AFL: The State of the Game Part 2. The Ramblings of a Madman.

The state of the game.


How would you describe an orange to a person who has never had sight and has no concept of colour?


How would you describe the essence of a game of Aussie Rules to someone who has never seen one?


I have previously written that Australian football was not conceived as a game of rules but a game of collective understandings as to what is acceptable. The fact that players can run wherever they like across the whole field signifies that it is a game of free spirit and imagination. Applying layers of rules to it is like putting a functional flat roof on the Opera House, then complaining that it’s not attractive anymore.


There is nothing wrong with the game in its true form. Steve Hocking wants to “take the game into the future”. We often hear that the new rules are designed to make our game better, but no one can tell me what better, in this context, means.


We are thinking about this all wrong.


Perhaps the issue here is that we are trying to define or describe the magic of Aussie Rules in the first place and in doing so we create a muddle. It shouldn’t be caged in a definition. The true question to be asking is: What are we trying to achieve when we play this great game of ours? Are we simply trying to make the least mistakes? I doubt it. Are we looking for meaning? Probably. Do we find meaning in rules? No. Rules are there to bring about societal harmony, they have no meaning otherwise. Meaning comes from life experience not from lodging your tax return on time.


Perhaps football as a spectacle is seen to be struggling because the measures we consciously and unconsciously apply to it have no connection with the essential question: what are we trying to achieve when we play this great game of ours? The prism through which we view football, and sport in general, has warped.


Justin Dyer, Professor of Politics at the University of Missouri, in trying to make sense of reality, recently wrote:


“……we might say the framing assumptions of our public culture no longer give an adequate account of the primary things we see around us and within us, leaving us uncertain and anxious about what to do with this tension.”


Whilst this related to a broader discussion about society, I think it has application to our current debate on the state of the game. What we have previously seen in the game, its “public culture”, the things we regarded as the game’s “primary things”, have been shoved aside. The game, as we thought we knew it, no longer has context; a victim of the modern disease of “perpetual reform” without end.


Perhaps “old football” is already on the way to the gallows? Perhaps we are living through a time of flux; currently invisible to us but obvious with 20 years of hindsight. The game may emerge out the other side as something we hardly recognize today, smashed to death by good intention and zero understanding, “ruled” out of existence. The players will have lost their capacity for choice and instinct, the value of the individual will be lost in the corporate club, “the reliability of reason, and the reality of goodness” won’t survive.


Perhaps this urge to change the rules is a misguided attempt to give football shape, which is like (if I could borrow the words of Crowded House) trying to catch a deluge in a paper cup. We sprint like the mouse in the wheel, desperately fooling ourselves that we are making progress without asking what we are progressing towards.


In short, it could be that this irresistible pursuit of rule changes is a forlorn attempt to describe a thing that defies description or that doesn’t need description. The essence. Or, as C.S Lewis described it, the Tao.


“The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.”



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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. Stephen Alomes says

    Hi Dips
    We kept to our structures…I played my role….. from the player’s post-game interview…..

    That describes the game as it is now played…. according to the coaches Zoneball rules.

    The future you fear is here now- in your words

    Applying layers of rules to it is like putting a functional flat
    roof on the Opera House, then complaining that it’s not
    attractive anymore.

    We now have not evolution but coaches mutations.

    We need to be saved from the coaches revolution.

    We need a counter revolution…

    Result – less shoulder and concussion injuries from crash and bash Tackleball
    – less leg injuries from endless running
    – more contested marks
    – more goals

    Sounds much better to me.

    Stephen Alomes

    * I first introduced this critique in the book
    Australian Football The People’s Game 1958-2058 pub.2012, 2017

    Let’s neutralise the coaches so the game still prospers in 2058.

    Alternatively, let your or my team just Win Ugly!

  2. Stephen Alomes you might be on to something there.
    A salary cap on coaches. There are just too many coaches.
    All the coaches do is create structure and crush creativity.
    Let’s have just one coach per team. No forwards coach. Definitely no Backwards coach.
    Is there a sideways coach? Never mind, none of them either.
    Restrict them to a 5 minute pep talk pre game.
    Give the players the game plan and see them implement it.
    If they cannot, well tough. Get a better game plan next week.

