ESSENDON great Matthew Lloyd fears players risk becoming quadriplegics unless the AFL takes immediate action and stops awarding free kicks to those who deliberately charge at an opponent head first.
Debate over free kicks for head-high contact escalated yesterday over decisions awarded to players who turn legal tackles into free kicks by dropping their shoulders or knees, forcing the tackler's arms to slip up to the neck or head, and to those who duck their head and charge directly at an opponent.
Lloyd cited Hawthorn's Cyril Rioli and St Kilda's Lenny Hayes as culprits of the latter on Saturday night, while Geelong's Joel Selwood and several West Coast players, including Luke Shuey and Selwood's brothers Adam and Scott, were regularly guilty of dropping their shoulders or knees.
Players have increasingly looked to take advantage of the head-high interpretation since 2007 when the AFL toughened rules on front-on contact to protect a player who has his head over the ball. AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou has referred to the head as ''sacrosanct''.
Laws of the game committee member Kevin Bartlett yesterday told The Age he was troubled that players had the impression that the way to draw a free kick was to lead with their head and barge into contact. And Luke Darcy, on the laws committee until a year ago, said it was unfair that players who lowered their bodies won free kicks.
But fellow committee member Leigh Matthews said the simple answer was for players to get in first to the ball, and that in general the play-maker should always be more protected than the tackler.
Umpires boss Jeff Gieschen and league operations manager Adrian Anderson were unavailable for comment last night. But AFL spokesman Patrick Keane said: ''Umps continue to be told to pay a free if there is significant high contact.''
Lloyd called for immediate action. He said the AFL could not wait until the end of the season to adjust its interpretation.
''You have to make sure you differentiate between players who, like Selwood, drop their knees, and roll their shoulders in which their [tacklers'] arms come up high. That is a technique-type thing,'' he said.
''But this [charging in] is a really dangerous tactic players are employing where it's hard on a tackler but they are putting their own health at risk as well.
''The AFL has done the right thing by protecting the head. Now they have to make a statement on players who are using their heads to exploit the rules and who are getting closer to a serious neck injury.''
Asked if there was a growing danger this tactic could lead to quadriplegia, Lloyd said: ''No doubt. For a free kick, players are willing to do anything, including getting bashed in the head. It's definitely within this AFL season that they need to step in, and not wait until the end of the year.''
Bartlett also said there was a significant difference between two actions adopted by players. The first was the Selwood shrug out of a tackle, which ended up getting the player high - he said this was legitimate and a matter for the tackler to address.
But he was troubled by the idea of players leading with their heads and initiating contact in the hope of drawing a free kick.
''The thing we need to be careful about is we don't want to give the impression that if you put your head down and run into people then you get a free kick when you initiate the contact,'' Bartlett said.
He said the laws of the game committee would no doubt discuss the issue at its next meeting. While he believed the present ducking-of-the-head provisions should be sufficient for umpires to interpret conduct, if they felt rules needed clarifying or tightening the committee would look at it.
Bartlett said it was important not to confuse a wrong umpiring decision with a wrong rule. The umpire had made an error in awarding Rioli a free for barging, head down, into Dean Polo. While high contact was made and even though Polo was not stationary at the time, Rioli initiated contact.
Former Western Bulldogs ruckman Darcy questioned whether the Eagles were playing in the right spirit. ''When you put rule changes in place, players adapt really quickly and the Eagles have developed this ability to lower their shoulders, raise their arms and draw head-high contact,'' he said on the AFL website.
''The question is: do we think this is in the spirit of the way the game should be played? There is a rule that says if you duck your head then the free kick won't be played. I just feel as though this is a version of that.''
But Eagles captain Darren Glass said the Eagles did not train to shrug tackles. The controversy was a ''non issue''. The Eagles have had 52 more free kicks than their opponents this season.