The Melbourne Demons AFL team stand accused of deliberately ensuring their team lost matches in order to secure talented players in the draft in a process known as “tanking”.
With the club facing a hearing at the AFL Commission into the allegations, a series of media reports quote officials and players from the club saying that the club had a deliberate strategy to ensure it did not win more than four games in season 2009 so it could secure a priority draft pick.
But was this behaviour actively in contravention of AFL rules? Are the laws of the game clear enough in prohibiting such tactics?
The problem with ambiguity
If I was the AFL administrator with responsibility for writing the rule that would prevent teams from deliberately playing games to lose, then I would be unambiguous. The rule would include phrases like “a team must try to win every game” or “no-one associated with a club should do anything that had the effect of reducing the chance of winning a game”.
The AFL Regulation 19 (A5) explains that:
A person, being a player, coach or assistant coach, must at all times perform on their merits and must not induce, or encourage, any player, coach or assistant coach not to perform on their merits in any match - or in relation to any aspect of that match, for any reason whatsoever.
This is the problem with letting lawyers and administrators near rules. The rules become ambiguous. What exactly does “perform on their merits” mean?
To develop an answer to this question, it may be useful to give examples of what has been, in past matches, considered OK in terms of performing on merits.
In round 21 of the 2010 AFL season, the Fremantle football side decided to rest seven players from a game against Hawthorn in Tasmania. The team needed to win one of their two remaining games to be assured of receiving a home game in the first week of the finals, and felt that they would have a better chance six days later against Carlton at their home ground, if these players were rested. The weakened Fremantle team lost their game against Hawthorn by 116 points.
This decision to rest players, apparently to maximise the opportunity for longer term success in finals is deemed to be playing on merits. It seems that teams playing off for finals are always “performing on merits”.
There are several other examples of teams playing on their merits, whilst not trying to maximise their chances of winning every game they played in.
Many teams, once it appeared unlikely that they would make finals, admitted to putting players in for mid-season medical procedures in order to have these players ready for the start of pre-season training for the following season.
Other teams have agreed to the early introduction of younger players to get them greater match experience for benefits that might occur in future seasons. Some coaches confessed that they had experimented with positions and rotations to learn more about their players, and other coaches agreed that they did not make moves to change the momentum of a game that they were losing, perhaps hoping that players could learn important lessons for the future about what they could do on the field to change the momentum of the match (I am being very generous here).
What actual rule has been broken?
So, if all of these decisions and contexts are acceptable, we are left with a very limited range of cases where teams do not play on their merits. And I think that this limited range of cases indicates why ambiguous phrasing was used in the rule on tanking.
Paraphrasing Eddie McGuire, supporters of the game accept and expect clubs to lose matches in certain cases where the long term benefits outweigh the short term costs of losing a game. We can debate whether this affects the culture of the club, or whether it is an effective strategy in the longer term, or whether certain clubs used better, or less obvious, methods than others, but it would be inconsistent to permit certain methods as strategy whilst labelling others as cheating.
It is, however, the ambiguous wording of the rule allows us to make these different assessments about practices that share common goals. Without this ambiguous wording, many more practices would need to be scrutinised by the AFL.
It appears from the existing and untested evidence that has come to the public’s attention over the past few weeks that Melbourne may not have maximised their chances of winning every game. Did they “at all times perform on their merits”? Yes. However, their understanding of what was meritorious for their club at the time was significantly different to what the AFL thought was meritorious. This is expected.
As Amartya Sen identifies, there is a tension between an inclination to want a universal and fixed definition of merit and the ultimately instrumental character of what is deemed meritorious at a specific time, place and context.
At the time, place and context of the Melbourne decisions, they were viewed as meritorious by many within the practice community of football, including many not associated with the Melbourne Football Club.
It is likely that the AFL will find a way to punish Melbourne in order to protect its own image.
And what is certain is that the rules regarding “tanking” will be tightened dramatically to remove any ambiguity.