Outrageous fortune on the half forward flank

There are rules and there are rules. Some are straight forward, like the drive on the left rule. Some make a lot of plain sense, like the wear a seat belt rule. And some, like the holding the ball rule, in Australian rules football are incorrigibly self-conflicted and yet almost profound in their gallant striving for coherence and sense.
Rules unite people, and even create communities. Who would Americans be without their constitution and its famous amendments? Perhaps nothing defines Australian rules supporters more than the holding the ball rule. We rise up as one and scream “…ball!” when we see its transgression, as if a law of nature itself were being revealed in front of our eyes.

The holding the ball rule is like the leg before wicket rule in cricket. If you don’t grasp it, nay, feel it, you don’t really know football. Both rules have their ambiguities, but the LBW rule’s problems are trivial in comparison. They are merely problems of where the ball is and where it’s going. I admit the notion of a batsmen having played a shot suffers from some vagueness –“Umpire that was a shot, just a bad one. I promise!” But, the HTB rule is like a painting left out in the rain – all smudged.

There are several sources of this fog.

Firstly, just what exactly is a prior opportunity? A player who has had prior opportunity to dispose of the ball is treated much more harshly than one who hasn’t. This reflects our intuition that natural justice requires those who gamble to lose when the gamble doesn’t come off. At first glance, that’s all to the good. Rules should reflect our sense of natural justice. It’s just that prior opportunity is to be judged by the umpire as a vague combination of time in possession of the ball, steps taken with the ball, and the freedom for decision that the player’s circumstances allowed. The umpire has to make an almost artistic decision. There is no real metric.

But not all umpires are artists, and even if they were, we would still get a jarring sense of injustice when identical ‘dispossessings’ of the ball are judged oppositely because they occurred one of two steps, or mini seconds, longer after possession, or in slightly heavier of lighter traffic. It gets confusing seeing the same actions being treated differently, and moreover, natural justice demands, does it not, that similar actions should be treated similarly? And yet just a moment ago we agreed selfish showoffs and gamblers should be punished. Our own sense of natural justice is itself conflicted. What hopes does the AFL have?

Another source of fog is the notion of incorrect disposal. Correct disposal is a kick or handball of the football. There is some fog even here – think drop kicks – but let’s not go there. Everything else, you might think, all the droppings, fumblings and dribbles are therefore incorrect disposals. No! It turns out some are more incorrect are than others.

Firstly there is the jarred out football. This is when, provided there has been no prior opportunity, the football somehow leaves the player’s possession like a ricocheting snooker ball. Who can be punished when a most basic law of nature is enacted? If something is hit hard it moves, does it not? Fair enough, it wasn’t your fault. Newton’s third law of law of motion took over.

But you’re not so lucky if the ball just dribbles pathetically down your leg. In that case your own manhood is called into question and your feeble dribbling is deemed an incorrect disposal. The umpires are usually keen to be seen siding with the strong horse – the manly tackler. And this happens, even if you had no period of divine grace otherwise known as prior opportunity.

The most pathetic disposal of all, and most often punished, is the unfortunate case when the attempt at handball results in the ball feebly landing on the punching hand for a second hit, and attempt at respectability. This is deemed girlish in the extreme and given one of the rudest names in football- a throw, when it clearly isn’t a throw, but what does that matter? It does look bad.

If all this mist weren’t enough, visibility has been reduced further in recent years by the rider that a player will be punished for holding the ball if he has somehow contributed to the rugbification of football. This could be termed politically incorrect holding the ball.

The main victims are courageous players who have the temerity to take possession of the ball in times of dangerous uncertainty (when the ball is on the ground and getting dirty is required) and are who are then set upon by their inferiors- the rent seekers who didn’t have the courage and entrepreneurial enterprise to risk possession in the first place.

Even though correct disposal in these circumstances is usually impossible, and even though the football might be now only tenuously linked to our brave hearts in the throng of vultures engulfing them, these pillars of the footballing community are then lumped in with the pathetic ball dribblers and reckless gamblers of opportunity and humbled to the cries of “ball!!!”

So what’s to be done? Well, for a start I think we should accept that we are never going to come up with a consistent, elegant configuration of the holding the ball rule that satisfies all our intuitions about right and wrong in Australian football. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Beauty can be vague, and irrationality can be rewarding. Moreover, there really is no getting away from ambiguity and vagueness . Practically everything smudges at the edges- species, genes, the sexes, colours, art, languages…. Even the classic example of a definable concept- bachelor is a little furry at the edges. If all unmarried men are bachelors, that would make the Pope a bachelor. So what hope does holding the ball have?

That said, I think our sculpturing of the game has got us into a little extra trouble than is necessary with the diving on the ball rider. It has led to outrageous punishment of the ball getter and undeserved rewarding of the obfuscating slackers. I say, simplify things and decriminalize getting the ball.


  1. Pamela Sherpa says

    I’m sure many fans can relate to your frustration Mark. Why has the game come to this point ? Has the speed of the game contributed to this? I feel that the game has been ‘dumbed’ down. Letting 10 people pile on a pack and then simply balling it up is easier than trying to reward the ball getter.

  2. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    I really love this piece Mark, as a public airing of the profundity of vagueness and incoherence.

    Part of what I love about a game of football is the way it enacts the ambiguity and unpredictability of life. And having read your excellent breakdown of the fog around the holding the ball rule, I am more convinced than ever that it must remain hazy and indecipherable (and that we must try to see the umpires as artists).

    Surely we, as spectators, also contribute to the ambiguity of the ‘holding the ball rule’. We call for it, when we know it’s not on. We call for it as a dare, as a plea, as a last resort. We call for it when it’s a sure thing. We rely on the fact that it could go either way and wait for the ump’s arms to fold for the big outstretch. Like you say, feeling it, not grasping it … let alone getting it right.

    We spectators need the rules to be unclear. We bank on our man not being accountable the way their man is. At then end of four quarters, we grasp onto the injustices when they are all that is left. Only on Friday night, a Geelong mate on the other side of the SCG texted me after the final siren – ‘Chappy was tripped.’ I replied, ‘Enright played on (especially if Goodes did).’

    That said, I agree with you 100% about the ball getter.
    Long may the edges be smudged.

  3. Looks like we all agree there.

    I know there’s a lot of work done in philosphy about vagueness and definitions. I’m not really familiar with it. Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance was all about that sort of thing i seem to remember- capturing the definition of quality.


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