  3. dion mccaffrie says

    Totally agree with the above comments. Each team now has 10 coaches! Each additional coach worsens the look of the game.
    I see that coaches are beginning to squeal at the prospect of rule changes…you know you are onto something when that happens.
    Footy is a chaos game. It hasn’t responded well to being structured.

  4. This is the sort of piece which should have more currency Dips. I actually recommended you to The Guardian yesterday. I hope they call you and ask you to write something.

    There is so much in this piece, and in your earlier piece.

    You write: “Australian football was not conceived as a game of rules but a game of collective understandings as to what is acceptable.” I am with you on this. And it’s just a start in trying to understand the appeal of the game.

    The issue with a game as crazy-mystical as footy is that it’s hard to find words to describe what it is. This has been a pet topic of writers for ages. It’s why Flanners has been so important and Kevin Sheedy. And it’s why the game resonates with artists, musicians, poets, writers – from Paul Kelly to Gorr to Noel Counihan. Poets like the late Philip Hodgin have been important.

    For me, footy is not the game which Steve Hocking attempted to talk about earlier in the week. On hearing his 3AW interview, my mind immediately turned to Don Watson who knows footy and knows language and knows Australia. Don Watson could write another Weasel Words book just on that Steve Hocking interview.

    Hocking was not talking essence of the game stuff. It was a long interview where, in his role at the AFL, he was the spokesperson for the AFL and it was corporate bull shit about processes and drilling down (was that the term?) and talking to stakeholders. That’s not the language I relate to, and I suspect I am not alone.

    The thinking is all crazy. I reckon it’s the wrong starting point. It’s commerce-driven by powerful organisations asking the question: how do we keep our markets and develop new markets. While manufacturing new orthodoxies to do that.

    The discussion needs to start with what the game actually is. And, as you say Dips, why it has been meaningful. the discussion needs sound foundation and to be built from there.

    I agree that there are problems with congestion and other elements. So let’s look at the good games and see what it is that lifts the soul – as it has been lifted for generations. And work towards preserving that. It’s not a matter of gross change. It’s a matter of understanding the key elements of the game and preserving/enshrining those elements. (Interestingly this is what the AFL attempted to do a generation ago.)

    There is much at stake here.

  5. Dips – I usually share your cynicism about groupthink and the nanny state, but reading your piece I was reminded of the first maxim that Neal Blewett taught me – “freedom for the pike is death for the minnow” (RH Tawney).
    So I am with Stephen and Ken in believing that coaches have the freedom/power/control that is diminishing my love of the game. Coaching as an exercise in harm minimisation – to reduce the opportunities for players to create and exploit and potentially destroy your team and your career.
    “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark’s Gospel)
    I share John’s cynicism about AFL motivations so I want to see meaningful trials (how is hard because trials need to be meaningful – and coached against – VFL/SANFL/WAFL? – the operation was a success but the patient died?). But to my mind this is essentially the Empire Strikes Back – the corporate AFL finding strange bedfellows with the fans in rebellion against stultifying games (that are indirectly hurting their bottom line).
    In thinking about what it is that I am wishing to preserve/restore (John’s essential question) my mind turned to the idea of “the contest”. The two men in the ring. Carey and Jakovich. Rioli and Jetta down the MCG wing. Schimmelbusch and Millane. Silvagni and Ablett Snr.
    Original intent – what did we see in Reynolds and Coleman and Polly and Hart that we came to love and recognise as the essence of our game. The triumph of one over the other. Outwitted, outmuscled, outmatched. One on one. Two on two. Punch and counterpunch.
    Not the twelve on twelve that the modern game has become thanks to fitness and interchange and coaches ‘rules’ that now overwhelm founders ‘rules’.
    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”
    “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”
    “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
    (WB Yeats – The Second Coming)

  6. JTH – I think Loose Men Everywhere is a term that encapsulates my view of the game.

    Its hard to “improve” something if we’re not sure what it is. Or why it is.

    The current debate on changing the game in the broader media misses the point, in my view.

    Some very valid points in the comments here.

