Being Ruled By The Rules

Brent Harvey’s one match ban for a bump on Joel Selwood brought to mind another incident. A number of months have elapsed since the Jack Viney bump occurred but it highlighted a contradiction in the way the general public want the game officiated. On the one hand, players and supporters were appalled that Viney was charged with rough conduct and initially suspended for two matches. In the context of the passage of play, Viney had few options but to contest the ball and, unfortunately, break the jaw of Adelaide’s Tom Lynch. But increasingly the general expectation of society is that players and umpires must participate to the letter of the law. According to this philosophy, Viney’s bump was negligent, contact was high, and the force was medium. He should have been suspended. Similarly, according to this philosophy Harvey should not play this weekend.

A common refrain from those criticising umpires is that all supporters expect is for them to be consistent. The impossibility of consistency is quite clearly lost. No two incidents that occur on a football field are ever the same. The events preceding it are different. The actions within the incident have differences. The events afterward are different. Further adding to the differences is the simple fact that each game is different. Some games matter more than others. The teams and players are different. The atmosphere is different. The conditions are different. Clearly, each and every incident in a game of football is unique.

Nevertheless, in a bid to pander to the expectations of consistency the AFL and its umpires increasingly look to the rulebook. They analyse the rules with a legal eye and interpret them as “accurately” as possible. They tinker with the rules to make them “clearer”. Nowhere can this be demonstrated better than with the push in the back rule.

The push in the back rule’s purpose is three-fold – to stop a player being pushed out of a marking contest, to stop a player being pushed into the ground when bent over attempting to collect a loose ball, and to stop a player being pushed as they run, kick or handball. But the subtleties and nuances in this began to create confusion. With an eagle eye, the interpretation for marking contests was changed. No longer could a player have hands in an opponent’s back. This interpretation ignored the facts that it was possible to have hands in the back without pushing, just as it was possible to push in the back without hands. Changing the interpretation and trying to update the umpiring did not improve the confusion nor did it decrease the ire of fans.

At the heart of this contradiction is a simple problem. The application of rules is always subjective. We expect that it is possible to be objective and finite, but it is not. Human judgements must always be made. There is not one aspect of the game where it is possible to be purely objective. Even scoring has an element of subjectivity.

Video review was expected to be a solution. What is frightfully obvious is that it is almost as hard using video replays to determine the “correct” decision as it is in real time. A collective groan is expelled by the crowd each time a review is called for, largely because they know the review will not improve the situation and will prove inconclusive. As an aside, it appears that to reduce ridicule of the flawed system, the video umpire now often confirms the goal umpire’s decision when footage is inconclusive.

This fascination with the ability of the law to be conclusive and finite is having dire consequences. Most obviously in the Essendon supplements scandal. The Bombers have taken ASADA to court, not to argue the substance of the issue, but on a distantly-related legal technicality. At the legal hearing, well-paid Senior and Queens Counsels will argue about a law and its application but not about if Essendon players took illegal substances. To a great many fans of the game, it will be a profound shame if Essendon is able to avoid producing the truth behind their supplements program due to a legal technicality.

Arguing over specific features of the laws also occurred in the Viney incident. The rules were pored over and analysed in depth. Was the conduct accidental, incidental, intentional, reckless or negligent? Was the impact severe, high, medium, low or negligible? Was the contact to the head, groin or elsewhere on the body? Was there any residual, additional or deductible points? On it went. A great many intelligent people trying to apply an objective system to a subjective situation.

When the Match Review Panel decided on a two match suspension for Viney, howls of protest erupted decrying the death of the bump in AFL football. The precedent set by the MRP would send shockwaves through the competition. Players would pull out of contesting the ball, fearing similar punishment should an accident happen. But precedents are a funny thing – they are only useful until the next precedent is set. A similar incident could happen in the very next round and the MRP could establish a brand new precedent.

