Please, AFL, what is ‘tanking’? When principles and pragmatism collide

Remember tanking? When that was an issue? It was that thing that apparently Melbourne didn’t do but they, Chris Connolly and Dean Bailey got smacked across the snout anyway. Of course the AFL doesn’t actually have a definition of it because it is not an official term. It’s something that happens on suburban tennis courts when a player is in a hurry to get to the pub.

When asked about it at the time by a bunch of confused journalists, Gillon McLachlan mumbled some stuff about a team performing on their merits and to the best of their ability. So while Melbourne did not deliberately set out to lose any games in 2009, they may not have performed each week on their merits and to the best of their ability.

It is reasonable to question the intent of at least two teams this weekend in this regard.


There is an I in Integrity

The AFL established an Integrity Unit in 2014. The basic purpose of the unit is to ensure that players abide by the WADA code, monitor betting on matches and to more broadly protect the integrity of the competition. This was in response to an Australian Crime Commission report that found in Australian sport, banned substance use was likely widespread and the match fixers were circling.

The idea that comparatively small competitions by world standards like the AFL were somehow naturally protected from the hydra of match fixing was naïve in the extreme. The Integrity Unit’s role in the area of tanking, maybe understandably, is not really addressed – particularly if it does not relate to gambling.

As it does relates to gambling, in the description of Corrupt Conduct the AFL Rules say: “A player, coach, club or club official must not contrive or attempt to contrive or otherwise influence improperly the result of a match or any aspect of a match or any contingency related to an Australian football competition”. Later it goes on to say “In relation to any match, aspect of a match, or pre-match planning and tactics, a player, coach or member of the match committee must at all times perform on their merits”.


Defining tanking

These things all run along the edges and were sufficient for dealing with Melbourne, apparently. But we are no closer to knowing what the AFL actually thinks tanking is. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do I (with the exception of my Dyson), so gratis AFL, here is an attempt at defining tanking:

Any action taken by a player, coach or club official that, in its execution, has the deliberate intent to materially decrease the likelihood of the club winning a match.

Sure, try implementing that… this weekend! But, maybe, just maybe, it’s time to come up with your own definition, AFL. This is a deliberately constructed definition – in the same way that an employer can construct the dismissal of an employee by making their employment untenable. It includes the intent not to win on the ground, in the coach’s box and at the selection table. Some would well argue that this is too broad for tanking. If so, perhaps we need a new term.


Principles v Pragmatism

Debate has raged and fumed and frothed over the team selections of two clubs this week. At the fundamental level these positions are irreconcilable. One group is talking principle while the other is talking pragmatics. To demonstrate, the points made run along the lines of:

· Clubs should try to win every game they play.
· The AFL should be concerned that clubs resting large numbers of fit players harms the integrity of the game.
· The AFL should be concerned that once it endorses, tacitly or otherwise, clubs throwing individual matches, how will it identify and prevent match fixing and the like?
· The fans that have paid for tickets should expect a contest, whether it be Round 1 or Round 23.
· Teams’ finals chances should not be unfairly compromised by the action of other teams resting players.
· The AFL already has a position on this matter in relation to Melbourne in 2009 and should consistently apply concepts of teams playing on their merits.

· Clubs are only interested in winning premierships. Individual games do not matter. It’s the same all over the world.
· Clubs will rest players in dead rubbers if they consider it to be in their best interests. At least if it is done openly it takes the pressure off club Doctors to make up injuries. You cannot stop it.
· This is not about gambling.
· This is victimless. Fans of clubs resting players understand and fans of the other club get to watch their team win.
· There is no way you can construct a draw to prevent this happening.
· This situation is not comparable to Melbourne.

Who is right? Pragmatism and principle have been battling since Dustin Fletcher was a boy – always speaking different languages but still keen for a fight. It’s like an Italian and a German playing Scrabble in Mandarin – one trying to spell ‘should’ and the other puzzling out ‘is’. The Italian thinks the German is naïve and the German thinks the Italian is immoral.

Like any large bureaucratic organisation (not necessarily an insult) the AFL specialises in attempting to avoid getting in fights. This one may be unavoidable.


See how selections have affected the Round 23 prices:

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About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Curly one, D Brown.
    And as long as shady business men are tut-tutting about intent and integrity, it will remain intractable.
    Maybe we’ve lost sight of this as a game.
    It’s a game.
    A sporting competition.
    Of course everyone is trying (“whatever it takes”) to win the flag.
    That’s the KPI isn’t it?