  7. Stainless says

    “The game, as we thought we knew it, no longer has context; a victim of the modern disease of “perpetual reform” without end.”

    “The thinking is all crazy. I reckon it’s the wrong starting point. It’s commerce-driven by powerful organisations asking the question: how do we keep our markets and develop new markets. While manufacturing new orthodoxies to do that. The discussion needs to start with what the game actually is.”

    Gents – these sentiments are spot on, and beautifully expressed too.

    My more prosaic take is that the rulemakers are looking at the game through the prism of entertainment for mass markets, rather than as a sport with history, tradition, idiosyncracy and passion. I’m currently mucking around with a potential Almanac piece that tries to unpack this shift towards sport as entertainment as I see it as a trend across most professional sports and one that is posing all sorts of challenges for administrators trying to balance integrity with market appeal.

    Trouble is, once you go down the path of running sport as a big business your imperative is to grow markets in their biggest and most amorphous sense. Your decision making tends towards the bland because it’s more important to attract a million viewers (no matter what their real level of commitment to the sport) than 100,000 genuine supporters. The current argument about potential rule changes by the AFL is obviously a huge concern to those of us who have a deep-seated love of the game. But it’s only one example of this wider trend.

    My rather gloomy concluding question is what if rule changes alter the nature of the game to the great distaste of we rusted-on supporters but the broader market for the game (er…this segment of the entertainment business) keeps growing? Who’s right?

  8. Dave Brown says

    Often it comes down to definitions. Seems the AFL is pretty clear that an improved game is one with an increased number of ad breaks. Tails and dogs.

    The other night I went to watch the highlights of my (SANFL) team’s thrilling 13 goal last quarter on Ch 7’s streaming service. The SANFL pays Ch 7 in the region of $1 million a year to broadcast a game a week. With each last quarter goal an ad break followed. First, 30 seconds, then 45 seconds, then 1 minute building right up until a 2 minute 30 second ad break after the ninth goal. Other than the annoyance, the problem was that Ch 7 didn’t actually have any advertisers for that product, just the structure. Instead they showed unskippable promos for their own TV shows, over and over again.

    While the AFL is commercially different, I can’t help but feel the drive for more ad breaks in the face of decreasing advertising revenue for free to air TV is like printing more money during a recession. In the mean time will footy be recognizable by the time Hocking has finished with it?

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Once upon a time, the keepers of the game introduced the out on the full rule, followed closely by the centre diamond/square. They seemed to have had a positive effect. Not much changed after that until some tinkering with holding the ball / prior opportunity two decades after. But all of this was in the context of part-time footballers and coaches.

    So is part of the kerfuffle that we can’t trust those that are in charge to make the right changes for the right reasons (eg the sub, taking the legs, instant kick outs from points, interchange caps, goal review, MRP, expansion?)

    They should at least be (dare I say) transparent with their articulation of problem/cause/effect/solutions.

  10. Swish – How do you make Aussie Rules better? Discuss.

    See you in about 50,000 words time.

  11. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Hey Dips, I’m with you, I think. I didn’t rule out winding back some things cf. introducing new things.

    Some changes *could* be for the better, but I’m yet to see anything that honestly articulates the underlying strategy/analysis/design/testing/implementation/support thinking that would underpin it.

    And coming from the great minds that put together AFLX, sheesh.

  12. Brin Paulsen says

    Really great writing Dips, so much to ponder here. A few thoughts:

    I have a different point of view to most of you folks I’d suggest. I grew up in Brisbane and was a teen in the late 90’s/ early 00’s. This meant that I was, unbeknown to me the target demographic of the Evil Empire’s plan to tinker with the history of the game and invade Queensland. I’m here because of the success of corporate AFL’s plan – at what I now understand to be significant cost to Fitzroy supporters in Melbourne.

    Perhaps because my early childhood memories aren’t of Aussie Rules, I don’t have the same impassioned views and desire to protect the past as significantly. I dislike the constant rule changes by the AFL, and I hate the idea of zoned footy, but I think footy grows into a different beast and lives on. Concussion, player welfare etc have forced the hand of the governing body a little.

