Friday night’s AFL game between the Sydney Swans and Melbourne was sullied by a sickening strike on Swans player Callum Mills.  After only a few minutes into the game, Mills was felled by a single, off-the-ball strike from Melbourne player Tomas Bugg, and suffered a concussion.

A forlorn Mills was relegated to the Swans’ bench for the remainder of his team’s 35-point victory over Melbourne.  At the conclusion of the game, and to literally add insult to injury, Mills was subjected to further intentional contact by Bugg, albeit this time by way of a handshake; spectators would have seen a despondent Mills reluctantly oblige.  Unsurprisingly, the most important questions to flow from this incident have been (a) how many weeks will Bugg get at the Tribunal; and (b) will the AFL introduce a red card type rule.  While players and commentators have been swift to deride Bugg’s conduct, few have entertained the very real possibility that Bugg’s strike constitutes a criminal assault.

Bugg’s strike was intentional and not within the rules of the game; it would be difficult to argue otherwise.  This puts his actions squarely within the ambit of common assault and the more serious offence of intentionally or recklessly causing injury, both of which carry terms of imprisonment upon conviction.  Had Mills suffered a serious injury or an even worse fate, Bugg would be exposed to the raft of indictable offences which carry the more significant jail terms.  Fortunately, we are able to talk about this incident in hypothetical terms.

Had we visited this issue a few weeks ago, we might have considered the tragic death of Victorian teenager Patrick Cronin, who died from a single punch.  However, as we discuss this incident, there is sadly another case to which we can refer, as it has only been a week since Melbourne surgeon Patrick Pritzwald-Stegmann tragically lost his life as a result of a single punch.  Whilst we do not need to be reminded that a single punch can kill, in the context of the AFL, it seems that we do.

It was apparent that Bugg himself was oblivious to any potential criminality in his conduct as he confidently traversed through a post-game interview with Richmond great Matthew Richardson.  In Bugg’s own words, he was “a bit embarrassed” by his actions and further stated “I have let my teammates down” but would “cop the consequences” and “go away for what ever time I have off and train hard”.  That Bugg genuinely believed that suspension from playing would equate to “copping the consequences”, is wherein the problem lies.  His naivety, however, is more telling of our attitude towards unlawful violence in sport, than it is an indictment on the young footballer.

It is our attitude towards unlawful violence in the AFL that is inappropriate because we as fans encourage it, we cheer when it happens, and we are more entertained at games that have melees than games that don’t.  In fact, in Victoria, the word “melee” has itself become synonymous with an “all-in-brawl” in an AFL game; we simply do not use the word in any other context.

Before we start advocating the criminal prosecution of AFL players, we must acknowledge that we are at a critical juncture in the game’s history.  The AFL should be lauded for taking the extraordinary step of appealing Bachar Houli’s suspension, as it must marginalise intentional or reckless conduct causing injury within the game.  With its second sitting in only two weeks, the AFL Tribunal must further this campaign and hand down a suspension of momentous proportions upon Tomas Bugg.  We can only hope that this incident will mark a fundamental shift in players’ attitudes towards unlawful violence in the game, but most importantly, in ours too.