Illustration: Mick Connolly
MELBOURNE and Adelaide are facing punishments for misdeeds that, in AFL jargon, ''compromise the integrity of the competition''. We think one was trying not to win, while the other was trying not to lose someone - a vastly overpaid player.
So, they did what they - stupidly - thought had to be done. These clandestine dealings didn't remain in the vault, since, as Benjamin Franklin sagely noted, three people may keep a secret, ''if two of them are dead''.
Melbourne is accused of seeking to exploit one of the AFL's two ''pillars'' - the draft; the Crows of messing with both draft/trading rules and the other great edifice that is supposed to ensure equality, the salary cap.
In the middle of these scandalous events, the AFL released what used to be called ''the draw'', but, tellingly, these days is referred to as ''the fixture''. Melbourne and Adelaide, funnily enough, were handed fixtures that were favourable from an on-field viewpoint. In Melbourne's case, the schedule wasn't so financially helpful, though it retained that Queen's Birthday cash cow against Collingwood.
The fixture seems to have stealthily become the proverbial ''third pillar'' of an equalised competition on the field, while at the same time being the source of great inequality off it. Over time, everyone has been conditioned to the notion that it's OK for bad teams to have easier draws than top sides. Why?
There is not another major competition in the world that handicaps the better teams to the extent that the AFL does. It doesn't happen to Manchester United, nor to the New York Yankees. (The NFL does this to a much lesser extent).
The AFL and the clubs need to step back, look at the fixture and place on-field fairness first.
I understand that with 18 teams and 22 games, there are bound to be unequal outcomes, but why is the marketing cart so obviously 10 lengths ahead of the ''integrity of the competition'' horse?
Consider first the AFL's ''welfare division'' of last season's bottom third, where the hapless Demons reside with the two expansion teams, the Bulldogs, Brisbane and Port Adelaide. These clubs won't play on the coveted Friday night time slot next year. Only the Lions have a Friday night game, against Collingwood, because Channel Seven has paid for games that will give it high ratings. These teams won't, so they don't play Fridays.
The Dees, Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney all play one another twice, an arrangement that will help all of them win more games than they otherwise would, but which makes it harder to make money.
The Suns, indeed, play only teams in the bottom six twice; the Lions have the Suns, Dogs and Dees twice each, Port has GWS and Gold Coast twice. The poor Dogs have been dudded, relatively speaking, since they've been given only Melbourne twice and have return games against tough teams Adelaide, West Coast and Richmond, yet they aren't getting much box office compensation.
Meanwhile, at the business end of the ladder, Hawthorn has been dealt a fixture that the club's marketing department will be slapping its thighs about, but Alastair Clarkson will not.
The same goes for Collingwood, which, in a football sense, is hoist on its own blockbuster petard. The Hawks play five finalists twice. Once again, they will have to be awfully good to make the top four and have an awful season not to make a pile.
North Melbourne's fixture was so favourable last year, football-wise, that it really had to make the eight. This year, the Roos will need to improve significantly to hold their ground, given they have four finalists twice, including three from the top four. But, as the eighth team, they've graduated from the welfare slots to have the opportunity to make money, with three Friday nights and home games against the better drawing half dozen Victorian teams, bar Essendon.
If we are talking about fairness, we must be fair too. The AFL, to a large degree, shapes the fixture according to what the clubs want, and the clubs want to make money. Chief executives who present flow charts to sponsors have to show membership, audience reach and media exposure - all of which are augmented by a fixture that pits their team against high drawing/top teams.
The league has never pretended that the fixture isn't compromised, either. Andrew Demetriou's consistent line has been that, despite all the anomalies and travesties, the best four teams somehow, mysteriously, find themselves in their rightful spots in the top four.
Demetriou's statement is one of hope, rather than fact. On the whole, it's true that the very best teams usually find a way. But we may be entering ''even'' times - without a Geelong-style super team - and it cannot be said that the fixture doesn't influence the outcome of the premiership.
This year, precious little separated first from sixth or seventh. Sydney lost three of its last four home-and-away games, yet won the flag. Geelong beat the Swans in round 22, but had no double chance and went out of the finals in week one.
Teams who make the top four beating those below them, once the finals are under way, is a self-fulfilling outcome. Collingwood had the advantages of home field and two extra days break against West Coast, which, with a touch more luck, was good enough to make a grand final. A more taxing home-and-away fixture can exhaust a team. Increasingly, the fresher and fitter side is prevailing at the end of an enervating season.
How can these compromises to integrity be reduced? Readers like the idea of conferences (I don't), or, more feasibly, of dividing the previous year's ladder into thirds and allocating the five return games into 2-2-1 splits. This certainly has merit, though it would perpetuate the idea that the bottom six have an easier draw than the top and middle six. It might work next year, but every so often a team will underperform, due to injuries/coaching problems (see Adelaide 2011), then receive a soft draw that compromises the ladder's pointy end.
The fixture ought to at least try to be the set-weights Derby, not the Cup, where the best horse carries the most weight.