    And while I understand Peter B’s point about preserving the individual contest, I’d point to the sheer beauty and power of the Geelong run and carry, the elegance and control of the modern Hawthorn teams, and even (perhaps this is my rugby league background coming to the fore) the in-and-under tackling and hardball work of the Sydney Swans. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure perhaps but for a team sport the coherence of excellent teams is a sublime trait.

    With regards to the issue of coaching, I’d suggest the AFL and clubs are fighting out a paradoxical dilemma : Optimise for winning v Ensure the game looks attractive.

    These two elements may not be exclusive to one another but optimising for winning necessarily means disregarding any kind of desired visual aesthetic. It necessarily means reducing the impact of one player out of eighteen. It forces the sport to become about the team rather than the individual (Peter’s comment about harm minimisation is bang-on). The attempt to win by any means necessary isn’t new. On the other hand… this “make the game look attractive” concept seems wholly modern (and is perhaps in line with the general societal shift towards external vanity?)

    I reckon Swish has it right that no one trusts the purpose of rule changes anymore. It’s like a Government making changes to laws without any discussion of policy or rationale. If footy administators are going to act like politicians they could, at the very least, attempt to try and “bring the fans along”

    At this point, I expect every single decision taken by the AFL from here to eternity to be solely focused on increasing viewers, TV contracts and advertising revenue. DB, I think you’ll find live sport is the only thing keeping FTA afloat because it still yields decent ad revenue.

    Think I need a beer and more time to mull this over. The Guardian absolutely need to give you a byline Dips!

  13. Thanks for the comment Brin. I will read it again more closely.

    However one thing I want to point out is that I’m not necessarily yearning for the things of the past, but I am yearning for understanding. An understanding of our game from those who control it. An understanding that it is demeaned if it is just considered a product.

  14. Dave Brown says

    No doubt, Brin. That and Fantasy Bachelor Gets Married and Renovates a House. But, say the AFL are successful and goals kicked per match go from six per quarter as last round to nine or whatever their dream scenario is. Noting that advertising revenue has steadily been falling, are advertisers going to be willing to fork out the same amount for an ad that is commensurately less prominent when advertising space has become more readily available? My (entirely uninformed) concern is that they may be playing at best a zero sum game.

  15. SEN radio has been talking about the “state-of-the-game” for weeks, it might even be months. Lots of experts, lots of ex-players, current coaches, journos, game callers, the commentariat, hundreds of pundits phoning in with their ideas.

    What have I surmised from all of this? Each person thinks they understand the game more than anyone else, and either all present conflicting proposals (not only with each other, but even from the same person), or, give the now well-worn and unimaginative: “leave the f__g game alone!” (as if that is ever going to be a realistic option)

    Listen to the fans? Seriously? Of the dozens of phone calls into SEN Radio, supposedly from people who follow the game, you’d be hard-pressed to find a handful of ideas that make any sense (that is, those who ring in and do not give the well-worn and unimaginative: “leave the f__g game alone!”)

    I am comforted by thinkers and writers who are willing to look beyond the bureaucratese, the codification ideal, the school-monitor rule-making obsession, but equally, I also take some comfort from this “process” (sorry, couldn’t avoid such a perfunctory term), that the game’s traditions remain important, that there will be nothing revolutionary, that whatever is proposed has been backed with some form of study (dare I say time and motion analyses?), and that there is a goal of retaining and/or accentuating the most desireable features of the game, as we’ve understood them for over a century.

    But, this topic is too big…

  16. Really interesting. And the variety of responses (which include numerous big themes) show how complex the topic is.

    In no order, Brin, the aesthetic is a bg factor. An open game (Brisbane in the 2000s, Geelong at its peak) is beautiful. I’d choose it over a slog – but a slog can be intriguing.

    DaveB, you sound like you have young kids – about the same age as ours. We have become a Ninja Whatever It Is family. Seriously, have a look at how that is produced. How everything is manufactured. Then spare a thought for me suggesting to the kids they might watch a bit of the British Open – or pretty much everything. Which taps into one of Stainless’s observations.

    A big plus for administrators is that footy people love thier club and the game. Both contain 150 years of meaning.

