AFL dishes out fines for Covid-19 breaches but they represent no more than a slap on the wrist | Scott Heinrich

In an ideal world, 20 consecutive days of competition should be enough to keep the conversation to matters on the field. But not even the AFL’s so-called festival of footy can offer distraction from the reality that clubs are walking the tightrope when it comes to Covid-19 and the responsibility that is theirs to do the right thing.

In the past week, five clubs – Collingwood, Hawthorn, Carlton, North Melbourne and Richmond – have been fined for violating the code’s return-to-play protocols. Some of the breaches are worse than others, but each provides proof in spades that the Covidsafe measures imposed by the AFL are being taken as seriously as civilians regard pedestrian crossings: one really should wait for the green man, but what’s the worst thing that can happen?

It is all well and good for clubs to make the right noises when it comes to the threat of Covid-19, and at an administrative level they are doing just that. “On behalf of the club, I would like to apologise to the AFL, all clubs, our Hawthorn members and the broader community for stepping outside of the protocols, putting the game at risk and bringing our club into disrepute,” Jeff Kennett, the club’s president, said after non-selected players ventured into a public area at the SCG. But people – unfortunately, in these matters – have minds of their own.

What would compel Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley and one of his assistants to organise a social game of tennis with Alicia Molik and her coach? What was Brooke Cotchin – wife of Richmond captain, Trent – thinking when she stole away a spot of pampering at a day spa – and then posted evidence of her indulgences on social media?

George Constanza would say people this stupid should not be allowed to live. Graciously, the AFL does not deal in capital punishment. It will be hoping its less draconian response serves as a wake-up call to others that protocols are not in place to make the game look good in the public eye. In what evidently comes as a surprise to some, they are there to be followed.

To allow the season to continue outside the disaster zone that is Victoria, governments and officials in other states have bent over backwards to accommodate the AFL. The actions of the guilty few are ignorant at best, at worst arrogant and selfish. The health and wellbeing of players and staff is one thing; a season brought to its knees by a coronavirus outbreak is quite another. AFL general counsel, Andrew Dillon, said “we all have to modify our behaviours in order for the competition to continue in a safe manner”. That the AFL were tight-lipped last week – “in order to protect the well-being of the club people, the details of these breaches will remain between club and the AFL” – when other clubs have been denied such luxuries smacks of double standards, but the move is beside the point. Action has been taken.

And for now, it is hoped fines will do the trick. With half of the amounts suspended across the board, however, even they represent no more than a slap on the wrist. The AFL could, and should, impose suspensions, loss of premiership points and penalties at the national draft for repeat offenders.

The Collingwood breach is the most fascinating of all. To his credit Buckley confessed to his sins following the loss to Fremantle on Sunday, admitting he had “let the club down”. He added: “There has been almost weekly updates or changes to what has occurred and I’m not making an excuse but that is the reality that clubs are facing and probably some of the slip-ups have stemmed from that. But I need to be better, we need to be better.”

The episode, though, portrays the Magpies, and specifically Eddie McGuire, in a less than favourable light. The Collingwood president has been outspoken in his views that anyone caught flouting Covid-19 protocols should have the book thrown at them, suggesting last week guilty parties should be made to “go home”. It left Buckley and Brenton Sanderson with little choice but to pick up the tab for the non-suspended part of the club’s fine – something the Cotchin family should also do – but it also betrayed a level of hypocrisy in McGuire’s do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do rhetoric. Neither Buckley, Sanderson nor past offender Steele Sidebottom will be going home. It will slide off his back as controversy always does with McGuire, who has responded to criticism with his usual bluster. He has been “completely misconstrued as usual”, you see.

There are no shortage of talking points from the weekend – Majak Daw’s inspirational return, Port Adelaide and Brisbane’s confirmation as the teams to beat, Richmond’s re-emergence – but focus will remain off the field while there are some willing to compromise the safety of others.

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