#freeviney? I’m not so sure…

People complaining about the Jack Viney decision must have completely missed the last decade of AFL Head Office decision-making.

Former players, journalists, and legions of fans are absolutely livid that Viney copped a two-week suspension for breaking Tom Lynch’s jaw in a bump.

The world’s most controversial cuddle.

There are debates raging about whether Viney bumped, collided, or simply braced himself for impact. Given the fact that Viney himself had his own jaw smashed by Geelong’s David Wojcinski in 2012 (after failing to brace himself for contact), I think it’s safe to say Viney was simply protecting himself this time around

Body mechanic experts can analyse the more recent incident frame-by-frame if they like, but make no mistake: The recent decision was only partly about what actually happened on the park.

The majority of the suspension is due to other factors off the park. He was suspended because the AFL is working to protect the viability of the league for the next generation.

For a major business corporation like the AFL, that means making the game sustainable and reducing risks to reputation. Their priority is not protecting the ‘culture’ of the game and to be honest that hasn’t been a top priority for many years now. They need the AFL to be profitable, and they need to harvest growth. While the words “product” and “brand” make many fans and players cringe, for AFL Head Office they are crucial.

They rightly believe their ‘product’ is attractive when played a certain way (hence the changes to interchange and stoppages). They also believe their ‘brand’ is more resilient and stable than what’s on offer from the NRL or A-League (their only real rivals in Australia). Any threat to the product or brand needs to be addressed.

Brand

So while former players and commentators will rant that dangerous head-high bumps are ‘just part and parcel’ of the game, the AFL obviously disagrees.

The people arguing that the AFL only acted because Tom Lynch’s jaw was broken are spot on. Had Lynch taken the bump and been uninjured, we wouldn’t have heard about this incident again.

That indicates just how much this is actually about public perception, and not about the actual incident.

The NFL is facing huge lawsuits over concussions. Rugby players from both forms of the game are ending up in wheelchairs because of dangerous tackles. Sports around the world are doing everything they can to reduce the risk to their players.  Because, you know, players are people. They’re not robots. They get hurt. They get BADLY hurt. And they can actually die.

Would a single person be complaining about the suspension if Tom Lynch’s skull had been fractured and he’d died on the field of play? I don’t think so.

But extreme arguments like that one, while relevant, are not the main reason that the AFL has cracked down (unapologetically) on bumps that cause injuries.Even without the human tragedy that is possible anytime someone plays almost any sport, the AFL also has to consider other factors.

For the AFL, public perception is ma$$ively important.

You didn’t actually expect things to change, did you?

The game… the PRODUCT… is most attractive when it is free-flowing + goal-scoring + high-mark-taking + fast-paced.

Note that the bump is not a part of that equation. It might be beloved by the older fans, but for the AFL Head Office, the bump is a remnant of an older, less-attractive form of the game.

The AFL wants new fans, potential fans, and parents around Australia watching Geelong vs Hawthorn, not any uglier alternative.

Does the bump attract a single new fan for the AFL? I’d sincerely doubt it, since anyone attracted to the ‘bump factor’ would be more drawn to rugby.

Does the bump attract junior players to sign up for AFL instead of soccer? Well, more people play soccer than AFL at a junior level, and the gap is widening… so… no.

Does the bump endear AFL to potential fans in NSW/QLD? Any time spent in those states will tell you that diehard NRL fans will never embrace AFL… and an attractive ‘product’ is key to winning over the uncommitted.

The AFL knows that junior participation is a key battleground and for junior players to enrol they need parents onside. This point has been made before, usually by people who sarcastically lament the ‘noncontact’ nature of modern AFL football. But for the AFL, a huge business, it knows that the rougher elements of the game are not key to their ‘product.’

Seriously please stop using those words!

Sacrificing the ‘bump’ because 1% of the time it causes an injury and damages the AFL’s reputation with parents, then that is a small price to pay as far as the AFL is concerned. Remember, it is not a key element of what the AFL considers to be the game’s major selling points.

So then, back to Jack Viney… the victim of a more modern approach from the AFL.

Viney would’ve gotten away with his bump a decade ago when the AFL was just embarking on its major overhaul, but in 2014 the AFL is peeking over its shoulder at soccer, it is looking at lawsuits in the NFL, and it is looking to reduce any risk to its reputation and its growth.

Commentators can rant and rave about the AFL going ‘soft’ but ultimately this anti-bump trend has four very clear purposes:

  1. Protecting players
  2. Keeping the ‘product’ attractive enough to bring in new fans
  3. Boosting junior participation rates by keeping parents onside
  4. Mitigating the risk of lawsuits down the track

And… to be honest… I see the merit in that. It would have been stupidly stubborn for the AFL to simply accept that ‘dangerous collisions and injuries just happen in our beloved game.’

Hardcore AFL fans will continue to watch the AFL, regardless of any minor rule changes or ‘cultural shifts’ and the AFL knows it. They will cop their barrage of criticism and the turnstiles will keep ticking over regardless.

You could vote with your feet… but you probably won’t… and the AFL knows it.

The AFL League Office is tasked with the long-term viability of the code. That is a huge job, and one that requires some tough calls about culture and history. Machismo had a role to play in the AFL for many years, but not anymore.

RIP Bump. You may be missed by many, but there’s a good chance the game will be better off without you.

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