AFL Cairns makes tough call – but was it the right call?
Tuesday, September 16 2014 @ 04:56 pm ACST
Contributed by: Wesley Hull
The lead up to this season’s AFL Cairns finals series has been dogged by a furore behind the scenes which has sadly shifted the attention away somewhat from this weekend’s AFL Cairns Grand Final between Cairns Saints and Port Douglas.
During the season local club, Manunda Hawks, recruited a former Port Douglas player Sam Boxsell. The player was being investigated and had been charged with a crime which has since been thrown out of court. However, his time at Port Douglas was dogged by this and other issues including a club ban for altercations with team mates.
In short, when Manunda Hawks were due to play Port Douglas in Round 17, people using social media threatened violence should the player in question return to Port Douglas, leading to Manunda Hawks taking the drastic step of forfeiting the match rather than risk the possibility of the threats being carried out. The Manunda Hawks club president, Richard Martin, says the club was enacting “due diligence” in giving the player another chance to play football as well as duty of care to take steps to avoid further issues.
The result saw a month long investigation by AFL Cairns which culminated in them taking the dramatic action of suspension from both the senior and reserve grade competitions for the 2015 season. There is far more detail in the story, but this article will not explore that further. This story will look at the decision handed down by AFL Cairns and its possible ramifications going forward.
For anyone interested in more details about the incident, a visit to the Cairns Post or AFL Cairns websites will uncover a number of stories detailing the events leading up to the club suspension.
AFL Cairns was placed in an incredibly difficult situation in 2004 after the infamous grand-final brawl between North Cairns Tigers and Port Douglas Crocs. The teams and the league made headlines for all the wrong reasons after the footage of the brawl went viral though media outlets. A “no-result” was recorded in the history books for the 2004 premiership, and AFL Cairns has worked diligently in the 10 years since to restore the game in Cairns to a high and respected standard, which for the most part they have succeeded in doing.
Violence, threats of violence and the intimidatory use of social media have no place in society as a whole, let alone in sport, in this case Australian Rules football. AFL Cairns was and is absolutely right to pursue in no uncertain terms a message that these acts will never be tolerated. Being a part of the local scene here I can say first hand that the message has been sent loud and clear to all clubs, senior and junior, and I certainly would like to think that all club supporters have received that message.
But there are two underlying issues here that don’t track well in this complex situation. Firstly, is banning the club actually going to the heart of the problem? Additionally, and in my case more importantly, is the suspension handed down going to have an adverse impact on junior pathways?
Supporters of Manunda Hawks have already hit local media with their fears that the suspension could be the death knell for the club. Already struggling to compete for players in the local market against other clubs (remembering Cairns has only 150 000 people, and only a low percentage of those follow AFL football), Manunda Hawks have also been given a shaky pointer to their future with regards to their future home base – possibly being relocated away from their traditional home at Cazalys Stadium as it is developed further to be an elite venue and sent to the outer suburbs to start life anew. Whether that scenario occurs remains to be seen, but the uncertainty adds to a level of concern amongst supporters. It is possible that the club may never completely recover from these hits.
But that will become an issue to be rectified by the club, AFL Cairns and the corporate world to keep the Hawks going.
Of greater concern is the hole created for junior pathways. AFL Cairns may argue differently, but when a club’s senior and reserve grade teams are taken away, the junior ranks coming through lose their most viable pathway to senior football. It is entirely possible that the game will lose players due to this decision, and that is not a good outcome in Cairns.
As a local coach who this year coached at the U17 Colts grade, I have a unique perspective. Most of my players leave junior ranks this year. As of 2015 they are cast into the world of senior football opportunities. Three players that I coached played for Manunda Hawks this year. Next year they face the hope of being picked up by another team or walking away from the game, or Cairns. The U17 age group which next year hopes to play reserves or seniors has just had a big change to their options.
I have coached with or against a large number of players who fall into this category. Players I first coached as kids back in 2008 and 2009 are now young men and I have been privileged to have watched them on their journey. Most of them still aspire to senior football. But AFL Cairns has a unique problem. The incredible work done to grow the game at junior level (numbers just short of 1500 registrations) means more players that ever each year exiting junior ranks for senior careers. But for 2015 there are two less teams (Manunda Hawks’ seniors and reserves) which takes away up to 50 senior places. Other clubs will accommodate some of the players left in the cold, but not all. Some players will be forced to consider leaving the game or the district. Some of the Manunda Hawks players I have coached against will not get to go further.
This raises the question of suitability of consequences. Was a club suspension across both grades the right decision? Or are there other options to be explored. Fines, consequences for guilty individuals, restrictions on assistance are all options that could be explored. None of these options risk innocent players’ careers and would keep the AFL Cairns competition in a position of continued growth, rather than having a season which would inevitably see a downward impact on numbers.
There are still meetings to be had as well as appeals and additional opportunities for voices to be heard. It is hoped that all parties can find a better solution. It needs to be a solution which still sends a strong message that acts of violence, threats and abuse of social media will not be tolerated. But it should also be a solution that does not inadvertently have a negative impact on the game in years to come.
This story should also act as a cautionary tale about the processes that leagues anywhere need to consider when handing down serious consequences. Keeping the game free of negative and damaging influences is vitally important, but does it need to be at the expense of opportunities for the next generations of players?
Hopefully AFL Cairns and Manunda Hawks can reach a solution which will assist everyone in going forward.
In the meantime, good luck to Cairns Saints and Port Douglas Crocs this Saturday as they contest the 2015 AFL Cairns Grand Final.