Fly kicks and friendship: A bizarro world weekend of AFL discourse

Once again, football discourse in the most hotly contested season in a generation has been hijacked by two isolated incidents. Forgive us me perpetuating the issue, but this week, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that we reached a fresh level of football discussion hell.

The spicy hot on-field takes, the GIFs, the celebrations and commiserations – our Quick Hands column – are on hold for a week. Let us instead talk about a fly kick and some fun between friends, because that’s the sum total of the important things that happened between Friday night and Sunday evening.

On Friday night, the GWS Giants flexed all over the Western Bulldogs and won the night by 48 points. The margin all came in a one-sided second half, GWS’ midfield wave running all over the Dogs’ unit like a king tide. The Giants are back and the Dogs are not; that should be the take.

Instead, we’re talking about this.

Instead, we are talking about something Toby Greene did in the course of play once again. Greene has already been suspended twice for doing things not permitted on a football field this season, and has stepped precariously close to the imaginary white line in most games he’s played.

Friday night, in first game back from a striking suspension, Greene fended off Luke Dahlhaus as he gathered a handball receive. Like many things Greene does, it was not usual. Greene sprung into the air with his left foot, stuck out his right foot, and struck Dahlhaus in the face just as he gathered the ball cleanly with both hands, and dished it off to a . The umpire took his number before he hit the ground, there was a brief scuffle as is convention, Dahlhaus left the scene with a bloodied chin, and the game kept going. Indeed, Greene took a conventional mark in the Giants’ forward 50 not more than a minute later.

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“I reckon he’s allowed to do that…he’s used his foot to clear space”. That was the instant reaction of Brian Taylor in the call, and it quickly became the common refrain across all channels. Yes and no, and honestly it’s pretty much a no. As discussed in this great piece from The Sporting Chance, Greene’s action contravenes a technical but still black and white football rule: Prohibited Physical Contact (Rule 15.4.5). This rule states that:

  1. you can’t make contact with the head of an opposition player in general play (tick)
  2. your feet can’t make contact with an opposition player under any circumstances, unless it is in a motion of kicking the ball and the contact is incidental (tick), and
  3. you can’t make contact in circumstances that are unreasonable (less of a tick)

Many have evoked players using their feet to clear space in marking contests. That’s fine, and permitted under the rules (Rule 15.4.3 – Permitted Contact) so long as a player is in a marking contest and is legitimately attempting to mark the ball. Greene was receiving a handball. These are not the same things.

Greene’s action meets the first and second criteria of prohibited contact, and depending on your perspective meets the third. It only has to meet one in order to be a free kick. This is black and white, and that many – including people that are, you know, paid to know – did not concede as such hints at the bigger issue at play.

But is it anything more than a free kick? It’s almost impossible to say – there are plenty of vauguaries in the Match Review Panel guidelines that could apply here. There are Classifiable Offences for “rough conduct” and “kicking”, but this doesn’t neatly fit the criteria of either of those. Then there is the matter of whether a couple of stitches to the chin is sufficient enough force to warrant classification in the first place. We’ll get an answer on all counts later today because the Greene was reported by the officiating umpire at the time – for rough conduct as it were. I wouldn’t be shocked if the MRP decided to refer Greene to the Tribunal because it doesn’t have something within its bailiwick to deal with a mid air foot fend off to the face.

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The pitched battle began in earnest, with the sides falling into two distinct camps: “move on nothing to see” and “burn him at the stake”. There was no room in the middle, despite the abundant shades of grey in what took place. (Full disclosure, on seeing the incident live, I called for Greene to be de-registered from the league…but after thinking about it some more came to my senses). Greene was either being persecuted for his bad boy reputation, or the purest form of evil to walk the earth. Greene either did something that anyone who has played the game would do or deliberately fly kicked an opposition player in the head.

As we have already seen, the first extreme is not right. The second is not right either.

We cannot judge Greene’s intent. No, we can judge Greene’s intent, but we cannot know Greene’s intent. He has allowed, through his actions – both on the field and off it, and in recent times and in times past – the erosion of any benefit of the doubt afforded to 99% of players across the league. That is a problem that will confront him for the rest of his career. Those seeking to crucify are making judgements based on past behaviour which while appearing logical may not be right. It was that which I used to rush to judgement in the 0.5 milliseconds it took me to tap up a tweet.

But what is clear is Greene’s action is not something that should happen on a football field in 2017. Greene should not have attempted to “clear space” with his right leg, no matter the height of the opposition player seeking to contest the ball, and no matter whether he had eyes for the ball. It is not only against the rules, it is an inherently dangerous action.

It simply cannot be allowed to happen, which makes those defending what Greene did look a little foolish.

Contrast that to the scorn directed towards Essendon’s Joe Daniher from some quarters. Daniher kicked a goal, and in his affable goofball way accosted Adelaide’s Rory Atkins in his post goal celebration. It was back page news in the Melbourne papers.

Daniher has earned himself a reputation, but unlike Greene it is for being a bit of a twit rather than as a sign of the apocalypse. That doesn’t sit well with some people, and they were more than happy to let the world know about it on Saturday evening.

Never mind that Daniher and Atkins are football friends who grew up together and played junior football in the same team. Nope, dial that outrage machine up to 11: we can’t have that, there is a game of football to win.

It was a similar reaction to Will Langford’s double cheek-peck on Sydney veteran Jarrad McVeigh; the “disrespect” of the guy to have some fun while playing a game of football. Daniher, Langford, and those players who choose to show their personality while playing help improve the spectacle. When they are spontaneous and genuine, they are actions to be welcomed.

The contrast between the two incidents was too much for this egghead to ignore. On one hand, a group of football fans think leading with your studs is a legitimate football tactic; the other, that a player can’t express themselves playing a game. Heaven forbid you sit in the overlapping portion of this particular Venn diagram.

Ultimately, does it mean much? Perhaps not. Greene will likely emerge with a fine or with no case to answer, but with another charge on his already lengthy wrapsheet. Daniher will continue to be his goofy self and kick plenty of goals over the next dozen years of his career.

Football and its media are rapidly evolving. The code has been a global laggard when it comes to embrace of digital and social media, of offbeat coverage and the cult of personality which drives other global sports. The embrace of Greene and the bemoaning of Daniher are symptoms of the old way of thinking; one hopes the weekend’s events are a sign of the maturing of our discourse. It would be a shame if it were not.