HEADACHES inflicted by the ever-increasing speed of football go well beyond those of concussed players and interchange-weary administrators. Umpiring director Jeff Gieschen acknowledged on radio recently that the lines of demarcation between much of what is legal on the field and what isn't have become blurred. The blinding quickness of the "new" game is such as to make it almost un-umpireable.
In seeking to identify why this might be so, Gieschen could do worse than assess his own area of operation. The failure of umpires and their coaches, over many years, to more strictly enforce the rules has contributed to a loss of clarity. As football supporters know only too well, the old maxim "give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile" could have been written for AFL coaches and their players.
When leniency of interpretation becomes standard practice - which it long ago did - players quickly learn to push things to the limit. Umpires become confused as to where to draw the line, inconsistencies are exposed, and before long the law becomes an ass.
An area in which this lately has become evident is that of disposal by hand. As a matter of urgency the AFL laws committee should apply itself to the matter of what constitutes legitimate handball. To not do so will encourage an escalating contamination. The limitation on how the Sherrin can be handpassed - punched with one hand off the palm of the other - is one of Australian football's defining characteristics. But in an ever-accelerating game, this is being corrupted.
Due to the increased speed, many hand disposals are effected in the blink of an eye. Some are legal; many - to the naked eye - appear not to be. It's telling that commentators often refer to players "shovelling" the ball. The elite level of the code is now on a slippery slide towards permitting the throw. It's a slide that will only be halted by decisive action. What in recent seasons had been an occasional event has this year become a regular occurrence.
That players are aware they are being given licence has become clear. In keeping with the non-interventionist style of officiating of many years, overseen by successive regimes, evermore rope has been given to the rule-bender. The umpires appear to take the view that unless they are absolutely certain a handpass isn't legal, they should turn a blind eye.
When time doesn't permit the mechanics of a legitimate handpass, and particularly when the umpire is blind-sided, there is now a trend towards blatantly throwing the ball. Not only can't this be allowed to continue, the game must also find a way of cracking down on the dubious ones.
For not only must justice be done it must be seen to be done. Football is a mass spectator sport and it's imperative that what the fans see is in accord with the fundamentals.
There is a precedent for the sort of intervention being suggested here; namely the outlawing of the flick-pass in 1966. In the days of predominantly one-sided footballers, this weapon was invented by the late Len Smith as a means of enabling handball to both left and right. Under the laws as they were then written, use of the palm to project the ball in a back-handed sweep was perfectly legal.
But it looked too much like a throw, and sometimes was, so the game's lawmakers took action. The new law insisted that for a handpass to be legal, a clenched fist had to be used. Of course differentiating between the flick-pass and clench-fisted handball back then was a simple matter. Drawing the line between what is acceptable and what isn't today is far more difficult.
But that's not the major point. The point is that too much of today's handball - like the flick-pass - looks illegal. It appears, rightly or wrongly, that the ball is being thrown. And if it appears that way, throwing the ball may as well be allowed. But I doubt anyone who cares about the game really wants that, so there has to be stricter policing of handball.
The line should be drawn in a way that players and fans can understand and accept. A simple way would be to adopt cricket's now obsolete law relating to illegal bowling actions. The onus would then be on the player to demonstrate the absolute fairness of his disposal. If the umpire is in doubt he should pay a free kick. Forget about being shown to be wrong by the TV replay: the umpire can simply explain that the disposal was insufficiently clean to be passed. Players would, once again, be forced to handball with care.
Shy away from this issue and the game's blurred lines will become fuzzier still. There will be an ever-growing number of dubious handpasses and a lot more red-hot throws. And if that's what we're going to get, we may as well go all the way and give handball the flick.