This year, the AFL, along with many leagues worldwide, have found themselves in hot water upon the possibility of facing hefty lawsuits over past mis-management of concussion protocols in the sport.

The saddening stories of Danny Frawley, Shane Tuck, Liam Picken and many others have raised glaring issues with regard to head trauma in sport that has ruined the lives of retired athletes and their families. The discussion has been further amplified by recent incidents involving the McCartin brothers, Paddy and Tom, who have been sidelined for a number of weeks now with disheartening concussions in-game. The issue not only affects the head-trauma victims and their families, but may cost the AFL millions of dollars for not acting appropriately.

Thus, the league has been forced to make changes, particularly around how to eliminate head contact in tackles. There are now strict consequences for slinging and dumping actions that leave players at risk of being concussed. As a result, players are copping suspensions for tackles that have typically been allowed in the competition for over a century.

Many have argued that there is too much 'grey area' to make these sorts of adjudications, and that you can't remove head contact in a sport like Aussie Rules. But the fact of the matter is that there is a grey area in essentially every facet of our sport.

There is a grey area in the definition of 'prior opportunity' in the 'holding the ball' rule. There is a grey area within the intent of players in the 'deliberate out-of-bounds' rule. There is even a grey area in the 'high contact' rule, given the ability of players to manipulate tackles to slip above the shoulder.

While it may seem that the change in tackling adjudications compromises the physicality of the sport, this is simply not true. Players are still within their rights to tackle aggressively and bump opposition players, so long as there is no danger in the risk of head contact.

In the long term, the updated tackling rules are good for the sport. The AFL is creating a new skill in the game; to be able to tackle a player without allowing their head to hit the ground. This skill is necessary for the health of the league and shows that the AFL is acting on the issue of concussion.

Still, the majority of fans, particularly online, are furious with the changes, and some players have even voiced their confusion, with Essendon defender Andrew McGrath seeking clarification before the Anzac Day clash last week.

“I think for all the players, we'd love clarification – I think we play a game that's so random and chaotic at times, and when you're not exactly sure what's allowed and what's not allowed, there's been a lot of cases in the last few weeks of players getting done for similar incidents," McGrath said ahead of the match.

“So it'd be great to get a little bit of clarification … we're sort of figuring out what's fair, what's not fair.”

The topic has also featured countless times on AFL talk shows, with headlines and thumbnails emphasising the controversy and confusion of players, coaches and media members. This has only fuelled the fire within AFL fans who are unhappy with the apparent inconsistencies around the slinging and dumping rules.

Last week on Footy Classified, there was a segment discussing the controversial MRO decisions throughout the first six rounds of the season.

Former Geelong champion and Footy Classified panel member Jimmy Bartel presented a slideshow of tackles in the first six rounds which have resulted in suspensions of players, before highlighting two tackles that were not cited to the MRO, giving the indication that they should have been.

 

The second of the 'non-cited' tackles can be viewed at 1:04 of the video and depicts an Angus Brayshaw tackle on Maurice Rioli Jnr in Melbourne's Anzac Day Eve win over the Tigers, which went by with no whistle or live replay.

When watching it, you can see that Rioli Jnr releases the ball as he is tackled by Brayshaw and his head makes no contact with the ground. Upon replay, there is an obvious restraint in the aggression of the tackle after the ball was released, followed by a careful completion of the tackle where Brayshaw drops Rioli onto his body before he safely rolls over with minimal force.

This is the perfect example of how to tackle effectively and safely when a slinging action is necessary. He halts the slinging action mid-tackle as the ball is released and makes sure to drop Rioli onto his body rather than his head.

This is the third note-worthy example this season of a player learning and adapting to the rule change. We saw Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs and Jed McEntee of the Power perform similar actions the week before, when both could have easily dumped their opponents on the ground with excessive force and cost themselves a week or more.

Bontempelli's tackle happened against Fremantle at Optus Stadium, when he pinned Jaeger O'Meara and brought him to the ground by turning his body and carefully landing him on his knees. McEntee's tackle came against West Coast where he wrapped up Jamaine Jones and slung him across the boundary line before halting the action, keeping his feet and allowing Jones to remain upstanding rather than continuing the tackle into the ground.

These two examples were highlighted by David King on First Crack, April 23, and show how both a great of the game and a third-game rookie are capable of adapting their tackling techniques to meet the rule requirements.

Obviously, the rule cannot be perfected immediately, but the fact that we have three case studies of players applying a duty of care in their tackles is a great sign.

AFL fans and media members need to be more patient with the controversial adjudications. Nearly all rule changes are contentious in the beginning, but as with every one, the confusion will fade as the rule implants itself more.

For now however, if a player performs a tackle with a slinging or dumping action without applying a duty of care as shown by the three cases mentioned, there will be penalties, and rightly so.

We will undoubtedly have more unfortunate suspensions throughout the season. But with time, teams will start practising the skill of tackling without the risk of head contact in the way that Bontempelli, McEntee and Brayshaw have all shown.

It may only take one pre-season of training for all AFL players to adapt and we will soon see the effects trickle down into local leagues and into the basic conventions of footy.