As an incorrigible football addict for more than 50 years, I always appreciated Aussie Rules was inherently dangerous with serious potential for pain. The physical contact innate to the code seemed prone to injuries and hurt that other games such as soccer avoided. Wanting to play the game at school, as a female I was of course then unable to but revelled in watching the exciting, albeit physically aggressive play of the males.

Attending matches throughout the 1960s when cameras were mostly non-existent at games, I was simultaneously disgusted at the deliberate violence on the field, both behind the play and sometimes on the ball, too. One field umpire was insufficient to notice all the malicious misdemeanours. These incidents flourished unfettered for decades.

That notwithstanding, I always applauded the tackle as intrinsic to the contest, impeding opposing players as they tried to get away with the ball. Implicit in applying a tackle was a great margin for error as the unpredictability of bodies in motion could manifest a myriad of outcomes. Slipping, sliding or slithering to escape a competitive clutch could often result in inadvertent and unwarranted injury; that was simply the name of the game. Moreover, what was intended to catch a player “holding the ball” was oft interpreted as “holding the man”; such were the diverse perspectives of the man with the whistle and the inherent mercurial nature of a tackle.

The introduction of ‘trial by video’ in the late 1980s whereby violations of the rules could be more clearly identified and with increasing focus on protecting players’ heads from unintended consequences such as concussion, the AFL introduced bans on any deviation that was considered ‘dangerous’ such as “if an opponent (was)…slung, driven or rotated into the ground with excessive force.”

In 2013, attending the Cats V Hawks game in July at the G, I saw Joel Corey crash his head into the turf after a great tackle by Sam Mitchell. Lying still on the ground for what seemed about 10 minutes, I was horrified that Corey might have died. Fortunately, he was just severely concussed (that was bad enough) but Mitchell was not reported or suspended for the tackle. It was deemed admirably fair and legal. Yet, the outcome was devastating for both players and it could have been much worse.

The problem with the tackle is that while the Tribunal guidelines state a tackle can be considered dangerous if it consists of more than one action and/or is of an “inherently dangerous kind such as a spear tackle, (or) if the player being tackled is in a vulnerable position – with specific mention of arms being pinned”, they miss the more salient point that tackling, however well applied, is itself potentially dangerous, players now unjustifiably penalised for a physical reality embedded in the code. To predict what may happen, a la the Corey/Mitchell example, is simply beyond any player and perhaps unreasonable to expect in a physical contact sport.

But should the possibility of injury and/or serious concussion deter players from tackling? The Tribunal’s guidelines clarify what it regards as dangerous, but if players are inhibited from tackling due to causing injury, the excitement and enjoyment of the game will be greatly undermined. Players should not be handicapped by such stringent suspensions for simply trying to dispossess opponents of the ball. It may be a fine line to navigate, but the physical nature of the game demands we do not eradicate tackling because of the risk of concussion, among other things. In a game of pressure, players will be instinctive, impetuous and impulsive sometimes when executing a tackle, well aware how ‘dangerous’ the game can be; albeit at the back of their minds at that time.

They play at their own peril and I’m glad I couldn’t play when I was a kid. Nonetheless, I still love the game and watching a good tackle push an opponent into oblivion, hoping that it remains a key focus of the game’s strategy into the future. Let the cameras catch the culprits for intentional punches and hits not just a well-applied tackle that has the unfortunate consequence of concussion.

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