Where does the AFL go from here?

hocking

Rules, rules, rules. What are they good for?

Well, according to the AFL, not much.

The constant chopping and changing of ideas, the back and forth on whether they’ll implement zones or starting positions and a general lack of awareness when it comes to what fans want has plagued the controlling body of Australian rules football in 2018.

From past players and coaches such as Malcolm Blight, to current AFL head of football operations Steve Hocking, and the countless number of fans who have Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts; everyone and their dog is having an opinion on what to do next.

Blight’s comments on the state of the game and rule changes come across like a notable scene from an episode of ‘The Simpson’s.’ In the episode titled ‘The Old Man and the Key,’ Grandpa Simpson tries to remain relevant and appear younger, and midway through the episode an article pops up on screen about Grampa Simpson titled “Old Man Yells at Cloud.”

Blight hasn’t played a VFL/AFL game since 1982 and last coached in 2001 but wants to remain in the conversation on a game that has drastically changed since he was last intimately involved.

His statement that “if you don’t like it, resign and go and join the unemployment line” and that “coaches and players should stay out of this discussion” reeks of desperation, and smacks of a man too set in his ways to see the bigger picture.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but that doesn’t mean everyone should share that opinion, and to suggest that the players and coaches involved in the AFL shouldn’t be consulted on possible changes is both idiotic and narrow minded.

No matter what happens next, however, the AFL has already lost the publicity battle.

While rule changes are a necessary part of every game, particularly when it comes to player safety, the way the AFL has gone about what they would call ‘fixing’ the game spits in the face of paying fans, who each week turn up and spend their hard-earned dollars on items ranging from tickets, merchandise and food at the ground.

One such change that has been raised several times has been to move to a 17-5 schedule. Each team plays each other once in the first 17 rounds before being split into three groups based upon ladder positions (top six, middle six and bottom six).

The idea was initially knocked back by club CEOs back in 2014, but recent reports from Channel 7’s Sam McClure suggest that the AFL is still considering the schedule change, citing that there will be no ‘dead rubbers’ in the latter rounds and that all clubs will have something to fight for, whether in contention for finals or not.

The issues with the 17-5 fixture are plenty and doesn’t address the simple fact that no matter who is playing there will always be games that don’t live up to the hype and standard fans want to see.

If implemented, the upset of the season that saw Gold Coast beat Sydney by 22-points in Round 18 over the weekend wouldn’t have happened. Geelong’s heart stopping win after the siren against Melbourne? See ya later.

It also devalues both the clubs and fans whose teams are in the bottom six on the ladder. ‘You’re not good enough to play teams in the race for finals, and as an added bonus your draft pick may be weakened if you win enough games’ is what the AFL would be saying if they moved to the 17-5 fixture.

The idea of not wanting blowouts is logical, as no one turns up to an AFL venue or sits down on the couch to watch an 80-point smashing. But to completely flip the schedule on its head based on possibilities and what could happen is illogical.

With yesterday’s developments that Gil McLaughlin and the AFL are considering trialling new rules in late season games that don’t have “any bearing on the eight,” the league could be setting a dangerous precedent that they can change what they like when they like.

Cal Twomey from AFL.com.au believes “this year’s draft pool features plenty of talent at the top end” and if teams low on the ladder and out of finals contention play worse teams, it could affect their standing come November when the draft rolls around.

It’s not fair on clubs and supporters that instead of getting a top-three pick, which could be used to select a highly talented player or traded to boost a club’s list, their pick now falls at five or six because the AFL wanted to use them as test subjects.

Matthew Lloyd and Cameron Ling lambasted the possible late-season changes, labelling McLaughlin hypocritical and calling for past fines to teams accused of tanking to be handed back.

“This is the same McLaughlin who introduced a bye after Round 23 because he was so disappointed teams were resting players before finals… yet he’s happy to toy with the rules and integrity of the game late in the season himself? I think it’s really contradictory,” Lloyd strongly stated.

Ling backed up Lloyd’s comments on Twitter, adding “every game matters for fans, draft picks and integrity. I hope Melbourne FC are refunded $500,000 and apologies are issued. Every games integrity mattered then, why not now?”

The next three months will be critical in how the AFL is seen both on-field and off. Hocking assured fans earlier this year that mid-season rule changes won’t happen, stating that “any changes to the game moving forward, we’ll actually look at delivering that to clubs and fans (and) the broader competition by October.”

But after today’s announcements and other comments made since Hocking’s declaration, that doesn’t appear likely. If the AFL continues down this path they face the prospect of turning away lifelong fans and setting a precedent of meddling.

No game is or ever will be perfect, and stakeholders in any industry will always have questions or issues at any given time, but that doesn’t give the AFL (or any sport’s governing body) the right to change what they deem fit while a competition season is still ongoing.

What makes sport so great is the knowledge that on any given day, a team on top of the ladder can be knocked off by a team languishing near the bottom. While big upsets are rare, when they do occur it makes them all the sweeter.

If the AFL is to do away with the current fixture structure or change rules when they like, it undermines the integrity of the sport itself and will alienate fans for years to come.

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