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

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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.


- 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.

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Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Brett Northey on Tuesday, September 01 2009 @ 10:39 pm ACST

It's a tough issue and I agree with most of what you've said. I've always been pretty passionate about protecting the head and poorly directed aggression in footy. Yet on the flipside I'm also very passionate about maintaining the game as one of strong body contact - both tackling and bumping.

The Buddy Franklin case went the wrong way I felt. Did he definitely even hit the head? I've only seen a few replays (surprisingly - must have been away from my TV a lot!) At first view it looked like the top of the shoulder and maybe a canon? And as much as anything Buddy was protecting himself - with Cousins changing direction, if he had tried to tackle Buddy may well have copped a strong shoulder to the sternum and potentially been injured himself.

My understanding of the rule, when it was introduced, even before the amendments after the Nick Maxwell incident, was that the rule had been changed to effectively say that even if the contact was accidental, not reckless, and not even head high, then the player could still be suspended if they injured the other player and had had the choice of tackling or going for the ball. Is that your interpretation? Because they made me angry - even a very reasonable bump to the side can cause injury if the player had some pre-condition or is unlucky.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Sean Finlayson on Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 02:14 pm ACST

Lets just adopt gaelic football rules and be done with it.

Noone likes grey areas and clearly the AFL wants a non-contact sport. So lets not delay the inevitable here.

I stopped watching their boring and sanitised brand of footy 12 months ago so it will make little difference to me.

Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Brett Northey on Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 05:53 pm ACST

That's a shame, because you've missed possibly one of the best seasons ever. A lot of people have said to me they think there have been more blockbuster games of high speed and high pressure than ever before. I tend to agree. There has been far less of the ring-a-ring-a-rosie style play where teams switch the ball and then bring it uncontested up the field.

Now most teams are setting up the moving zone that had been toyed with in previous years but Hawthorn perfected last year. So a lot more fast movement and contested possession. And whereas in some years there are only 1 or 2 clubs that seem to have their game in good shape and playing really good footy, there's no question that all of the top 8 have played some exciting football this year. Even down to 8th, Essendon only just fell in, but what a great style of run and gun footy they play.

The bump rule has worked to stop head injuries when a player is over the ball. I don't think it really stopped bumps on upright players - there have been many great examples. The worry is that following the Franklin case there is a new realisation amongst players and coaches of how risky (in terms of suspension) the bump has become. So it is next year when we will see whether it really has been sanitised out of the game. I certainly hope not and will be complaining just as loud if it is.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Peter Parry on Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 10:16 pm ACST

The game is more skilful and faster than ever. Geelong v St Kilda mid-season was one of the best games ever in intensity. If you really want to see biffs and ko's there is that video of the old days of haymakers, coat-hangers, elbows out frontal assaults etc. There is gridiron, a true blood sport in around 500 deaths (was 497 by 2003 according to British Medical Journal), but even there softening of rules is happening for safety reasons.

I agree Brett that Franklin was unlucky, as I said I felt pretty ambivalent about whether he should've got suspended. But Lloyd reminded me of the kid who nearly killed one of our young players by charging a player with his head down. And the kid protested his elbow was tucked in, what was the problem?

So that is the attitude that needs to change - that just because your elbow is tucked in it is fair. I really think an emphasis on shoulder to shoulder would keep the bump alive and hard as well, I think training in doing it well can improve, I am not putting any spin on it when I say some of the best bumps I ever saw were in several high level inter-county Gaelic football and hurling matches, and the bumps seemed to be more frequent than in footy of any era. It must be because it is the only body contact allowed, but no reason Aussie Rules players can't get better at it.

Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Peter Parry on Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 10:28 pm ACST

Before I get misinterpreted here I should clarify what I meant by footy players practising it. If you focus on shoulder to shoulder you learn to do it instinctively, hence Franklin if having practised that for years would've instinctively crouched, bent his knees as he ran into Cousins. I know maybe he should have anyway under the current rule, but my point is years of tradition have players just tucking the elbow in only as their main reflex.

Hopefully clubs will practice it, and the bump will remain. Draw the rule up in a positive way rather than negative and that may encourage bumping to continue. And less concussion etc as above...

Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Brett Northey on Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 10:37 pm ACST

I should of course be massively in favour of the changes. As someone of short stature I got bumped in the head pretty much every game I played, although mostly without major injury - I won't go into details anyway - that's hardly promoting our sport in a positive light! Some of them was due to deliberate action, some just lack of due care or ability to adjust to the height difference, which is what cost Franklin in the end.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Opinion - To bump or not to bump, that is the question
Authored by: Troy Thompson on Friday, September 04 2009 @ 07:04 am ACST

Release last night from the AFL Medical Officers Association
From Dr Hugh Seward, AFLMOA Executive Officer.

The AFL Medical Officers Association strongly support the AFL’s current Rules and Interpretations that are designed to protect the head and neck of players during collisions.

The recent debate in the media has focused on the concern that the “Bump” is being removed from the game. We do not believe that the legitimate “Bump” is threatened. However, if the collisions involving injury to the head and neck are minimized in the game, this is a good outcome. Surely the proponents of the “Bump” are not condoning serious head and neck contact that can lead to concussion, facial injuries and potential brain and spinal injuries ?

The AFL Doctors have long been concerned about the increasing potential for high speed collisions involving head impact. Spectators may only see their team’s unconscious player on the ground and stretchered off, but the Doctors see the consequences of these injuries. Fortunately most players recover rapidly, but there is potential for serious complications, and careful management is required.

Reducing collisions involving head injuries should be a priority, even for the strongest traditionalists. Fortunately it has been for the AFL . The rule that sanctions players who choose to bump when they could tackle or go for the ball, and their bump results in a significant head injury, has led to a change in player behaviour. We are seeing fewer of these incidents despite the impression left by the two notable incidents in the last 2 weeks.

A further concern held by the AFL Doctors for head and neck injuries, and the risk of serious brain and spinal cord injury, relates to players in a vulnerable position with their head over the ball. In 2006 we requested the AFL consider rule changes that would protect the player with his head over the ball from front on contact. The rule interpretation that now offers this player protection has also changed player behavior. They endeavour to avoid front on tackles when their opponent is over the ball and as a result there are fewer of these incidents.

We congratulate the players on adapting to these changes because it has made the game safer. Our Injury Survey has shown a decrease in head and neck injuries resulting in games missed since the introduction of this rule. This is good for the players, teams and for the game.

The AFLMOA support the current rules that have improved the protection for players from serious head and neck injury.