Football is a game of what-ifs? What if the ball bounced straight for Stephen Milne? What if Richmond kicked straight at the weekend? What if the Tigers took Lance Franklin and not Richard Tambling?
What if Michael Hurley didn’t get up after Dan Hannebery cannoned into his head and neck at the weekend? What if eight years ago Tim Notting not only ended Blake Caracella’s career but his ability to walk?
What if the tribunal three weeks ago didn’t make the wrong decision on Jack Viney? What if the appeals board didn’t make the legally baffling decision to overturn it?
Michael Hurley of the Bombers is attended to by trainers after colliding with Daniel Hannebery of the Swans. Photo: Getty Images
Viney and Hannebery were very different instances, but the lines have now been blurred.
What if players now feel that the equation they are dealing with is not whether they leave another player like Neil Sachse in a wheelchair, but whether they are really only arguing about if they can avoid being suspended?
After Caracella, the law in letter and spirit was changed to demand players abide by a duty of care to their fellow players. In part, this was doubtless driven by a fear of potential litigation. In significant part, it was also driven by a human desire not to have people permanently injured for the mere fact of playing a game.
That duty of care has been eroded in the last three weeks to the point where the AFL's football operations manager, Mark Evans, must call together the match review panel, the tribunal, the players' representatives, coaches and umpires (bearing in mind Hurley incredibly did not receive a free kick for the head-top hit) and reinforce that the very actions that are being debated as seemingly at the edges of legitimate play were actually at the very centre of what was deemed the sort of behaviour the game wanted to stop.
If there is vagueness about what the intent of laws was, then it needs to be made clear. If change is needed to the laws - and there shouldn’t be a need for that - then change them.
The decision by the match review panel on Hurley and Hannebery was not necessarily wrong, but these are semantics. The intent of the law change from 2007 was about safe-guarding, to the game's best ability, a player from being left in a wheelchair - not whether the player can argue a three-game suspension down to two.
Brad Sewell says that blame is not one-sided. He contends that the duty of care runs two ways and Hurley was equally at fault for his wrong-headed approach to the ball.
"You need to look after yourself. You can't leave yourself so open like that," he said. Sewell argued the onus was on all players to protect themselves in the way they attacked the ball.
He is right, the player has a responsibility to protect himself, but equally the game has a responsibility to protect players from themselves and each other.
Joel Bowden, as head of the match review panel, admitted a fortnight ago he took his cue for how he should behave from the decisions of the tribunal and the appeals board.
“We did send [the Viney case straight] to the tribunal to try and get some ... clarity and understanding, and a thorough examination of the facts. When it was upheld at the tribunal and then overturned at the appeal, we have to take that into consideration,'' he said.
Bowden said he had wanted "a result that is transparent, that the public can understand ... then there'll be more clarity around bumps, head contact and the like''.
He said the panel was looking to others to guide it on what the game wanted to consider OK, and it has now taken that cue and applied it.
Evans and the AFL need to reiterate to all parties - but most notably the match review panel and the players - what it expects and demands on the field. Is the league comfortable with players with their head over the ball being hit in the head by a hip in the manner Hurley was?
The AFL can do without another unpalatable what-if if a player ends up in a wheelchair.
“What if we had acted more decisively after Hannebery?”