    So self interest rules. No surprise.
    But who’s self interest muddies the water a little.
    Anyone other than the club looks a goose.
    The governing league?
    The individual player?
    The lady paying membership fees and buying an expensive seat?
    The bookie?

    The dominant cultural narrative is ALL around premierships.
    No surprise.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    McLachlan tipped North on the radio this morning, completing his part in the charade.

    North better not go bleating about not getting enough Friday night games – would be interesting to see who they would have served up if it was their home game.

    To steal some of Smokie’s twitter thunder, North are the last team the would want to flirt with form.

    So yes you can be pragmatic if you like North, but if you do, don’t ever try to play the principle card when it suits you. Like fixturing for example.

    And Brad Scott, you’re making yourself look even more stupid with your “we’ll be trying to win” bleating. At least be honest. On second thoughts, it is probably a good idea to ensure that Richmond only beat you by 30 points in the finals next week, rather than perhaps suffer a 60 point loss if you had to go in with tired, sore players. After all, you wouldn’t want your club to lose relevance.

    Freo at least have the “we’ve earnt the right to decide whether we win or lose” argument to go with the Port can’t make the finals argument.

    Also, since we are on about cards, how about the Almost Anything Goes “Joker Round” or the Family Feud “Double Points Round”; at least they knew about the importance of maintaining competitive interest until the end.

  3. This is a non-issue as far as I see it.
    Swish; you seem peturbed.

    Incentive drives behaviour.
    No problem on a longer term perspective of “success”

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    E.r – More annoyed at the all-round hypocrisy and the semantic lengths that all parties are going to rather than the act itself. It’s up to North to be as stupid as they like and I can’t really rail against the notion of self-interest as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences.

    As for the gambling/Brownlow arguments peddled elsewhere – rub of the green.

    I’ve just seen that Adelaide and Footscray have put up their position re the importance of a settled side and I’m more inclined to that view.

    But it does point to the fixturing element of all this – some rubbers are dead, some ain’t, based on who plays who and their ladder positions – obvious I know, but Richmond can’t afford to rest players but North seemingly can.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Must be a week off after last minor round game before the finals,teams won’t want players to have 2 weeks off,have the Brownlow and all other awards done this week.the round has been turned in to a complete and utter farce totally disgusted don’t care that it affects the crows no 1 should bother watching

  6. A 23 rd Home and Away ‘fixture’ in an 18-team comp…

    Arbitrary delegation of priority draft picks…

    Arbitrary (knee-jerk) exclusion of certain teams from Trade ‘Week’…

    Farcical and incompetently prosecuted investigation into the use of PEDs at a leading club…

    Cyril Rioli and Ben McEvoy given ex-gratia permission to play in Box Hill’s VFL grand final side last year despite concrete VFL eligibility rules…

    Some of the MRP’s decisions…

    But North and Freo resting players on the eve of the finals is apparently a threat to the game’s integrity.

    I’m not whacking your article Dave, but this whole issue is such a non-starter and unmitigated bollocks in the context of the way the game is run from Docklands.

  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    On the contrary,Steve I think it is yet another significant add on from your excellent examples of a lot of farcical and incompetent things which continue to happen in the afl

  8. Yes Mark, i heard McLachlan tip North ; it’s obviously his spin on doing as little as possible about this. In many ways teams resting lots of players is a natural progression. In the last few years you might see a side with one or two players left out deemed rested or general soreness. If it’s Ok to rest a few players it’s not a quantum leap to rest so many players you have minimal chance of winning. This sort of selection facade is the ultimate conclusion of ‘resting’ players.
    For as long back as i can recall most of the football world adhered to Denis Pagan viewpoint of not messing with winning form. That no longer seems the case, however it has not paid dividends yet. In this context i’m thinking of Fremantle resting players in the latter part of the last two seasons, but it hasn’t delivered a flag; yet.

