Thursday, July 1, 2010

Past, present and future crimes

Now this post should be monitored carefully, since I am an unabashed Geelong fan. But since the name of the blog is "Balanced Sports", let's do our best.

No ifs or buts, Steven Baker is a highly effective tagger: he does jobs consistently on players who have been gifted with more natural footy-finding-and-using ability than him. The conundrum with Baker - as with many taggers – is that he often finds it difficult to stop himself from stepping over the line which separates what is legal from what is not. The frequency with which Baker cross this line means he's no longer just a stopper. He is also a thug. So how much did Baker's rep have to do with his current 9-game suspension?

The AFL has tried to rid itself of behind-the-play violence for as long as I can remember. The first concrete steps came in the mid-eighties in two separate but related measures: the admission that the then-VFL couldn't keep its own house in order with Victoria Police charging Leigh Matthews for assault after he broke Neville Bruns' jaw in 1985; and subsequently the introduction of video review in 1987. As a result, behind the scenes violence has dramatically decreased and the AFL has become a much more family-friendly league.

Since that time, Australian football has evolved. Now no longer does a match involve 18 separate one-on-one contacts on the field but where given the importance of team performance, player roles have contracted to fulfilling their own individual tasks within a framework of the team as a whole. Midfielders are now either offensive, or defensive. Players who are charged with stopping an opponent are liable to do many things to irritate and niggle their prey. Times were that your team enforcer might be able to “deal with” these pests themselves, but as the AFL has put paid to that, they have legislated also to protect the ball-playing protagonist rather than the stopper.

But there are two separate issues here and Baker rides the crux of them. As a stopper, he and many others have frequently stepped outside the law to beat his man: holding, pinching, jumper-punching, subtle kneeing are all familiar sights to the AFL fan. The other side of the coin is that with his 2007 conviction for “king-hitting” Jeff Farmer, Baker has form for completely disregarding the laws of the game and acting in a manner which on the streets would earn him a criminal record. There are fair taggers, and foul. There are also fair players, and foul. Though his footy tactics are arguably no worse than his tagging compatriots, his prior tribunal history has stamped Baker a violent player and this undoubtedly played on the minds and notepads of the Match Review Panel in grading his offences.

The grading of the offences is a curious point however, and whether the contact was negligent, intentional, reckless, slightly overzealous, a little bit naughty or directly as a result of alien control is beyond the ability of a mere mortal to calculate without generating unwelcome conjecture. The AFL's grading systems was designed to remove subjectivity from the tribunal process; unfortunately all it has done is shove those opinions to one side of the process. The opinions are then still used.

Baker deserved to be sanctioned for the punches delivered – they were captured on video and guilt was indisputable. What was also indisputable was his 155 carryover points, adding two weeks to his time on the sidelines. He is a player who polarises opposition supporters and even those of St. Kilda – the epitome of a player no-one likes but is undeniably effective.

More interesting is the charge that Baker knowingly made forcible contact with the injured hand of his opponent Steve Johnson. It would be naive to suggest Baker didn't know it was injured: whether it is an actionable offence is more the discussion. Given the furore when St. Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt had his injured shoulder bumped off-the-ball by Brisbane's Mal Michael & Chris Scott, Baker would surely know the implications of such a petty and ungentlemanly act. Given that subjectivity still plays a role in the tribunal proceedings, it's unsurprising that the Match Review Panel essentially came up with a new charge with which to sanction Stevie B; it's also completely understandable that when presented with three cases and then an allegedly-separate fourth case, rationality finds differentiation difficult.

It may be that Steven Baker's past sins amounted to more than just 155 extra demerit points. But his conduct is to blame, not the MRP. Courts of law take into account recidivism – the AFL Tribunal should be no different.

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