writing on many fronts. Clash jumpers =$, More goals = advertising $. Good Friday/Anzac Day. You know the rest.
    Social media has been a game-changer in the last few years. Seems that the AFL listens to those that scream loudest and most often on Twitter these days.
    As Stainless, says, problems are manufactured to keep the game in the news and to keep the twits tweeting.
    Social Media is the new opiate of the masses.
    Love the camel and horse example and yes, the imagination eventually overwhelms the sword. Kudos comrade Dips.

  11. Phil one thing about the old commies is that they stood for something (albeit misguided), which is a whole lot better than nothing. The AFL is a vacuous house.

    Viva le Republique!!

  12. george smith says

    “Is the state of the game to blame for dismal AFL TV ratings?” (Guardian -Craig Little Tue 12 Jun 2018)

    Well guess what, a channel 7 executive has let the cat out of the bag:
    “Or, there’s the simpler (and for many, more terrifying) solution. “If we can get Collingwood firing, that helps,” said Worner.”

  13. E.regnans says

    That’s some fine presentation, Dips.
    Hard to argue against any of your thoughts.
    A lot there.

    Your rules v principles idea reminds me of someone telling me of the difference between US and English law. The US system is apparently rules-based (leading to much confrontation, litigation) whereas the English model is principles-based (leading to scope for shared understanding, interpretation).

    I would like to watch a principles-based competition.

    The AFL need to be very careful.
    The game is not theirs, as you say.
    But their power is such that their decisions affect many people, communities, towns.
    In the absence of transparent power structures, this concentration of power in the hands of unelected people could be a real problem. I wonder how Burnie, Devonport are getting on.
    I wonder how the Irish GAA is governed.
    Many thanks, Dips.
    You’ve got me thinking.

  14. Comrade O’Donnell.

  15. Not a bad band name that: Comrade O’Donnell and the Frustrateds.

    Up there with my band: Fat John and the Disappointments.

  16. JTH – my youngest brother plays in a band called The Disappointments. They’re brilliant.

    ER – in answer to how the Irish GAA is governed, I’d say with Guiness.

  17. Great stuff, Dips. A really thought-provoking read.

    The AFL is not my football. My football is played at the Fearon Reserve on Saturday afternoons under the auspices of the VAFA. I sincerely hope the Ammos do not just blindly follow any AFL-mandated rules changes. The game does not belong to the AFL.

    Re Tim Worner: now he has spoken, you can bet something will happen. Even though his only reason for wanting more goals was so that there could more ad breaks.

    Re clash jumpers: I must disagree – with the pace and inside nature of today’s game they are a necessity.

  18. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Vive la République indeed! Conpagnon d’armes Damien. You are the ‘sans-culotte’ of the 2018 footy landscape.

    I will have to read a single paragraph of this each day of the coming week and respond to a paragraph a day I think. It’s a chef d’oeuvre in 8 paragraphs.

    But I too love the idea of a game (or a discussion, or an idea or opinion or a relationship or a goal or a piece of writing or a …) being a set of understandings. Very hard to regulate understandings without compromising the complexity which is innate to their existence. That’s my initial response to paragraph one. Progress pending …

    I’ve been wandering to Marrickville’s Henson Park on the weekends (actually ‘through’ Henson Park en route to the unbelievable Makovyi torte at Illi Hill cafe). And (with my torte and coffee) I’ve been sitting a while on the hill to watch the Eastern Bulldogs play UTS or Sydney Uni or whoever is up that weekend. It’s been a deepening of my understanding of what grassroots footy means to so many people. I will continue to attend to it.

    The comments stream has many excellent responses and ideas too. This might last me the rest of the season. Merci.

  19. Tre bon Mathilde! Looking forward to you next considerations.

  20. Luke Reynolds says

    For all the rule change talk, and yes there are many ordinary games (always has been), I saw a quality, attacking, entertaing game of Australian Football on Monday. There’s been some great teams to watch this decade. The AFL need to be very careful about any radical rule changes.
    Great piece Dips.

  21. Yvette Wroby says

    Thanks Dips. A lot of those watching the AFLW and Head office changing their rules are now sitting watching them do that to the blokes as well. There is no understanding of the love of players and supporters of Aussie rules. How can a machine have an understanding? People talk of the game being AFL. They are drunk on their own phantasy.

    Sat in a room tonight of players of the 90’s. watched a final of that era. No one kicked backwards and there was only one umpire. There were players of all sizes and shapes who played footy rather than be athletes. So different.

    You are always thoughtful. Thank you

  22. Colin Ritchie says

    Thanks Dips for presenting such a passionate, thought provoking and stimulating post on the site. This is the beauty of the FA site; it encourages such robust and intelligent discussion among our articulate like minded community and followers of the game that makes one proud to be associated with. Without a doubt the direction of the game will be influenced as much as possible by the largest stakeholders, and unfortunately, it seems, whoever has the deepest pockets. Hopefully, articles such as yours will reach the nobs at AFL Headquarters and notice will be taken by them of the feelings of the supporter base at large.

  23. Malby Dangles says

    Great article Dips.
    To paraphrase a quote (in a different context) from the entertaining book Football Ltd

  24. Dips, “it’s more than a game,” it’s a commodity. What I played in my youth, what I watched is no more: Wie es ist, Bleibt es nicht.

    Sport as we’ve known it is part of the entertainment industry. I retain an interest though my passion went 20 years ago. Happy to watch it on TV, happy to talk to about with friends and family, happy to ‘educate’ the cheese’n’kisses, her being a Kiwi, but what I recall from the 70’s etc, is no more, it won’t return.

    Only by reading writers like Adorno and Debord do I understand the role of football in the entertainment industry. Away jumpers, AFLX, sponsors names of grounds; FFS !

    My current gripe though is how the scores are reported in the corporate media. Side A 121 beat Side B 64; not Side A 18-13-121, or 19-7-121, just 121. I’m not surprised with this on the Sydney centric Fox Sport, but driving to the gym @ 05-30 yesterday, (Friday 15/6) I heard the ABC news presenter saying Port Adelaide 132 beat the Western Bulldogs 75. Seriously how much more dumbing down does the commodity of football require ?


  25. Pamela Sherpa says

    Serious point Glen, the dumbing down of it all. I suppose then, the producers will be able to justify paying themselves and others on the gravy train more to re invent/change the whole game and pretend that it is something remarkable and new!

  26. Some very interesting thoughts here (ignoring my bogan French).

    If the game is mashed to pieces is it still our game?

    There might be a part 2 to this.

  27. Driving to the gym @ 05-30 this morning,ABC news on the car radio. Tim Callinan gives the score Richmond 83 , defeated Geelong 65. He adds Richmond got on top in the final term scoring 27 to 10. Not 4-3-27 to 1-4-10, nor even 4-3 to 1-4, just 27 to 10.

    I’m cognisant of the standardisation that is so much part of what happens on the ground,and @ the ground, but to hear the scores read out like this insults our intelligence.


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