Don’t do a Polkinghorne

Have you ever lied to the tribunal to help get an opponent off?  I have.  It was unintentional lying but that hardly matters.  Right or wrong, I adhered to the code of silence.  I’d been belted in my first game of senior football.  It was 25-years ago.


The code of silence seemed to die a silent death with the advent of video evidence in the late eighties.  But Liam Picken, on Monday, proved the code of silence is still alive in football.


Video evidence seemed to suggest that Gary Ablett Jnr elbowed Picken to the face.  By giving favourable evidence to the tribunal, Picken ensured Ablett was exonerated.


There were mitigating factors that made favourable evidence easy.  The vision didn’t clearly show the impact.  Picken was unmarked.  Medical evidence cleared him of any injury.


When I lied to the tribunal, I didn’t have it that easy.


The ball was in our forward pocket.  I tackled their ruckman.  He was a lot taller than me and hit me in the face with his fist, about my left eye.  I heard the umpire’s whistle.  There was a bit of push and shove.  The umpire reported the ruckman and took my number.  I kicked a goal from the free kick.  For the rest of the game, my opponent kept commenting on my eye.  After I kicked another goal, he threatened to blacken my right eye.


Following the game, teammates teased me about my eye and told me to downplay the incident.  You’re okay Wato, you played well and kicked two goals.  Don’t worry about it.


The inference was clear, protect him.  Lie to the tribunal.


On Monday when I sat before the tribunal, my left eye was black and purple but the swelling was gone.  A tribunal member read the umpire’s report.  I was asked to describe what happened.


‘I went in for a tackle and felt light contact to my left eye.’


They looked at the discoloured skin.  Light contact?  One of the tribunal members sighed.  Another asked if it was a hand or fist that hit my eye.


‘I thought it was his palm.’


‘Do you think it was deliberate?’




‘Had there been an incident between the two of you previous to that?’




‘Did it knock you down?’




And with that final answer I lied to the tribunal.  The umpire looked sideways at me.  He was disgusted.


The ruckman wasn’t present due to work commitments, instead represented by his coach and captain.  They read his statement explaining the height difference, his clean record and a denial that he deliberately punched me.


He received a reprimand.  The tribunal had no choice.  The ruckman’s captain apologised and shook my hand.


After we’d been dismissed, the umpire had a brief chat with me in the car park, in front of a club official.


‘You did get knocked down,’ the umpire said.


‘I don’t remember that,’ I said.  Genuinely shocked, I looked to the official, who shrugged.


The umpire didn’t believe me.  He shook his head and walked off.


I felt like I’d let him down.  I might’ve lied to the tribunal but I didn’t lie to the umpire.  My recollection of the incident didn’t involve a knock down.  I remembered getting hit but didn’t remember getting up.  I remembered the push and shove and waiting for the umpire to make the report before kicking a goal.


No one told me I’d been knocked down.  Maybe it wasn’t important, because I’d gotten up.  It was a key point at the tribunal.  A few teammates described the punch as a jab.  Others suggested it was a left hook.  The description doesn’t matter.  I lied and he got off.


That’s the code of silence.


During my senior football career, I saw some ordinary incidents, cheap shots, elbows, punches from behind and kicking.  Only once did a victim tell the truth at the tribunal.  His busted nose made lying difficult.


The perpetrator said he’d rather retribution than suspension.  He figured retribution would happen anyway, so let natural justice decide the issue.  I sympathised with him.  It didn’t seem right the truth had been told, because footballers are conditioned to tell the tribunal lies.


In 1982, Carlton’s Wayne Johnston was reported for striking Hawthorn’s David Polkinghorn.  At the tribunal, Polkinghorne broke the code of silence and told the truth.  Johnston was found guilty and suspended for a week.


Polkinghorne was criticised by former players and journalists.  There was an unwritten code all footballers adhered to, no matter what happened.  There was no video evidence.  Polkinghorne didn’t have to tell the truth, but he must’ve been angry.


Johnston was lucky.  He still played in the premiership against Richmond.


Liam Picken didn’t want to do a Polkinghorne.  Luckily for Ablett, it was an inconsequential blow, not thrown with mean intentions.  Picken, once he’d seen the grainy vision, was never going to tell the Match Review Panel that he’d been elbowed in the face.


MRP member Joel Bowden said the incident had been investigated properly.


‘We obviously get a medical report,’ he said.  ‘When we got that back we spoke to Liam Picken.  We decided it was an impact to the body and not the head and that the force was below what would constitute a report.’


Ablett was lucky Picken wasn’t wearing any marks.


The Western Bulldogs issued a statement, saying if Picken was elbowed it was not to the head and he had not used the code of silence to help get Ablett off.


Had Picken received a cut eye or busted jaw, Gold Coast would’ve engaged a biomechanist, who would’ve called the incident an accident, that Ablett threw an elbow for leverage to get up.  Picken would’ve agreed.


Gone are the days when you get punched in the face and laugh it off at the tribunal, but the code of silence remains.


When I fronted the tribunal, I should’ve just said don’t worry about my eye, the ruckman who belted me deserved to get off.  I don’t want to get a reputation as a sook.  I don’t want to be ostracised by my teammates and opponents.  I don’t want to be targeted and shunned and belted and kicked.


Players rarely get the opportunity to lie nowadays.  Picken didn’t lie.  He just provided favourable evidence.


About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. I agree that the code of silence is in existence and in many incidents of a less serious nature it is often the best option to take – for both the alleged perpetrator and the victim. No suspension and (in many cases) no retributive justice the next time the two sides meet.
    I was the “Tribunal Advocate” for a country team in SA during the 1990’s, and the League Tribunal was known for its kangaroo court like activities – their decisions often left everyone scratching their heads. I was advocate for a player on one occasion who was reported for striking his opposition ruck man at a boundary throw-in. Both players (alleged perpetrator and alleged victim) gave evidence that he had simply tried to get the ball to his on-baller and that at no time did he strike the player. The umpire then gave evidence that he paid a free kick after our ruckman had struck his opponent to the face, forcing him from the field with a very bloodied nose. I was able to ask the opposing ruckman if he indeed had left the field as a result of the incident to which he responded – “I have NEVER been forced off a footy field with a bloodied nose or because of the blood rule. Check the interchange steward’s cards – I played the whole game without once leaving the ground.” Of course I asked the panel to indeed check the paperwork to verify the umpire’s version and was promptly told that it was not within my mandate to question the umpire’s veracity. Guilty – 1 match suspension. Maybe because the umpire had been on loan from the VCFL and had to travel some 200km each way for the tribunal hearing (and the League needed to reimburse his costs) this had some bearing on their decision. To (somewhat poorly) paraphrase Jack Nicholson – “The truth – they didn’t know how to handle the truth!”.

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