Tim Lane July 22, 2012
A PROBLEM with the AFL's judicial system, exposed again in the past week, is its mindlessness. A series of boxes to be ticked or crossed - no matter that it be in the hands of humans - will inevitably know too little nuance.
Even if Jack Ziebell was guilty of rough conduct in his collision with Aaron Joseph, the four-week penalty was too severe. Seen both in isolation and in the context of similar breaches, the punishment doesn't fit the crime. A week earlier, Sharrod Wellingham took his eye off the ball and broke Kade Simpson's jaw: a palpably more serious breach. Yet, after the boxes had spoken, he walked away with three weeks.
How can these two outcomes, side by side, be seen to be just? This business of Wellingham's three really being five, and Ziebell's four being three if he'd taken the early plea, is mere obfuscation. Try telling St Kilda fans, when Wellingham lines up against the Saints in a fortnight, that he really got five weeks.
Ziebell collected Aaron Joseph hard and high, and once those boxes were ticked he was in trouble. The fact that he left the ground as he went for the ball gave the impression he had an alternative. Thus the hard-head from Wodonga was condemned to three weeks with an early plea. To get what they felt was justice, the Kangaroos had to risk the full four weeks. The tick in the box marked ''Negligent'' was always going to be hard to erase.
So it fell to the tribunal - the human face, but in this case only a face - to ultimately decide whether the North player had acted negligently or not. Black or white. Four weeks or exoneration. All duck or no dinner. Heads or tails; which is often how it appears.
The judgment was that Ziebell did have an alternative and his action constituted negligence. The match review panel's verdict stood. With the early plea forfeited, he was out for four.
If the penalty had been a week, or even two, the backlash would have been low level. But the mindless process is too rigid because Adrian Anderson's jigsaw puzzle has an important piece missing. It's what umpires in another era referred to as Rule 34. That was when there were 33 rules in the book. Rule 34 - the rule of common sense - was regarded as the most important of all. But the freedom to exercise it has largely been stripped from today's umpires and judicial automatons.
What the match review panel and the tribunal might have considered in the Ziebell case, were they empowered to do so, was the matter of circumstance: the degree of difficulty for the player in balancing his requirement as a competitor for his team with what is permissible under the laws. And doing it all within a three-dimensional, high speed, hostile environment, in a fraction of a second.
They might have pondered that the umpire - Justin Schmitt - called for a throw-in, explaining to players: ''He just went the ball!'' Also, that panel chairman Mark Fraser, in delivering his assessment of negligence, acknowledged Ziebell was looking at the ball.
This was such a difficult incident to assess with certainty. On the balance of probabilities, the case for negligence might have tipped the scales at 51 per cent. But the panel is not permitted discretion. A 51 per cent likelihood gives the same outcome as 99 per cent and in this case that outcome was a four-week suspension.
The number of major contradictions between umpires, the panel and the tribunal this year is evidence of a system struggling to present a credible face to the public. It also speaks of a game whose greater speed is causing judgments to be blurred. This suggests that, in some line-ball circumstances, indulgence should be granted to players.
This season, excluding the Chris Judd case, which went straight to the tribunal, the match review panel has delivered seven penalties of three weeks or more. While six of the incidents giving rise to these occurred under the full gaze of field umpires, in only three of them were free kicks awarded to the victim.
In two of the six instances - involving Taylor Walker and Lindsay Thomas - free kicks were actually awarded to the player adjudged guilty by the panel. Thomas' suspension was subsequently overturned by the tribunal (not the only instance of this occurring in 2012). In the final case - Ziebell's - the umpire demonstrably believed no free kick was warranted.
We're talking here about the incidents adjudged the most serious this year. Yet the game's arbiters have been in disagreement - diametrically opposed in two cases - on half of them. If umpires, who are trained observers of the physical contest, are capable of misjudging such high-speed incidents, how difficult is the task of combatants to tread the fine line?
In a game that is less black and white than ever, players' actions are being assessed as though the opposite were the case.