The AFL needs a mercy rule

I believe the AFL should implement a “mercy rule” for lopsided games.

When a team is up by 60 points or more at halftime, the game should end.

This might seem drastic, but I think the benefits outweigh the costs… and it could be the solution to “Tanking” that the AFL has desperately searched for!

No dramas, I've got a mate who's a panel beater...

No dramas, I’ve got a mate who’s a panel beater…

I don’t want a Mercy Rule to prevent a player’s feelings being hurt. I have no problem with embarrassed players. That’s fine. That’s professional sports. It’s competitive, and not everyone gets a participation award in professional sports.

But in the AFL these games are largely meaningless after halftime, the only question being one of percentage. No impartial footy fan in their right mind stays glued to the TV when the margin is 10 goals at halftime. The commentators start to get bored and discuss other issues. Fans in the stand start to head home. Bronx cheers become the only time the losing team’s fans get involved.


But AFL is a hard game. It’s physical and tough.

So while fans and media might get bored, that option is not necessarily available to players. Being bored and inattentive in an AFL match is a fast-track to getting badly hurt.

And for many players on the fringe of a team, there is no choice but to give 100% all of the time to ensure they retain their spot.

It makes no sense whatsoever for a 20-year-old first year player to run back with the flight of the ball and be cleaned up by a 100kg Centre-Half-Forward when that 20-year-old’s team is 90 points down with 3 minutes left in the game. They’re putting their health and wellbeing on the line for an absolutely, categorically meaningless contest. The only reason they do it is to impress their coach, but that is not reason enough as far as I’m concerned.

And this man isn't easily impressed...

And this man isn’t easily impressed…

Pay attention next time you’re watching the final minutes of an AFL game when a team is up by 15 goals. Older veteran players who have secured their place in the best 22 run through the motions. They contest the ball, sure, but they’re not crazy… they don’t dive headfirst into packs and are happy to let the ball go out of bounds rather than busting a gut.

But watching the younger players is terrifying. They’re fighting for their spot in the team, so they throw their body around as if their life depended on it. I cringe as I watch them risk serious injury to rack up a precious disposal for their stat count so the coach will be impressed. No-one wants to see a player cop a concussion in the final seconds of a blowout.

Surely a mercy rule would preserve their bodies for contests that actually matter?

Guess which one played a full game of AFL...

Recovery after Mercy Rule Win -vs- Recovery after full AFL match…

If the AFL instigated a mercy rule whereby a game is called off at halftime if the margin is 10 goals or more, you would see this happen only a few times each season…

So far in 2016 there have been only 7 games where this has happened…

  • In round 1 Sydney beat Collingwood by 80 points after leading by 62 at halftime.
  • In round 4 GWS beat Port Adelaide by 86 points after leading by 61 points at halftime.
  • In round 8 West Coast smashed St Kilda by 103 points after they scored 12 goals to just 1 at halftime
  • In round 8 (also), Collingwood beat Brisbane by 78 points after leading by 65 at halftime.
  • In round 19, GWS beat Richmond by 88 points after leading by 62 at halftime.
  • In round 20 Adelaide annihilated Brisbane by 138 points after leading by 64 points at halftime.
  • In round 22 Collingwood beat Gold Coast by 71 points after leading by 68 points at halftime.

So after a 10+ goal margin at halftime, the average final margin is 92 points.



Teams losing by 10+ goals at halftime simply do not fight back. They keep losing, and the margin just grows, and the game fizzles out.

And yet the thrilling prospect of a wild comeback is the reason the mercy rule is often thrown on the trash can. After all, Essendon came back after trailing by 69 points against North Melbourne during the second quarter in 2001, so why can’t other teams be given that chance?!

Well, for starters, that was literally 15 years ago, and it’s about the only example I could find… and Essendon had actually reduced the halftime margin to just 15 points… and even that tantalising potential for a ripping comeback needs to be weighed against the possible BENEFITS of the mercy rule in stamping out tanking.

Yes, a mercy rule could help to stamp out tanking.

Imagine if a team was trailing by 60+ points at halftime and the second half was cancelled under the mercy rule… let’s say it’s Hawthorn (for funsies) losing to Carlton (again, for funsies).

Carlton's happy!

Carlton’s happy!

So Hawthorn lose the match at halftime, lose 4 Premiership points, take a knock to their percentage… hypothetically we could give Calrton a percentage boost as though they’d won by 100 points to be fair to them…

…and now imagine if that “Mercy Rule Loss” for Hawthorn also meant that they were ineligible for a Top 3 pick in the next year’s draft?

Wouldn’t that force teams to be ultra-competitive before halftime, to keep the margin from blowing out?

A coach might play his youngsters, sure, but no coach would risk a deliberately bad gameplan if it risked them losing their Draft rights.

And look at Collingwood this year, both the victim of a lopsided loss, and the beneficiary of a lopsided win!

What if their “Mercy Rule Win” meant you could wipe your slate clear of any previous “Mercy Rule Losses” and you could regain your chances to get a Top 3 pick?

Wooden spoon, but regained our Draft Rights with a Mercy Rule Win in Round 20!

Wooden spoon, but regained our Draft Rights with a Mercy Rule Win in Round 20!

Wouldn’t Collingwood be desperate to smash teams after their “Mercy Rule Loss” in Round 1, leading to more competitive matches and their eventual “Mercy Rule Win” in Round 8?

Wouldn’t any team looking to tank that chalked up a Mercy Rule Loss immediately have to try and win a game with a Mercy Rule Win before the season ended?!

The Mercy Rule could also add a level of excitement to AFL matches.

Imagine a player kicking for goal after the siren at halftime to put his team up by 61 points and to win the game… imagine how spectacular that would be… he’d be saving his teammates from a full half of (largely meaningless, but potentially injurious) match time… and imagine if it was also a kick to Undo a “Mercy Rule Loss” from earlier in the season to regain full Draft rights? High stakes! Exciting for fans! Coaches pushing for that 60 point margin to save a full half’s worth of wear and tear on their own players, while their opposition coach desperately tries to avoid it!

We're 55 points down with 2minutes until halftime... possibly time to rethink strategy...

We’re 55 points down with 2minutes until halftime… possibly time to rethink strategy…


Ultimately, a mercy rule would lead to:

  • more minutes of competitive action
  • fewer boring second halves
  • coaches having to ensure their gameplan and player selections are up to scratch
  • the preservation players’ bodies and a reduction in soft-tissue wear-and-tear injuries
  • an added level of excitement missing from lopsided games.

It is time the AFL seriously considered it as a viable option.


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