It’s clear that Thursday night’s AFL Tribunal hearing into David Mackay’s rough conduct charge has the potential to divide the football community and spur change, regardless of the result.
The league has deemed that the Crows utility “carelessly engaged in rough conduct” that was “unreasonable in the circumstances” when he collided with St Kilda’s Hunter Clark in the second quarter of their game at Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns.
Plenty of fans, pundits and current and former players say that if this is not thrown out by the Tribunal it will mean a fundamental change to the game.
The physical act of contesting the ball, which happens 200-plus times a game, involves two or more players committing to seeking possession.
The contested possessions number is seen as a key stat in determining the outcomes of games, and coaches and players put a high priority on getting hold of the footy and denying it to their opposition.
Implicit in that is that there is likely to be contact, and where there is contact, there may be injury, particularly at high speed. If players have to factor in accidental injury, traditionalists argue, then Australian rules football will have crossed a line.
There is already a duty of care in tackles — the league has made clear its desire to “protect the head” and has acted to stamp out sling actions and other dangerous tackles, but the area being looked at this week is not the tackle.
In the incident on Saturday night in Cairns, both players were trying to get the football.
It became clear at some point that Clark would get to the football first, and Mackay turned his body and left the ground before colliding with the St Kilda player.
These sort of split-second decisions are part of the game — the question is whether the league wants players to consider making different decisions than the ones that have become almost automatic in the heat of a game.
Speaking on ABC Grandstand since the incident, former Swans players Ryan O’Keeffe and Tadhg Kennelly both gave their view.
“It was a fair crack at the ball. Unfortunately, someone got hurt,” O’Keeffe said.
The AFL said it will argue that “regardless of whether Mackay was (1) contesting the ball, (2) bumping Clark or (3) both, he still contravened the general prohibition on unreasonable conduct (including in contesting the ball)”.
This may indeed be a literal game-changer.
For some, it may be the final step too far after numerous moves to change the way the game is played.
But times do change and move on. Sports all over the world are having to make startling decisions as they come to terms with the scourge of concussion and the impact of other head knocks.
In soccer, the English FA is trying to reduce headers in junior sport, saying kids should not be taught to head the ball until they are at least 12, and saying that under-16s should be exposed to headers a maximum of 10 times a week.
Is the header seen as part of the fabric of that game? Surely, yes.
While we may not know everything — we may not even know a lot — about the true impacts of concussion and head knocks for athletes, we are learning more every day.
Lachie Plowman’s suspension for his bump on Jaeger O’Meara in an aerial contest caused outrage in some AFL circles, and a ban for Mackay would add to the fury.
In Plowman’s appeal hearing, appeal board chair Murray Kellam said:
This question now arises in terms of a contest — despite the section of the Tribunal guidelines that discusses permitted contact, including: “for example legally using a hip, shoulder, chest, arms or open arms, providing the football is no more than five metres away”.
Looking at the case in point — Mackay left the ground, he connected with Clark and the collision left the Saints’ emerging star with several fractures to his jaw, requiring surgery.
It may not have been intentional or malicious — the Adelaide man’s aim was first to get the ball and later to protect himself — but his headlong attack on the ball surely added to the potential impact of any collision.
Match Review Officer Michael Christian saw nothing wrong with the incident — but AFL football boss Steve Hocking disagreed, sending it straight to the Tribunal.
The Crows player is a fair chance of being cleared on Thursday night, but if he is, it may well force the league’s hand.
If the scales of football are to shift, however, then the onus will be on all in the game to act.
The AFL will need to make clear exactly what it is that they want to eliminate, and take identifiable action.
The coaches will have to alter their advice to players and potentially take a more understanding view of players who use more caution.
And players — both current and former — may have to accept a new norm where duty of care to opponents has as much weight as the traditional imperative to be ferocious at the footy.