AFL sanctions target phantom enemy

Dean Wallis: Idiot, or just a victim of the system?

This article also appeared on Melbourne Riff Raff and The Roar.

With yet another football figure embroiled in a betting scandal, it’s easy to think that the Australian Football League’s integrity is on the brink of obliteration.

The reality is, though, that match-fixing is – and always has been – a non-issue. The AFL is chasing a phantom enemy, and Dean Wallis and is their latest scapegoat.

One week ago, Wallis, a dual premiership player and now assistant coach at Essendon, became the 16th individual in five years to fall subject to the AFL’s anti-gambling laws. These regulations stipulate that a player, coach, umpire or official must not under any circumstances place money on an AFL match.

Wallis’ heavy penalty will prevent him from coaching for the next 14 weeks. It will also leave him $7500 in arrears. It’s a hefty price to pay for $400 worth of mindless spending.

Last year, the Pakistani cricket scandal reminded us all of the detrimental effect that match-fixing can have on world sport. Cricket tragics the world over were left with a sour taste in their mouths, in the knowledge that their nation may have illegitimately won or lost matches.

It is a terrifying thought that back-alley bookmakers can be the powerbrokers behind seemingly free-flowing contests. It’s understandable then that Andrew Demetriou and co. are determined to keep this cancer out of the AFL.

From a moral perspective, gambling is not good for the game, period. One could further argue that gambling is repugnant in its own right.

Yet the gambling which the AFL has been targeting is close to harmless. Sure, it’s not a great image when football insiders stop by their local TAB. But the 16 disciplined culprits have carried no intentions to corrupt the game. They’ve all just been a tad absent minded.

If we assess the offenders on a case-to-case basis, we are able to notice some common threads.

In most cases, the “crime” has consisted of a small amount of money, a game where the perpetrator has had no involvement, and a subsequent admission of ignorance or remorse. In 2007, for instance, 19-year old Kieran Jack chucked $10 on two inconsequential matches. At the time, Jack had little understanding of the AFL’s gambling laws. The AFL nonetheless found it necessary to publicly embarrass Jack, placing the teenager’s name atop the wall of shame with three serial offenders.

Since the AFL first began their crackdown, Simon Goodwin and Daniel Ward have been the only players to have placed more than three figures on football matches. Both have since admitted to serious gambling addictions. By no means do these personal tragedies make either player exempt from the AFL’s strict codes of conduct. Nevertheless, it implies that both Goodwin and Ward never had any desire to manipulate the results of games. Match-fixing was evidently the least of their concerns.

Another key motif of these scandals has been the role of betting companies. I’d hate to be sympathetic towards the proverbial devil, but these corporations have been the ones alerting the AFL to these issues. They evidently want to distance themselves from the word “match fixing” just as much as the AFL.

With this in mind, Wallis should not be admonished for bringing the game into disrepute, but for breaking AFL protocol. He has not necessarily done the wrong thing. He has merely been caught by the dictator.

The extreme penalties imposed on Wallis – and Heath Shaw before him – would imply that football betting is the most offensive threat to the AFL’s credibility. Likewise, this duo must surely be football’s most objectionable characters.

Both these assumptions are far off the mark. On the contrary, 2011’s biggest criminals have been Justin Sherman and Patrick McGinnity.

In June, Sherman baptised Gold Coast then-debutant Joel Wilkinson with a barrage of racial abuse. Two months later, a fiery McGinnity threatened to rape Melbourne forward Ricky Petterd’s mother.

Sherman returned to the VFL for the next four weeks and was forced to make a donation to charity. McGinnity escaped with a one-week rest and a $2500 fine. It’s mystifying how this duo incurred such feeble punishments for their malice, when Wallis and Shaw have been lynched for their harmless negligence.

Furthermore, one can’t help but snicker at how laissez-faire the league has been about tanking allegations. Tanking, remember, refers to the deliberate actions of coaches to secure high draft picks. It’s effectively match-fixing, but with financial capital substituted for human capital.

The string-pullers at football clubs have been intentionally dropping matches for years without punishment. It makes no sense that clubs can get away with this corruption, when a player like Nick Maxwell – who carelessly told his family where he would be playing the following weekend – was publicly humiliated and stripped of his dignity.

This time last year, the AFL couldn’t wait to announce their first illegal drugs victim. After years of endless tests and empty threats, they were finally able to unleash their unforgiving penalties on an unsuspecting victim.

Their focus now is on catching their first match fixer. A few fools have taken the bait so far, but the AFL still eyes their first big fish.

There are two great ironies in all this.

By bringing attention to this issue, the AFL thinks they are the responsible policeman. What they don’t realise is that every sanction they impose is bad press. Their reputation is repeatedly being tarnished by their efforts to hunt down the league’s wicked match fixers.

The other irony is that these culprits probably don’t exist.

This article first appeared on The Roar.