The AFL missed a real chance this week to drive home how serious they are about players making intentional contact with umpires.
Adelaide youngster Jake Soligo is free to play in Thursday night's highly-anticipated ‘Gather Round' opener against Carlton at Adelaide Oval after getting away with just a fine for forcefully shoving a goal umpire during the Crows' 39-point win over Fremantle last weekend.
Soligo committed the action after soccering a clever goal from the goal square and, presumably in an overly-excited state, wanted to make sure the goal umpire realised that he got a toe on the ball and therefore scored a six-pointer for his team.
But that is no excuse to ever intentionally make contact with an umpire. In fact, there is no excuse to ever intentionally make contact with an umpire.
The league rightfully and commendably took a strong stand in late 2021 by stepping in via its appeals board to double Greater Western Sydney superstar Toby Greene's ban to six weeks for deliberately walking into umpire Matt Stevic at three-quarter time during the Giants' elimination final against Sydney in Launceston.
The AFL's tribunal initially slapped Greene with a three-week suspension for making "aggressive, demonstrative and disrespectful" contact with Stevic, but the penalty was “manifestly inadequate” according to the league, and was eventually stretched out considerably.
Granted, Soligo's action wasn't as serious because Greene had plenty of time to think about what he was about to do, and it almost seemed to be premeditated, while Soligo carried out a spur-of-the-moment reflex movement.
But you could still argue that it was “aggressive” and possibly even “disrespectful”. He certainly didn't tickle the goal umpire.
Ultimately, the MRO found the young Crow made "unreasonable or unnecessary contact" with the umpire. That's a pretty generous assessment.
This writer is of the belief that a suspension of 1-2 weeks would've been an appropriate sanction just to send the clear message to not only AFL players, but lower-level footballers all across the country as well, that intentionally touching umpires is simply unacceptable.
Soligo purposely taps the umpire after kicking a goal...👀
— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 8, 2023
One week would've done the trick, but it wouldn't have been a terrible thing to see Soligo sit out two.
In coming down hard on Greene in September 2021, the AFL took such big strides in its stance on umpire contact, and looked like it had set the course irrevocably from that point in time towards harsh treatment of players who dare intentionally touch umpires.
But by treating Soligo with kid gloves, they have undone almost all of that good work and, quite frankly, have given the green light for players to push and shove umpires like Soligo did, because they'll probably only get fined for it.
The VFL/AFL has come a long way from such infamous incidents as Collingwood's John Bourke pushing a field umpire to the ground during a reserves match in 1985, and Essendon's Phil Carman headbutting a boundary umpire in 1980, resulting in six-year and 20-match suspensions respectively.
And in more recent times, as the AFL has tried to grapple with how best to deter players from getting physical with umpires, it too has adopted a much more common-sense approach to the issue.
After all, if Geelong superstar Jeremy Cameron had accidentally cannoned into a boundary umpire while celebrating a goal back in 2001, as he did on Easter Monday, he almost certainly would have copped a two-week suspension as Bulldog Todd Curley did for a similar incident 22 years ago.
Nobody wants to see over-the-top penalties, such as what Curley received, be reintroduced, but neither should a lenient approach be taken.
A balance has to be reached, and in the most recent instance, Soligo should consider himself very lucky.