Cruel intentions ignored by outcome-focused AFL

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Priorities. Intentions. Contradictions. They're three words which could sum up the issue of how AFL football deals with physical contact these days. And they're being highlighted on almost a weekly basis.

You'll hear them again on Thursday night when the AFL Tribunal sits to consider the case of Adelaide player David Mackay's collision with St Kilda's Hunter Clark, one which left the latter nursing a broken jaw and out of action for up to eight weeks.

Not for the first time recently, it's being viewed as a test case for, as commentator Nick Riewoldt put it on Monday night: "determining the future fabric of the game".

I wouldn't go that far, personally. There's been enough inconsistencies (or yes, contradictions) in football's judicial findings over the years to assume one ruling isn't about to create a precedent which will forever change the landscape of how particular situations are dealt with.

But there's no doubt the AFL is backed into something of a corner on the Mackay case.

Sure, its intent to eliminate serious head injuries as much as it can and take a tough stance on players who cause them is noble. But it also sometimes simply can't be reconciled with how a game involving physical contact and played at a high velocity pans out. And the Mackay incident looks a classic example.

Unlike the Patrick Dangerfield-Jake Kelly clash in Round 1 or Carlton's Lachie Plowman's bump on Hawthorn's Jaeger O'Meara a few weeks ago -- which both resulted in suspensions -- it's a lot more difficult this time to mount a case that what Mackay did was anything other than a completely legitimate football act.

Both he and Clark moved towards a ball in dispute in exactly the same position, both with eyes on the ball, both with their hands outstretched and reaching for it. The St Kilda player got there a micro-second before his opponent Mackay, who instinctively turned not to hurt his opponent, but to protect himself.

If that is to result in any sort of suspension, let alone the three games-plus the AFL's contention that it was "careless", "high" and "severe" would normally grade it, we have a major philosophical conundrum looming.

Because this isn't about "electing to bump" or "duty of care" so much as "no alternative". Mackay simply didn't have one; the realisation that it would be Clark who got there fractionally first and not he came simply too late for the Crow to avoid contact, and that resultant contact was made only as Mackay sought to avoid his own injury.

It took the intervention of AFL football operations manager Steve Hocking to send this to the tribunal, the statement released by the league on Monday claiming: "The AFL acknowledges that such matters do not generally proceed on the basis of the general rough conduct prohibition under AFL tribunal guidelines, hence the direct referral to the tribunal."

In other words: "We know that what Mackay did is OK by the rules, but because Clark got a broken jaw out of it, we have to be seen to be taking a hard line."

While I sympathise with the AFL's big picture aim to protect the head at all costs, tailoring the circumstances to suit that aim is simply wrong and denying the fact that Mackay was doing more sinister than pursuing the ball.

I've long thought that the far greater weight given to the consequence of actions on the field than their intent is wrong. And where the AFL loses me in this philosophical debate is in the sorts of examples it chooses to punish and those it lets off lightly.

Which brings us to another example from Round 13, not for the first time involving GWS veteran Shane Mumford.

There's certainly a growing view among football fans (and I'm with them on it), that Mumford's alleged "clumsiness" has long since become a more disturbing tendency to indulge in cheap shots, well outside the run of play, and often involving players not only left wide open and vulnerable, but considerably lighter and smaller than him.

It's been going on a while, and on Sunday against North Melbourne, "Big Mummy", as commentators still chortle affectionately every time it happens, did it again.

First, he coat-hangered Tarryn Thomas after the whistle had been blown for a free kick. Shortly afterwards, he ploughed into Jy Simpkin, who was helpless on the ground, Mumford's forearm narrowly missing Simpkin's head. The upshot was a mere $1000 fine for misconduct (in the Thomas incident).

Simpkin wasn't hurt. Thomas got up straight away and played on. So with the consequences minimal, there was nothing dealt out but a slap on the wrist with a wet lettuce leaf. But consider for a moment the intent of both Mackay and of Mumford.

The former chases the ball desperately, the single most fundamental act in the game, and when he can't get to it first, tries to make sure he at least isn't hurt. For that, Mackay, hardly a noted aggressor, is somehow looking at maybe a month on the sidelines.

Mumford, meanwhile, picks off a guy running with the ball after the whistle has blown and play stopped. Then "falls" into the back of another opponent, lying on the ground, who can't see him coming. His intent isn't to actually win possession. It's just to hurt someone. Or, it seems, if you're a former player turned caller inevitably guffawing about Mumford's "clumsiness" or how he once ate a lot of sausages, "making 'em earn it!"

If the AFL's priority really is to stamp out serious injuries and make the game relatively safe to play, shouldn't it be coming down a lot harder on deliberate and completely unnecessary acts of cheap thuggery which fortunately somehow didn't cause serious injury, than it does in the case of a genuine accident where the ball was the aim?

Of course it should. Intent is key. It should be recognised as a priority in AFL judicial terms. And not doing so just leads to this sort of contradiction.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.