    But where something is genuinely meaningful there you will find traders in the temple to exploit the depth of connection people have with it. Sport, the arts, religion etc.

    Even the Almanac has had to ask for memberships/contributions – although I wouldn’t exactly describe us as exploitative. More just trying to keep something some find meaningful alive.

  17. Thanks old mate.
    When considering any changes to the rules, the law-makers must first ask themselves: “What do we want to achieve?” and “Where do we want to end up?”
    Is it a more open, and more free-wheeling style of game? I disagree with JTH to the extend that I really enjoy tough, hard evenly-matched slogs, because every goal has so much more value than in a shoot-out.
    Is it more goals? Channel 7’s Tim Worner is on the record as saying that he wants more goals – because the ad breaks immediately following goals are the most important (valuable) on television. The AFL will not dismiss lightly the broadcaster’s views.
    Is it zones to reduce congestion?
    Is it reduced interchange rotations in an effort to slow down the pace of the game?
    I am an outlier in that I am 52 and I prefer today’s game over the game from the 80’s – when I would attend every single week.
    Coaching to plans and over-coaching is not a new phenomenon: I recall Barassi dragging Blight from the ground after the latter kicked a goal from the boundary. he was dragged because he did not adhere to the team rule of centering the ball.

  18. Dave Brown says

    Yep, JTH, 7 and 10. Their entertainment choices are dramatically greater than we had as kids and the entertainment they consume is much more sophisticated in terms of stimulating the dopamine receptors in their brains. Based upon observing the members of the Under 10 footy team of which I am an assistant coach, Fortnite is much more entertaining than watching an AFL game (the only sport the elder child consumes as a first choice is the Big Bash at the ground). It’s not some moral failing on the part of our kids, it is just true. Would love to see some informed debate about what, if anything, the AFL does about that, particularly given sometimes we can get blinkered that our own perspectives are universal.

  19. Jarrod_L says

    I had a conversation with my brother on this recently – he seemed resigned to embracing the “mythos” from those who profess to know the absolute truth. Like he’d begrudgingly fall in line with the zealous tinkering of our game (that’s the kindest way I can think to describe it…) if he’d get to see the second, third and umpteenth coming of Lockett, Ablett Snr, Modra, Dunstall et al. I generally avoid playing Devil’s Advocate too often, but I put it to him if interchanges were reduced to 60/50/40 and zones put in place then what’s to say clubs don’t go over hills and dales looking for Mark Blicavs types by the handful in place of Sam Mitchells or Heath Shaws? No slight on Blicavs, who I think is an interesting player in the the league if nothing else, but would the masses really appreciate dozens of his ilk loping around? I’m far from convinced you’d have tiring players camped around the square for one-on-one contests in the vein of the 1980s-90s.

    What is there is good and is footy – it has some blemishes in a number of areas during a number of games. This isn’t new, just the particular blemishes are different and apparently look like stage 4 melanomas to some.

    I’m in agreement with Dips, overly zealous rule changes should make us wary. I’m not a head in the sand type either – I think there’s distinct possibilities for “evolution” or the catch-all “interpretation” to come in. Reigning in incorrect disposal/htb frees and zero wait for rucks to nominate for ball ups (Third up, free against. Simple) to me feels like a good start (and possibly, for the time being, end too).

  20. E.regnans says

    I hope this piece and the comments are widely read.

    Fine thoughts, Dips & all.

  21. Rulebook says

    Dips it is a fascinating topic,Coaches so much to blame re so many structures and parts and terms in the structures,the roamers,the blockers one and two etc players have so many things to remember the natural enjoyment has gone for a lot of footballers.Coaches also just go to any extent to restrict scoring and go in damage control eg Ross Lyon.As a experienced umpire the instructions given and positioning at the elite level is putrid how Hayden Kennedy still has his job has me beat,in the back has just about become a obsolete free kick ridiculous.Afl level was pure greed to expand to 18 teams a move which has backfired dramatically.Some of the rule changes re the sliding rule and can’t take the ball re rucking the restricted area it has been incompetent stubbornness to not admit they have not worked
    A topic which has so many areas and never ending points of discussion thank you

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