Arguing about umpiring decisions in football has been occurring since young Aboriginal men ran around playing Marn Grook. It will continue for as long as the game lasts. But to improve the level of debate a couple of things must occur.

The AFL, the MRP and the umpiring department should cease pretending that they can legislate and officiate as though beyond human error. All involved should confront this inadequacy, and communicate that their decisions are made with the opinion of a human who may well misinterpret rules and situations. Mistakes should be acknowledged but will never be eradicated.

But on the part of supporters, there needs to be renewed understanding that those officiating are applying objective rules in a subjective situation. Ultimately, the judgement will rest with a human who must be lauded for trying. As supporters, the best that we can hope for is that those adjudicating are truly independent and have the best interests of the game, the players and supporters at heart.


  1. Cat from the Country says

    My biggest concern is Joel Selwood being held by the neck over the boundary fence. ????
    Not cited, not reported not sanctioned.
    What message is this sending to the younger players?
    This action need more than one week and NO appeal!!!

  2. Onya Liam. There used to be a time when we lauded umpires for interpreting the “spirit of the game”. Unfairness, intent and harm were weighed up in a subjective balance before blowing the whistle.
    Strict legalism masquerading as ‘fairness’ is ruining both footy and society. 2 umpires; no video replays and encourage interpretation of principles over application of rules.
    Well said Liam.

  3. Thanks Peter, I agree. While soccer is not a patch on footy as a game, they do seem to leave the game in the hands of the ref a bit more. Sometimes different refs have different interpretations but that is part of sport! I especially agree with the part about strict legalism ruining society – it kills me how often people enforce “rules” with no thought to their purpose.

    Cat from the Country – great point. Not even a free for too high was paid. Players get away with pointless and childish acts of aggression like jumper punches (holding the man and too high) while the bump seems to be unfairly picked on.

  4. Skip of Skipton says

    The current MRP system, like the Goal Review system needs to be knocked on the head ASAP.

    Go back to umpires reporting what they consider to be offences as they occur. Then refer those to the MRP for judgement to save tribunal meetings. Take away the right of the MRP to report players by sifting through video-tape. If the umpires saw the incident and chose not to report it, then that is that.

    Only Matthews/Bruns type incidents, which the umpires missed, should be the exception, which is the sole reason this genie was let out of the bottle for in the first place.

    Same applies for the Goal Review System. Only obvious errors that were missed by the umpires like the Hawkins goal in the ’09 GF, or the Wellingham goal in the ’11 GF (remember that one?) is where somebody upstairs should intervene.
    Umpires call 100% of the time, no going ‘upstairs’ for help, and no upstairs over-ruling on inconclusive evidence like the Sloane goal.

  5. Liam

    Well written. Mistakes will happen, by players and umpires and the fast and unpredicatble nature of our great game means two incidents are seldom the same. Legal arguments and slo-mo reviews are not helpful or anything that usually adds to the process.

    It is interesting that replays in some sports that remove the subjective, like tennis and hockey, (ball in or out, ball hitting foot or not) seem to be accepted, whereas thsoe that still require umpire’s subjective interpretation, like cricket and AFL, cause confusion.

    However, I am truly baffled by the Harvey exoneration. As far as I can see, Harvey’s head hit Selwoods, Harvey instigated the bumb/hit/contact, it was not within what anyone would consider ‘play’, Selwood was being restricted from running to a position to potentially receive the ball, Harvey’s feet left the ground, and he had an alternative to bumping.

    How he gets off truly staggers me. Woudl he have got off in the H&A?

    It is almost seen as Selwood’s fault for bleeding!


