Inside footy’s ‘court’ room

rachel-buchanan-thumb Dr Rachel Buchanan

A version of this opinion piece was first published in The Sunday Age on 13 September, 2009

The story is sitting in front of me with his long legs stretched out underneath a desk. The story is just shy of six foot six. The story is wearing a slim-cut brown and yellow pin-striped suit and winklepicker shoes. The story has a number 2 haircut, a chunky watch and a fat silk tie. The story is graceful, quiet, handsome, bored. The story fidgets. The story scratches his nose, steeples his fingers, jiggles his leg. The story is 22 and he goes out with someone called Kaisa Z.

The story is Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin and he is a star spearhead for the Hawthorn Football Club. The story is that last Saturday, in a clash between the Hawks and the Tigers at the MCG, Franklin’s body collided with the body and head of his opponent, Ben Cousins, and Cousins was knocked out.

On the Monday, after looking at footage from up to 20 TV cameras, the AFL’s match review panel charged Franklin with rough conduct.  Now it is Tuesday night and Franklin is challenging this decision at the AFL Tribunal. That is the story and I am here to listen as it unfolds in a white room in the basement of Etihad Stadium.

My role is unclear. I used to be a journalist but now I am an academic. I teach young people how to tell stories in a journalistic style. I have two of these young people with me tonight. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here. Normally, only accredited footy media are allowed to go in. There are 1500 people with this accreditation but no more than 35 uncomfortable teal plastic seats in the hearing room. 

As well as the journos, there is also a bench and black leather seats for the four-man tribunal, a desk for the silks who represent the AFL and the player, a desk for the stenographer, another one for the tech, eight TVs and a video-conferencing console.

It feels like a small, secret court. There’s a “judge” (a retired country court judge) and a “jury” (three ex-footballers).

All that is missing is a coat of arms. Maybe the logo of the airline that sponsors the stadium serves a similar purpose. It is stamped all over the wall behind the bench. It represents the power of the corporation rather than that of the state.
The first hearing I went to was back in early August. Two interstate players were contesting their charges. The hearings were conducted by video conference and only three journos showed up. One of them sucked a lollipop throughout.  By the interminable end (around 9pm) I was the only observer left.

Tonight, for Buddy, it is different. TV trucks are parked outside AFL House. Photographers wait in the foyer. Inside, there are hardly any seats left. It is exciting, masculine. I feel like an intruder here.

Everyone looks at Buddy and Buddy looks at himself, the more aggressive version of himself that is revealed in the two minutes and 11 seconds of footage that exists of the few seconds on either side of the now infamous “bump”.

We see the collision from every angle. At the tribunal 0.4 seconds of play can be divided into 10 frames. A second of play can become 60. “It just happened really quickly,” Franklin says.

The hearing process is not so fast. After hours of evidence, the tribunal and then the Appeals Board found Franklin guilty and suspended him for two matches.

That decision and the ones that have followed – last week’s four-match suspension of Essendon skipper Matthew Lloyd, this week’s three-week suspension of Carlton captain Chris Judd – have reinforced the AFL’s determination to protect player’s necks and heads.

But many fans see the decision not as protective but as destructive. “Make the players wear bibs like all the other netball leagues,” said one man in an online forum, a comment that represents much of the anxiety about football becoming soft.

When I teach, I tell students to put themselves in the path of a story, to question the familiar and explore the unfamiliar. Even though I was a sports sub on The Sunday Age back in the late 1990s, I’m not much of an authority on any of the codes (understatement!) I don’t follow footy but I am fascinated by the gravity of the tribunal.

When a player’s appeal fails, he is photographed leaving the hearing looking grumpy, dazed, ticked off or teary. Buddy was just the same. Every footy season produces these forlorn images and they are so different from the usual triumphant machismo that I had wanted to find out what happened in that wee room.

Now I know but the story is far less clear. What is the tribunal really about? There are a few ways to answer this question and none of them concern Buddy Franklin.

One answer: the tribunal is not about football. It’s not even about sport. Rather, it is about violence, it is about men and women, it is about image and it is about big business.

Football is a contact sport in which certain kinds of tough, even brutal, physical contact are sanctioned or expected. Fans certainly seem to like some violence – the melee, the eye gouge, the coat-hanger, the bump that knocks someone flat.
Physical contact in footy is highly regulated. The rules are almost ludicrously detailed. Franklin was charged under Rule 19.2.2 (g) (viii) of the Laws of Australian Football, a rule that is modified by a “deeming provision” added to the appendix of the AFL Player Rules.

It’s as if the AFL is tightening things up to compensate, in some way, for the savage attacks on the streets. The real courts are dealing with the aftermath of this other violence – the men who are shot, bitten, king hit or bashed and kicked near to death.

This year alone, 77 men have been admitted to the Alfred Hospital suffering from head injuries caused by assault. Three of these men have died. 

Out there, pictures are evidence too: CCTVs; mobile phones; brain scans, the two puddles of light – depicting “extensive bleeding” and a blood clot – inside the skull of Tim Gaylard, 22, who had been punched at a party in Colac.  Two weeks ago, Gaylard was in a coma at the Alfred. His father, Daryl, told The Age that Tim had a severe brain injury. Tim has since been discharged and is in the early stages of rehabilitation at another hospital.  He is likely to be permanently disabled. That is the story.