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Have the AFL and Gillon McLachlan dropped the ball?

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Jeremy Howe put his leg into Tom McDonald’s back. Howe lifted off, craned backwards, reached for the ball and held a mark while almost horizontal.

Jeremy Howe with the mark (that wasn't) over Tom McDonald during the Queen's Birthday clash at the MCG.Credit:Wayne Ludbey

It was a moment of balletic beauty. Unless you were McDonald, in which case you had cuts on your back from Howe's boot. Howe had lifted those in the seats just the other side of the fence onto their feet to scream in joy. It was everything good and unique in the game.

Whistle. Free kick.

The AFL had changed the rules. Again. The AFL football department backed the umpire’s decision the next day, and warned similar moments would be judged that way for the rest of the year.

Days later, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan contradicted his football department's view. He said he understood why the umpire paid the free but he’d prefer that free kicks were not paid in those situations and that high marks were rewarded. But the moment was gone.

“The Jeremy Howe thing was bigger than the AFL realised," a club figure said. "A player takes a hanger on Queen's Birthday – big crowd, a blockbuster - and the umpire says 'no, it’s a free' because of some new rule.

“It was everything the fans hate about the AFL. Suddenly, they’re trying to get rid of the high mark because you put your foot on someone’s back. I mean, spare me - every high mark ever taken would be a free kick."

The high mark was in danger because of a rule introduced during the off-season to stop players, like GWS star Toby Greene, dangerously sticking their leg out with the "studs up" to take a mark.

“It was rules on the run," the club figure said. "They wanted to take the mark away because of something Toby Greene did which should have just been a free kick on the day and we’d never be having this conversation. They wonder why people think they are out of touch.”

The problem was not the free kick. It was the muted response to it which fed the growing idea of an AFL out of step with its fans.

The season started with smudgy iPhone videos filling news bulletins with images of bodies falling over rows of seats, frightened mothers and uncles grabbing children out of the way as drunk men flailed arms at one other.

A mother wrote a compelling piece in The Age about her fear of taking her children to the footy. The outer was no place for a family any more, she argued.

This time, the AFL acted quickly and decisively, and increased security. Then they dropped the ball.

They allowed three things to happen.

First, when the security presence at stadiums ramped up, the tone of the policing no longer looked protective and instead felt threatening.

Second, the AFL completely removed itself from the football conversation. The security discussion was hijacked by those who claimed the security was now an attack on freedom of speech – or rather, freedom to........

© Brisbane Times