Concussion crackdown the uncomfortable attraction in AFL tribunal circus | AFL

“Unlike in the ancient game of AFL football, there are times in the modern game where you do have to pull your punches.”

The words from Andrew Woods, the lawyer representing the AFL and pursuing a suspension for Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard, described a sport in flux. Change that many fans and former players, if you listen to Melbourne radio or read the city’s newsprint in recent days, could barely fathom.

“There will be times where the thing you’re going to undertake, whether it’s a smother or a jump or whatever it is, is too dangerous in those particular circumstances,” Woods said at Tuesday’s tribunal hearing.

The matter had consumed the AFL, its fans, and by extension half of Australia this week. This hearing delivered an appropriate climax, offering everything fans love – and observers loathe – about the game.

Eager legal jousting, heavy on the theatre, took the matter from the arvo cuppa to well past dinner. The marathon on Tuesday night, run not by foot but via Webex, was a fitting act for the main tent in the AFL circus. Indeed, at four hours, it lasted longer than many runners take to run 42km. Eliud Kipchoge could have run to Athens and back.

“What’s different about this one?” tribunal chair Jeff Gleeson asked Ben Ihle, acting for Maynard, midway through the proceedings.

Gleeson was investigating whether Maynard had acted reasonably. Ihle responded with something about players staying in their lanes. Two hours in and both legal minds missed the greater significance of the question entirely. The 40 attendees watching the proceedings could afford to ponder.

What is different about this one? There’s the fact that the incident happened in the finals. The player charged is part of a club its fans argue is the sport’s largest, or at least most influential. The same club is on track for glory in September, already minor premiers and with a growing sense of entitlement. In the Pies’ script written for this year’s flag, there is no suspension for Maynard. A glorious exoneration? Now you’re talking.

Brayden Maynard checks on Angus Brayshaw as the Melbourne player is stretchered off.
Brayden Maynard checks on Angus Brayshaw as the Melbourne player is stretchered off. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The victim, Melbourne’s Angus Brayshaw, is still suffering symptoms from the incident. He decided to wear a helmet after multiple concussions in his early twenties. That helmet, blue and red in Demons’ colours is a visible reminder his brain needs special care.

And the elephant in the Zoom. The AFL faces potentially millions of dollars in liability under a series of legal proceedings brought by former players who allege their brains had not been adequately protected, and they must forever manage the consequences. Several cases have been initiated and the game awaits their outcome.

These were all valid reasons to ensure the matter was given comprehensive consideration. Indeed, chair Gleeson recognised this when he said “I make absolutely no apologies for the fact this has taken nearly three hours”.

Jokes about Newton and Galileo, the marking of yellow and purple lanes on the field by Maynard’s defence team, and the description by the biomechanical expert – who had a prior appointment and couldn’t log on until 5pm – of a “frisbee with legs” were the evening’s popular highlights.

But those who endured the entire hearing were given an insight into where the AFL wants to take the game, after the administration moved this week to ensure this matter was heard at the tribunal.

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Woods spoke in depth about the league’s expectations for players in 2023. That Maynard’s attempted smother was “dangerous”, “breaches the duty of care owed to the other player”, that it was “careless”. That players must make an assessment of whether or not their act on the field will “unreasonably risk the safety of the other player”.

But in one exchange between Woods and Maynard, it was clear the league has work to do.

“I’m going to suggest that prior to you jumping to smother the ball in that forward motion, it was clear to you because of the height that you were jumping and the forward trajectory, you were going to collide hard with Brayshaw,” Woods advanced.

“No,” Maynard replied bluntly. “I did not know what was going to happen after I clearly went to make a football act.”

Just as pubs across Victoria were considering closing their kitchens, the Webex window glowed again. After four hours, and following the most intense de-construction of a rough conduct charge in the AFL’s history, the tribunal came to its decision. Maynard was cleared to play in the Pies’ preliminary final. Despite Woods’s efforts, the game didn’t seem to have changed at all. On Wednesday, the AFL declined to appeal the tribunal’s decision.

Instead, it was the words of Ihle, Maynard’s lawyer, that lingered. “A flinch, in that limited period of time, was not unreasonable, it was human. That’s ultimately what we’re dealing with here. Human beings exercising reasonable care.”

Human beings, for whom the weekend’s footy can’t come soon enough.

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