  9. As mentioned by Swish, I pointed out on twitter yesterday that North should be the last team looking to flirt with form, as much form as they have that is.
    I don’t like at all this “resting”/”managing” of players, and as a North supporter I’m disappointed that the club is making a farce of tonight’s match – despite all comments from the club and coach to the contrary.
    However, if North gets towelled up tonight and turns the tables on Richmond next week, then Brad Scott is of course a genius.
    But, as Bakes rightly points out, there are so many other “integrity” issues swarming around the AFL at present that this is surely small fry. How are you going to stop clubs from resting players? Get them to supply a doctor’s certificate?

  10. The best teams, the premiership teams, have always had a we’ll play you anywhere, anytime mantra.

    Clearly not the 2015 Kangaroos.

  11. Thanks for the comments, all. What the comments have further crystallised in terms of my thinking is that this issue is so interesting because of the huge difference between the two reactions; from ‘meh’ to ‘this goes to the very core of what footy is about’. Irreconcilable differences.

    ERegnans – as you say, no surprise. My deepest concern is the desire to have some first principles in place – something I feel the AFL avoids because then they would be held accountable to them.

    Well ranted, Swish. I didn’t really touch on the ‘should they make the decision?’ as opposed to ‘should they be allowed to?’ because the answer can only be yes or N/A. I tend towards your view. There is absolutely no evidence in the 15 seasons of the current finals set-up that taking the last minor round off is sufficiently beneficial to lead to a premiership. Doesn’t mean it isn’t – it just shouldn’t be stated as fact.

    No whack felt, Steve. It does leave me with a question though: can you have a degree of integrity or is it more like a light switch?

    An example, Rulebook, where I think the needs of the broadcaster comes before the good of the game. It seems fairly clear now that GMc will use this as an opportunity to ram through that questionable draw idea that would increase the chance that teams have something to play for in the last round but not decrease their desire to manipulate results.

    Yep, Glen, it is a highly speculative argument to this point to claim that resting players leads to premierships. As if that one result in Geelong is sufficient evidence. only 8 upsets have occurred in the 30 qualifying finals under the current system but 6 of them have been by teams travelling interstate. So while not common Fremantle winning in Geelong is not sufficient evidence to prove any case.

    Agree with your comments here and on Andrew’s piece, Smokie.

    Yep, Mickey. From a personal perspective, that’s how I want my club to be.

  12. David Zampatti says

    Fremantle is perfectly entitled to request permission to rest large numbers of their players, and the AFL is entitled to let them do it, because it has no implication for the finals. Its only error is one of omission, in that it should have allowed Port to do the same. How can one team go into a game with a different set of selection rules than the other? Unfair. (In a sense, Port are being deprived of the “right” to LOSE this game on its merits, where a loss would be to its advantage. Supporters of both clubs are also being deprived of interest in the game, which surely would have been there if Port had taken up the offer and rested a pile of their most important players).

    But leave that be.

    North are also entitled to request permission to rest players, because they see it as to their advantage; not because they are trying to lose the game (tanking) but because they want to take a rested team into the finals. There’s nothing wrong with that. The AFL, though, is wrong to grant them permission, because it has significant implications for at least one other team not playing in this game that may reverberate through the final series and could even decide who wins the flag.

    But that’s not why they’re letting North do it. The AFL is a branch of the Victorian Government, its Department of Football, if you will. This cynical, corrupt decision is all about securing another final for Victoria in a year when Subiaco is the anchor venue for the finals and it was possible that six of the finals would be played in other states. That number is now certain to be five, with thousands of South Australians traveling to Melbourne for an elimination final rather than the other way around.

    It’s not Norths that are destroying the integrity of the competition. It’s the AFL.

  13. Bec. Blossomvictory says

    Damn Right, time to get your Ass together AFL Authority!!! — Don’t Play with ‘Words’, it’s Meaninglessss!!! Who is a ‘Coward’??? — Isn’t the Senior Coach of ‘White & Blue’ Very Clear???! — A Game is to compete with Integrity, Not ‘Play for play’ Sake!! End the Story!

  14. Ken Richards says

    What North and Fremantle are doing is within the rules.
    It is not within the spirit of the competition.
    I think it reeks and should be discouraged.
    I thereby place an asterisk on the further progress in the competition of both teams.

    Sharp practice is what I expect from Fremantle. They have form. I do not respect them for it, and will be pleased if the karma fairy smacks them for it.
    North are seemingly new to the practice. We will see how it goes. Tanking round 23 served the Pies well in 2011.

    I do not see the Doggies or Adelaide behaving in the same manner. make of that what you will.

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