Wind back the clock two decades or more and if you watched a game of AFL and didn’t see a melee it was thought the teams hadn’t turned up to play.
A melee – most common at quarter time – symbolised the passion and competitiveness of the 36 players on the field.
Fines and suspension reined this behaviour in – somewhat.
When attending a game, just as interesting was watching two players wrestle off the ball. Niggling at each other, taunting with words, pushing and shoving as they watched the play at the other end of the field.
Then there are the moments of absolute bravery. When during the act of play someone was seriously hurt, all because they kept their eyes on the ball.
Think James Hird’s horrific facial injury in 2002. Hird was running with the flight of the ball when he stumbled and fell into the knee of teammate Mark McVeigh, who was running from the opposite direction. He suffered multiple fractures to his eye socket and was forced to stay in Perth (where the game was being played) for a week due to being unable to fly.
You only have to watch one of the pre-match or post-match AFL television shows to see the glorification of the punches. A “ooh” or an “ouch” is followed by laughter as the presenters show a montage of aggression on the field dating back decades or during that round of footy.
Aggressive behaviour is needed in AFL. Teams need an enforcer. Someone to use a physical presence to intimidate a player or team. Afterall, AFL is just as much a mental game as it is physical. But when a player hits another player for no other reason than to cause harm – that’s not in the spirit of the game.
Andrew Gaff was lucky to only get eight weeks. During the speculation surrounding his punishment, many observers commented that physical risk was expected and agreed to by players just by walking onto the field. We don’t want to remove that risk because that is when a magical play or act of bravery can happen. That’s what makes the game so unique. But the injuries should always be a result of bad luck.