What an appallingly run competition the AFL is.

Nobody really talks about it. We all love footy, so the AFL must be doing great.

In reality, if the AFL was a suspect we’d dragged in for interrogation, questioning would uncover a record that would condemn them as, at the very least, dubious.

Where do we start?

Most recently, we have the debacle surrounding Charlie Cameron’s sling tackle when Brisbane played Melbourne. Who knows what’s a punishable dangerous tackle and what isn’t? Certainly not us, the fans, watching the game. Or the media, who are perplexed over the AFL’s interpretation. Or the players themselves.

Which leaves… well, nobody – except for the AFL, of course.

On top of that, we have Cameron’s ‘good character’ endorsement, although if we examine his record, there’s not a lot of good character about it as far as football indiscretions go. Cameron has collected a string of fines for rough conduct over the years; surely that should’ve nullified any character testimonials, but apparently not.

This isn’t a shot at Cameron, because we’ve seen decisions the Tribunal has that baffle us repeatedly over the years. One player is punished, another is cleared and another isn’t even cited, although their incidents are almost identical. How often has this happened?

But that’s the AFL’s credo: when in doubt, baffle.

What’s a below-the-knees free kick? Who knows? Sometimes it’s paid, and other times it’s given as a free kick for high contact. Sometimes, the player diving in is the only person making a play for the ball, and an opponent comes bumbling in and trips over them like they’re auditioning for some slapstick skit.

It’s an awful blight, and despite the whole rule remaining ambiguous ten years after being brought in, the AFL refuse to provide, or enforce, any clarity.

We still have the ludicrous ruck infringement rules; nobody knows which way these decisions will go at any point in time – surely a situation that should demand explanation, but instead the AFL has turned it into less than an oddity, a circus freak that nobody bothers to pay see anymore.

How about the goal review? How much fun is it watching blurry, inconclusive, often-compromised footage? The Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination is more enlightening, and that was shot on an 8mm-home-movie camera in 1963. Technology has advanced a little since then, hasn’t it?

Andrew Dillon.

AFL CEO Andrew Dillon. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Would it be so hard to put some extra cameras up – like, possibly, on the behind posts? Why not string a camera above the goal line? We have one camera riding the ground like a flying fox already.

Or how about cameras in the stands behind the goals? It isn’t that hard, and SHOULDN’T be that hard, for a billion-dollar industry to develop a more workable system.

So many of the rules have little to no consistency. Spare me the rebuttal that it’s a hard game to umpire – it isn’t really. What’s hard for the poor umpires is the number of amorphous interpretations resulting in no standard to which they can operate. How can you expect consistency when the interpretations themselves are constantly shifting, not only from season to season, but quarter to quarter?

But this isn’t just about the rules, as mucky as they are. How about the fixture? Round Zero? Who’s bright idea was this?

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We have clubs who play each other twice before they play others once. How long has that gone on? Where is the logic in it?

Obviously, you’re never going to have absolute parity given it’s a national sport played across the country in various stadiums over different times and different days, but there’s not even an attempt at logic.

Here’s something else: how many clubs have appeared flat after a series of five- and/or six-day breaks? Most recently, St Kilda imploded against the Dogs after first a six- then a five-day break leading in. Melbourne did it against Brisbane. Collingwood did it against the Saints.

It’s hilarious that the AFL claim to prioritise the well-being of the players, cap rotations, introduce subs and all their other superfluous rubbish, only to then shoehorn them into an insane, rigorous, unrelenting schedule that they obviously cannot endure. The performances themselves don’t lie.

The AFL’s priority simply seems to be that more is better – just like they rapidly expanded the AFLW until they diluted the league and undermined clubs that had been trying to build competitive lists over an extended period.

James Aish speaks with the umpires.

James Aish speaks with the umpires following a controversial late decision in Fremantle’s loss to Carlton. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The league have likewise attempted to bring in equalisation measures, from the draft to the salary cap to recent bailout packages for struggling clubs, to even the odds.

How has that worked? Well, let’s see: since 2001, Geelong and Hawthorn have won four flags each, while Richmond and Brisbane have won three. Throw in Sydney, West Coast, and Collingwood, who have won two each, and that’s 20 out of 22 flags shared between seven clubs. Wow – the equality is staggering.

In fact, I’d argue there’s greater INequality because of the mechanisms that have been implemented to create, regiment, and perpetuate this facade. Previously, if you wanted a quick turnaround, you’d buy and trade for players. That hardly works anymore – if you’re not contending in today’s game, then you have to bottom out and go through a lengthy rebuild, where success is contingent on getting draft picks right.

What’s more, we have the most inequal equalisation policies in the world. Theoretically, the lower you finish on the ladder, the better your draft pick, which should amount to a better chance in getting a gun player, right? Except now there are Academy picks and a draft points system which totally compromise the integrity of the draft.

People criticise the father-son rule, but at least that has a romanticism attached to it. These other devices are just legalised loopholes.

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The Bulldogs finished seventh in 2020 and netted the number one pick in the draft, and access to the widely acknowledged best player in the land in Jamarra Ugle-Hagan. Wait, what? That’s not a shot at the Dogs – they’re working the system like every other club is. But if you’re going to allow this to happen, you’re undermining the very systems you introduced to promulgate equality.

We have compensation for free agency that makes absolutely no sense. We punish well-run clubs and claw them into the pack, and then throw more and more help – and draft picks – at terribly run clubs who have unravelled thanks to their own short-sightedness or ineptitude. How’s that work?

Why have the AFL built a system that punishes you for being proficient at your job, and rewards you for being gloriously inept?

I’ll use North Melbourne as an example – they’ve gone through coaches, chopped too many senior players, and now they’re struggling. If the AFL wanted to help them, then implement a better administration, or an overseer.

Nope. They’ve chosen to keep pumping the best kids in there until that inflates their standing. When does it stop? The picks they’ve gotten now won’t genuinely pay off for two, three, or four years, but instead of waiting we’re just going to pump more talent into them.

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If this was your business, would you be happy with all these problems, with the lack of accountability, with the constant rationalisations? Or would you want every possibility exhausted to fix these issues and assure your partners and consumers that they’re getting the best product imaginable?

The AFL really is a terribly run competition and has been all throughout the 2000s, rife with murky decision-making, inconsistent standards, novice administration, and unaccountable governance that nobody dares question for fear of being issued a ‘please explain’ or turned into a pariah.

Somebody will, of course, point to the game (allegedly) being stronger than ever – to crowds numbers rising, television deals growing more lucrative and the league’s coffers filling more and more with every passing year.

Wow. So you took the national game in a country with a growing population during a time broadcasting has tapped into new means, and the game has gotten bigger? Whoever would’ve thought that was possible?

These issues, and others, wouldn’t be hard to address, but they won’t be. We’ll complain, complain, complain… and then just accept it, like living down the road from a train station being bothered by the sounds of public transport until they become nothing more than white noise to us.

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It becomes our new normal, even when it’s consistently anything but.



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