  6. daniel flesch says

    Excellent analysis Liam . Covered it all. Will the AFL improve the system over the off-season ? No breath-holding here.
    As for Harvey getting cleared to play in a Final , it reminds me of Barry Hall getting cleared to play in the G.F. for the Swans when he clearly should’ve been rubbed out.
    And while Cat from the Country above is vexed by the treatment Selwood got , i’m still scratching my old noggin at Tom Hawkins not being pinged for punching Ben Stratton in the Q.F. Even at the time Leigh Matthews thought it wouldn’t attract a sanction .
    All instances great role modelling for Junior players . Not.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    Skip of Skipton – I agree with the goal review. Ditch the whole thing and stick with the umpire. The review system has blatantly shown me that the umpire is better placed to decide than anyone else, especially a video. But the video review for tribunal has been a force for good. Behind the play hits have been eradicated along with dirty acts (Judd chicken wing) that the umps misses. I just think it should be the opinion of the people running it, and they shouldn’t be forced to use a regimented system.

    Sean – great points about other sports. Review seems to work for tennis and cricket we’ll because there are distinct breaks in play. But we want footy to be continuous. While according to the current “system” Harvey should be spectating, I can’t see that missing a Prelim is a just punishment for that bump. Blocking and bumping are part of the game. A defender must be able to do something to stop a player receiving the ball and running into an open goal. I think Harvey shouldn’t have been cited at all.

    Daniel – I can’t see the AFL improving things over the summer either! They run as a business and are obsessed with “process” rather than making a sensible decision for the betterment of the game. I agree that there is a great deal of inconsistency with the application of the rules. But my whole point is there should be inconsistency! Getting rubbed out for 3 weeks mid-season is a far lighter punishment than 1 week of finals. I remember the Hawkins incident and I thought it unsightly and poor sportsmanship. But I don’t think he should miss a semi final for that. Each and every incident is independent and unique and comparing them is ultimately fruitless!

  8. I concur- setting out decision criteria for everything just gives you the illusion of objectivity and robs us of the benefits of expert judgement. The irony seems to be that the more we try to specify things the more we get away from being able to use our intelligence and experience to judge them and the more unsatisfied with the outcome we are. (human judgement is more pattern recognition than rule application)

    intellectually we should accept the inevitable subjectivity and apparent inconsistency of judgement. To experience life we should still rail against the decision of the umpire if we need to, enjoy the ‘injustices’ that happen to other teams and curse your own team’s..

  9. Imagine if the umpires issued a statement each Monday criticising the players for missing goals, dropping marks or other skill errors?
    The umpires never get the chance to explain, and nor should they.
    In my view, the umpires make about 1% of the errors made by players each match.
    I’ve never blamed the umpires for a loss.
    I challenge anyone to watch a full game of footy and blame the umpires solely for a loss.
    The umpire does not cause skill errors, or errors of judgement. He does not make a coach perform poorly.
    And the umpires have to adhere to new rules each year.
    They are just like cops. Cops don’t make people speed or break the law. And no one likes a cop until they need one.
    Just like no one likes an umpire until he has paid a free kick for their team.
    But pay a free for the opposition and an umpire is just like a cop handing out a speeding fine.

  10. Mark – excellent comment. You said what I wanted to say but far more succinctly!

    Matt – definitely agree. Far too much focus is on the mistakes umpires may or may not make. Meanwhile we talk up players as if demi-gods. Every time I hear Luke Darcy excuse a player I cringe. We hear barely a word of criticism from “objective” commentators.

  11. The thing you forgot to discuss the ‘spirit of the rules’. The Viney/Lynch event caused such an outcry BECAUSE the decision failed to take this into account. Maybe the AFL need less lawyers and more people with a ‘feel for the game’ on the panel.

  12. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Rabs absolutely spot on as a umpire will add more later

  13. Rabid Dog – I tried to relay a similar thought when talking about the purpose of rules. But I didn’t flesh this out in relation to Viney. I totally agree though. From my point of view, the purpose/spirit of the rule is to stop players bumping/colliding with another’s head in a manner that could be likely to cause injury/concussion. Your point about spirit is incredibly valid as it encompasses the broader game and Viney’s need to contest the ball. If we focus too narrowly on the incident we forget about the greater game. We need people making decisions with a great feel for the overall game, not just a myopic view of each incident. The game is greater than the sum of its parts!

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