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Off-field wins? No tanks, AFL

Date

Tim Lane

THE AFL has, in the past week, introduced its new ''Anti-Tanking Priority Draft Pick Rule''. Concerned at teams being stuck in a cycle of failure, but aware of the damage done by the tanking debate to the standing of priority draft picks, the league will now make its own judgments.

In a statement informing the football community of the new process, the league's football operations manager, Adrian Anderson, confirmed that ''special assistance'' is now ultimately a matter for the discretion of the AFL Commission. Priority draft picks will no longer be earned, if that's the right word; they'll be granted.

Anderson's statement explained that a formula, established in conjunction with Professor Jeff Borland of the University of Melbourne, had been developed to assist in objectively measuring recent team performance. This will be used ''as a relevant consideration in determining whether the Special Assistance Rule should apply''.

What other, less objective, considerations might exist in the case of any team under review wasn't stated. The next words in Anderson's release were: ''The formula is confidential.''

The reason for the lack of transparency is clear: when clubs knew the rules relating to priority draft picks, they could potentially manufacture their performances to go under the bar. The possibility that tanking existed created a smell. The AFL insisted the air was clear, but thousands of football-goers holding their collective noses couldn't be treated as conspiracy-sniffing fools forever.

So the process is now to be taken behind closed doors, effectively into the realm of faceless men and women.

The reason for this is apparent, but the response is wrong. Not only is it an inappropriate measure, it is a dangerous one. It is to say to the entire football community: ''Trust us. We're from the AFL.'' It is also to enshrine the certainty that the judgment and objectivity of every future AFL administration can be relied on. This sort of uncontrolled power, without check or balance, is out of kilter with the standards reasonably expected in Australian life.

The process will be invisible and, notwithstanding Professor Borland's mystery formula, subject to arbitrary adjudication. And the final arbiter, the commission, is the body entrusted with establishing future directions for the game. It has now given itself a tool capable of tilting the playing field to advance its preferred directions.

In an era of expansion of the code in which some clubs take on a greater value than others to what is seen as ''the good of the game'', the commission can't possibly be seen to be without interest in the progress of certain clubs. And bear in mind that expansion is not a short-term process. The Swans and Lions are still works in progress after more than a quarter of a century. The AFL itself admits the newer teams are projects requiring decades of commitment.

And the decisions the commission makes about special assistance won't just be about which clubs receive it, they will also be about which ones don't. While the current AFL administration has for some time supported the maintaining of 10 teams in Victoria, this hasn't always been the case, nor might it always be in the future.

Imagine the lack of trust in this process had it applied in the mid-1990s when Fitzroy was struggling both on and off the field. Imagine the impossibility for an AFL Commission of dealing objectively with a situation where a club it felt had no future in its current form actually qualified for special assistance.

In 2006, the AFL Commission demonstrated the lack of limitation it perceived to its powers when it overturned the result of a match, achieved - within the Laws of Australian Football - on the ground. That decision was taken to provide a publicly acceptable outcome to an embarrassing on-field debacle.

But it was wrong. As former international cricket boss Mal Speed said of the ICC's decision to overturn the result of a Test match between England and Pakistan in the same year: ''It was a terrible decision because it set a dreadful precedent: matches could now be decided in the boardroom rather than on the field or by the standing umpires.''

It's hard to know whether to be more alarmed by the content and ramifications of the AFL's extraordinary new rule or by the subsequent lack of questioning of it. Here we have a professional sporting competition, made up of constituent clubs and their financial members, and the central administration is giving itself freedom to advantage any one, relative to the rest, of its own volition, without disclosure.

Lest this be taken as a slight on the integrity of any individual or of the organisation as a whole, it should be stated that a rule such as this, available in the future to any AFL administration (good or bad) is simply inappropriate.

Sports administrations exist to manage their competitions in a way easily understood and with maximum transparency. This rule flies in the face of that fundamental objective.

It gives the impression of an administration treating the competition as its plaything.

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