A treatise on holding the ball

The case for the ‘realisitic attempt’

It’s the most iconic appeal in the game.


Can we all remember our favourite tackle of the year? This is mine.

Beau McCreery destroys Steven May

Of course, holding the ball isn’t just hype.

Holding the ball is a floodwall. It valiantly holds back a sea of uncontested marks, two goal quarters, control-centric game plans, and low turnover games.

Thanks to this glorious rule, possessing the football carries risk. When you have it, it’s gold, but your time is limited by the players around you. Fans feel this responsibility as a tackler approaches, it builds up in our chests in anticipation – and doesn’t it feel great to let rip ‘BALLL!’ when one hits.

But how exactly does it function in the AFL today? Why does it cause so much confusion and pain among supporters, the media – and as Craig McRae’s recent comments about Collingwood’s tackling going ‘unrewarded’ show – even coaches and players?

Let’s use a specific case.

It’s Saturday night, massive qualifying final at the ‘G – you know the setup, we were all watching.

The Daicos brothers tackle Mitch Duncan

Halfway through the fourth in a thriller, the ball is bouncing from Geelong’s defensive 50 to the centre square, and Mitch Duncan tries to possess it. Nick and Josh Daicos lay beautiful, spine-tingling tackles, first at speed, and then on the ground.

It’s not paid holding the ball.

I wasn’t at the game, but the appeal must have been deafening.

So, what happened?

Clearly enough to me, Duncan has no prior opportunity in either of his attempts to possess the football. First he is trying to get hold of it in the air as Nick tackles him – but fails to; and then on the ground Josh gets him before he has a chance to dispose. But he still gets rid of it to advantage.

This falls under what the yellow-shirted, skinny-legged – yes, we would all look that small next to Beau McCreery – elites the AFL employs to officiate games call ‘Incorrect Disposal’.

Some of the first known rules of Australian Football

“Where a Player in Possession of the Football has not had Prior Opportunity, a field Umpire shall award a Free Kick if that Player elects to Incorrectly Dispose of the football when Legally Tackled.” Our sacred tome, the Laws of Australian Football, reads.

“For the avoidance of doubt, a Player does not elect to Incorrectly Dispose of the football when: (a) the Player genuinely attempts to Correctly Dispose of the football.”

This question is at the heart of nearly every contentious holding the ball call.

Did Mitch Duncan ‘genuinely attempt’ to ‘Correctly Dispose of the football’?

The umpire said yes.

And so – my treatise begins.

Incorrect disposal relies entirely on the umpire’s assessment of a player’s intent.

Fundamentally,  it is built on a concept championed by famous German oddball Immanuel Kant and his (honestly not that many) followers. It is called the ‘doctrine of double effect’.

Imagine you knew ordering an especially complicated custom mcflurry from your local Maccas would lead to the pimple-laden youth working there losing the plot at the sight of the order, setting the machine on fire, and burning the place down. Nothing but a single indestructible chicken ‘n’ cheese bun remains, sitting alone on the asphalt.

Let the record show that the doctrine of double effect McFlurry example did not consider the existence of the Tim Tam McFlurry, which can obviously be ethically procured at any cost

The average doctrine of double effect fan would have to say that this is permissible – as long as you really, genuinely only intended to get that mcflurry.

If I try to dispose of the football while being tackled, a bad result of it ‘being thrown’ is allowed, as long as I really pinkie-swear on my mum’s life promise I didn’t intend to throw it. This is because, as Kant might put it, my good will matters most to whether I did the right thing.

This assumption of good will is why holding the ball is so rarely paid when a player has no prior opportunity, even though that is absolutely possible under the rules.

After all, isn’t an umpire correct to basically never decide that a player trying to dispose of the ball wanted to fail at it? When the hell would they? Why have the rule if this applies in every case?

In the case of a handball – by far the most common grey area – a rule built on a ‘genuine attempt’ has serious unintended consequences.

Assuming the good will of the players involved, as well we should, umpiring has ended up legalising any and every handball attempt when players don’t have prior. There’s really only one exception: cynically and obviously throwing the football in a transparent attempt to cheat. Usually though, this is paid as throwing, rather than holding the ball.

There is a solution. Redefine a ‘genuine attempt’ in the rules. Make it ‘An action that the player could reasonably expect to result in a correct disposal’. We would call it the ‘realistic attempt’.

A player beign required to make a realistic attempt, not just a ‘genuine’ attempt, gets at the core of why so many holding the ball non-calls don’t feel fair, it’s the illness Craig McRae’s comments reveal.

Because for things to feel fair, events must feel reciprocal. As nutri-grain ads put it to me as a child – you get out what you put in.

For the AFL to achieve a feeling of ‘fairness’ – which is crucial to it being enjoyable to watch – football must feel reciprocal. It doesn’t even need to actually be reciprocal, but it does need to feel that way. The AFL even acknowledge it in their own Laws – describing holding the ball free kicks as “rewarding an opponent for a Legal Tackle”.

This is no surprise – it feels fair! While some are technically sanctions for illegal play, anyone who has played football knows you ‘earn’ free kicks. You do it by being in a better position than your opponent, being braver than your opponent, by being stronger or faster than your opponent.

You earn the most basic free kick in the game – the mark, purely of your own volition. The central free kick in the AFL rulebook is explicitly earned.

Like it or not, free kicks in Australian football are not penalties. Instead, they are a game resource, one that is sometimes provided as a penalty and sometimes reciprocally. When they are, it feels fair, because that’s what fairness is made of.

So, can we really blame players, coaches, and fans for having a reciprocal relationship with free kicks?

No. We should embrace reciprocity in football. You might say this sacrifices integrity for the sake of the spectacle, but the stated purpose of the laws is ‘to ensure that the game of Australian Football is played in a fair manner’. Fairness is what integrity means.

To bring philosophy back in, you could say I’m arguing to return a Kantian football ethics with focus on ‘good will’ and ‘genuine attempts’ to its medieval roots – the natural law.

Believing in the natural law means believing moral laws are derived from human nature. It means we can know what is right and wrong by looking within.

The double effect idea has its roots in natural law, but it loses its way when applied to football.

A football natural law enjoyer like myself would acknowledge that complicated rulemaking is necessary, and even logically sound. But we would also say that to make good choices, football must look beyond reason alone and listen to its conscience.

What football needs if it hopes to care for its inheritance is self-accusation. When looking at this immortal, crucial rule, the football community must listen closely to the hot rush that fills a true football fan’s heart when a deserving holding the ball goes unpaid yet again.

Our scream of ‘BALL!!!!!’ when a player is smashed cleanly, even with no prior, is a signal of a natural footballing law that lies within us – that ‘just trying’ to dispose of a football is not enough.

This is our collective conscience screaming out in agony. It is our footballing DNA begging for recognition.

Our conscience knows that a footy is a totem, your child to be held, cherished, and correctly used when you have it. If you weren’t willing or able to take care of it, it screams, you should not have picked it up!

When we see a player task themselves with possessing it and disposing of it, with taking care of it, fail, we yearn for blood … as we should.

That shout is football’s natural laws, itching to be freed, yearning to be etched forever on AFL branded paper. It is our duty to redefine a genuine attempt, to let them ascend. It is time put them in their rightful place in our holy book – the official Laws of Australian Football.

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