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Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question

  • Monday, August 31 2009 @ 07:11 am ACST
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There has been quite a bit of fuss over the suspension of Hawthorn star Buddy Franklin for his head high bump that concussed Richmond’s Ben Cousins. The fact that Franklin had his elbow tucked in to his side and hit Cousins with his shoulder has been held up as the bump having been legitimate and a “part of the game”.

In fact it was a part of the game until recent rule changes. As AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou notes (The Age “Contentious Bump Rule to Stay”) the new rule was brought in 3 seasons ago (and strengthened after Collingwood captain, Nick Maxfield got off a charge of rough play for a bump that broke West Coast’s Patrick McGinnity’s jaw, in an appeal at the start of this season) and according to Demetriou the AFL is happy with the new rule as it coincides with the lowest two years of head injuries in AFL history. He said the AFL makes “absolutely no apologies for protecting the head because we don't want head injuries."

This hasn’t stopped an outpouring of indignation from many fans, commentators and club officials who see the game as becoming too soft. Hawthorn coach, Alastair Clarkson said the bump is “a great feature of the game, we don't want to turn our game into basketball (by eliminating it)."

But those lamenting the gladiatorial past of big hits, and some bloggers saying they’re off to support Gridiron, should reflect that there have been around 500 deaths, nearly all from head/neck contact, in American football in the USA. Also in high school American football this year a raft of rules to minimise “above shoulder pad” contact were introduced.

All codes have had to move to eliminate more dangerous aspects of their games. Rugby scrums are now a shadow of their past, constantly choreographed by referees to minimise neck injuries, Rugby League tackling is no longer of the level that made past players recognisable by their flattened facial profiles.

In soccer, due to head clashes in heading, concussion is supposedly actually as common as in American football, though without the more severe neck injuries. The balls are now synthetic light weight and waterproof in response to concerns of brain damage from heading older heavier balls in the past and Dutch findings that backs and forwards who headed the ball and had more head clash concussion had worse scores on cognitive testing than midfielders who did less heading. Soccer also banned the leg on leg tackle from behind and now limits the tackle from any direction if “it endangers the opponent”, thus reducing knee and ankle injuries.

So saying Aussie Rules is going soft is like saying the game is evolving with the times, like every other game.

It is understandable how many are against the rule change. Personally I feel a bit ambivalent about Franklin’s bump, as it was in the heat of play requiring split second decision making and also remembering having handed out similar in my own much lower level footy career and how it was a “part of the game” that generally drew accolades from team-mates.

My qualifications for offering an opinion piece here on WFN are modest in that I only played the game at mid grade amateur league level. However speaking from the viewpoint of a medical background and for several years coaching in high school footy, I can only agree with the AFL’s law change. Concussion is a serious injury, spinal injuries are of course devastating. One promising player I coached gave up the game after a concussion, though it was from a crude in the back tackle rather than a bump.

What concerned me a lot as a high school footy coach was how players (usually opponents) would sometimes go in with a clearly dangerous bump on one of our lads’ head/neck region, and usually a free would be awarded but some parents and players would protest “it was a fair 'hip and shoulder' umpy – what’s your problem!”. Somehow they believed that just because the elbow was tucked in it didn’t matter if the blow hit the head. This attitude would’ve I think broken a lad’s neck one day had he not reflexively moved his head which was over the ball at the last split second as an opponent’s hip and shoulder came hurtling through much like Matthew Lloyd’s charge last weekend that broke Hawthorn’s Brad Sewell's eye socket as well as knocking him out. Whilst Sewell is a professional footballer, the AFL presumably also has one eye on the junior grades where probably the vast majority of parents would question the worth of their children's sport if they suffer a similar facial injury.

Clarkson also said the bump rule was now a “grey area”.

So what is the new bump rule in the AFL? There was a clarification after Maxwell’s bump on McGinnity, but as far as the rulebook on the AFL website is concerned, the bump is defined by a series of statements under Law 15.4.5 Prohibited Contact in the AFL ”Laws of the Game”

These statements include:

A Player makes Prohibited Contact with an opposition Player if he or she: (a) makes contact with any part of his or her body with an opposition Player; (i) above the shoulders (including the top of the shoulders or bump to the head); …

(n) bumps or makes forceful contact to an opponent from front-on when that player has his head down over the ball.

NOTE:

- a player can bump an opponent’s body from side-on but any contact forward of side-on will be deemed to be front-on;

- a player with his head down in anticipation of winning possession of the ball or after contesting the ball will be deemed to have his head down over the ball for the purposes of this law.

The laws also stipulate under Law 15.4.4 Charge or Charging

(a) A Charge means an act of colliding with an opposition Player where the amount of physical force used is unreasonable or unnecessary in the circumstances, irrespective of whether the Player is or is not in possession of the football or whether the Player is within 5 metres of the football.

So effectively you can only bump side-on and must not make contact with the opponents head or neck. Nonetheless even the reigning premiership coach feels the law is a “grey area”. Personally I think the AFL could make the rule clearer by rephrasing the law as to what can be done, rather than what can’t be done. From involvement in Gaelic Football here in Australia it seemed the bump rule was fairly clear cut – at least in the way it was understood and interpreted. The Irish Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) allows for the bump in Gaelic Football and Hurling, it is called the “shoulder charge” in certain situations defined in the GAA laws:

Provided he has at least one foot on the ground, a player may make a side-to-side charge on an opponent (a) who is in possession of the ball, or (b) who is playing the ball or (c) both players are moving in the direction of the ball to play it.

This rule when combined with prohibitions on the following:

To behave in any manner which is dangerous to an opponent.

To jump at an opponent.

To charge an opponent in the back or to the front.

is interpreted as, and one finds if one ever does a GAA refereeing course as I once did, described as “shoulder to shoulder side-on contact only”.

What surprised me on seeing a number of inter-county Gaelic football and hurling matches in Ireland was the frequency and intensity of bumps. It was not uncommon to see a player knocked a metre or three sideways by a well executed “shoulder charge”. And head high contact seemed rare.

The relative frequency and intensity of the bumps may reflect GAA players being unable to tackle, and thus learn over the years to perfect the bump – maybe even more than Australian Rules players.

So the bump need not be dead. But the AFL may be wise to proactively push the bump as a skill in what it should be, rather than defining what it should not be.

In other words perhaps say “shoulder to shoulder side-on, at least one foot on the ground for both players, no head or neck contact, no front or back contact.” Simple and clear cut, and to be practiced as a skill from junior grades. The bump would survive and there would continue to be less head/neck injuries as well.

As Adrian Anderson, AFL football operations manager, said at the time of the Maxwell-McGinnity incident: "In 2006, the AFL received a report from the AFL Medical Officers Association, which stated that the area of head, neck and spinal injuries were an area of great concern and required AFL intervention to reduce the potential risk of catastrophic injury.''

In the end sport has some level of risk, but all sports seem to be drawing a tighter line on what is considered reasonable risk these days.