How does Australian football become safe?

David Mackay was involved in an incident with Hunter Clark. Picture: afc.com.au

Adelaide Oval, “outer side” under the bright lights from the towers alongside the five pavilions.

A touch more than 11 minutes to play in the second term of the nationally televised AFL match between Port Adelaide and the highly-rated Western Bulldogs.

The yellow Sherrin is bouncing towards the river end, approaching in its own way Western Bulldogs forward Mitch Hannan and Port Adelaide key defender Tom Clurey.

Both players have eyes on an oval-shaped ball that stays very low on the bounce.

Hannan is lower to ground in his crouch.

Clurey moves forward ignoring Hannan to focus on collecting the unpredictable bouncing ball…and as he lowers his body, the right side of his face crashes into the top of Hannan’s head.

Clurey is subbed out of the game with a broken jaw that will take many weeks to heal after surgery.

The AFL match review, solely conducted by premiership player Michael Christian, makes no reference to this incident.

His only charge from the match is against Port Adelaide captain Tom Jonas for “rough conduct” by a “dangerous tackle” on Western Bulldogs forward Aaron Naughton during the third term. This will cost Jonas a $2000 fine.

Hannan cannot be held accountable for having a hard head.

It might have been interesting had Clurey not suffered any injury, but Hannan had taken a fractured skull from the collision.

There is a fine line – as fine as a hairline fracture – between an accident and a reportable incident.

And now AFL football boss Steve Hocking has loaded the agenda – and divided even former AFL players such North Melbourne premiership defender David King and Richmond key forward Matthew Richardson – on the context of the collision between Adelaide half-back David Mackay and St Kilda midfielder Hunter Clark at Cazaly Stadium in Cairns on Saturday night.

Again, the yellow Sherrin was in its own mood on a slippery grass surface.

“Loose ball,” says Collingwood premiership hero Michael McGuane, “up for dispute, two players committed and under the rules of the game can approach the contest as hard as they like, providing their sole intent is to win the footy.

“That’s exactly what both (Mackay and Clark) did. 

“Accidents happen.”

More so in a combative, contact sport.

Clark – like Clurey – has a broken jaw.

Mackay – unlike Hannan – has to answer for this with Hocking (rather than Christian) demanding a tribunal hearing on Thursday evening.

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The AFL legal counsel is instructed to argue Mackay should be banned for at least three matches “regardless” of whether Mackay is considered to have contested the ball (as McGuane contends) or whether Mackay bumped Clark or whether he did both.

“(Mackay),” contends Hocking, “still contravened the general prohibition on unreasonable conduct”.

Mackay, the so-called “whipping boy” among Crows fans, would have been condemned to eternal derision had he not boldly continued down the path of making a contest for that bouncing yellow Sherrin.

He would have been put up as the symbol of the malaise that created Adelaide’s scoreless opening term against St Kilda.

Instead, Mackay now appears doomed to a lengthy suspension based on the consequences of his actions – a broken jaw to an opponent – rather than the action of contesting a disputed football.

While King demands the AFL use Mackay as the siren on accepting head injuries as an inevitable outcome of some football accidents, others – such as McGuane and Richardson – will argue the “occupational health and safety” agenda has gone too far in Australian football.

The prospect of helmets being mandated – to avert broken bones such as Clurey and Clark’s jaws – becomes more likely, despite the evidence showing more danger than benefit with concussion from knocks to the head.

In the middle ground – seeking clarity and direction – is Geelong premiership coach Chris Scott saying: “On first glance, most football people that I know I think would take the view that if you approach the contest with good intent, to go for the ball, and there are unfortunate consequences, that you shouldn’t be held liable.

“But I think the other side of it is, the world’s changing. Not just footy. 

“It’s incumbent on us to jump on board with that and forecast where we want the world to be in five or 10 years’ time.

“I’m not sure where I sit on it right at the moment, but I think it’s a conversation worth having.”

Regardless of the tribunal findings, the conversation will deepen to match the AFL’s intent to deliver safety in a game that can never avoid injury while it is a combative game built on contact.

That well-worn headline about the bump being dead will get another heavy run.

But can the AFL genuinely deliver a “safe” game or for the sake of protection from legal consequences does it only need to show that infamous “duty of care”?

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