Time to take the onus for the Brownlow Medal off the umpires

Date: August 22, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Since 1924, the Brownlow Medal has been presented to the best and fairest player in the VFL/AFL as voted by the match-day umpires.

Up until 1930 just one vote was cast per game before it was modified to the 3-2-1 system that is still in place today (when the VFL introduced the two umpire system in 1976 each field umpire voted on a 3-2-1 basis before that system was abandoned ahead of the 1978 season).

Nowadays, within half an hour of the completion of a game the three field umpires confer and by consensus cast their votes.

They reach their verdict without referring to any statistical information or receiving any external input.

The votes are arrived at purely and simply from their own observations throughout the game.

But is that the best way to determine who wins the most coveted individual award in the sport?

Recent history indicates that the medal is pretty much the domain of the midfielders.

Since 1994, only once has the medal gone to a non-midfielder – Sydney ruckman Adam Goodes in 2003 when he shared a three-way tie with midfielders Nathan Buckley and Mark Ricciuto.

Taking into account ties, in the past 20 seasons 22 of the 23 medallists have been midfielders.

In the preceding 20 years (1974-1993) it was a vastly different story with the award being won on 13 occasions by non-midfielders – ruckmen (8), back-pocket (2) and one each from centre half-forward, centre half-back and full-forward.

Perhaps it is the fact that the game has become increasingly possession driven that the midfielders have come so prominently to the fore at each count.

North Melbourne and Adelaide centre-half-forward Wayne Carey, a player regarded by many as the best of all-time, never finished better than third in the count.

In 1995 and 1998 when Carey was voted by his peers the AFL Players’ Association Most Valuable Player he finished sixth in the Brownlow count both times.

It is interesting when you marry up some of the other awards around the league with the outcome of the Brownlow Medal.

One would imagine that the AFL coaches would have a pretty fair idea of the competition’s best players – in fact an infinitely better idea than the umpires.

The coaches are the ones who determine the match-ups and in the end have the best idea of who performed best for their team and also who performed best against them.

The AFL Coaches’ Association created a player of the year award in 2003.

Comparing the winner of their trophy with the respective Brownlow medallist each year is an interesting exercise.

In the 11 seasons since the coaches decided to bestow their own honour for the competition’s best player only three times has it married up with the Brownlow winner – Gary Ablett Jnr (2009), Adam Goodes (2006) and Buckley (2003).

Some of the anomalies have been stark.

Last season Scott Pendlebury was the coaches’ pick and finished sixth in the Brownlow.

In 2011, Marc Murphy got the coaches’ nod but was seventh in the Brownlow, 15 votes behind winner Dane Swan.

When Goodes won the Brownlow in 2006 he shared the coaches’ award with Simon Goodwin who finished a distant 11th in the Brownlow count.

Barry Hall was the coaches’ choice in 2005 yet came home fifth in the Brownlow while the 2004 coaches’ award went to Warren Tredrea who finished equal seventh in the Brownlow with half as many votes as the 30 garnered by winner Chris Judd.

Another interesting comparison can be a club’s best and fairest count.

The winners of the individual club awards are again judged by the head coach in concert with his match committee.

Those voting on the club awards have an infinite knowledge of just how well their players performed in accordance with the roles they were assigned.

Last season only five of the club B & F winners were also the highest vote winners from their team when the Brownlow votes were counted – Nat Fyfe (Fremantle), Joel Selwood (Geelong), Gary Ablett Jnr (Gold Coast), Jeremy Cameron (GWS) and Matt Priddis (West Coast).

Brisbane’s Tom Rockliff finished fourth in the club B & F yet equal sixth in the Brownlow with 21 votes as the Lions’ best vote winner.

Richmond’s Trent Cotchin placed fifth in the club award yet was the best from the Tigers in the Brownlow with 19 votes.

Daniel Hannebery was the top Sydney Swan with 21 Brownlow votes but was fourth in the club B & F.

The most staggering disparity last season was recorded by North Melbourne skipper Andrew Swallow who failed to finish in the top-10 in his club’s award but was the most successful player from the Roos at the Brownlow with 14 votes.

There is no doubting that coaches have a vastly different view of the game when compared to the umpires.

And I would argue that the coaches’ view is a better indicator of who the most valuable player is.

Admittedly, only three times since the inception of the AFL Coaches’ Award has a non-midfielder won but that is three times as many as the Brownlow has thrown up in the same period.

In most sports the code’s best player award is not solely judged by the match officials – if at all.

The Allan Border Medal awarded by Cricket Australia to the best overall international player each year has a system that sees votes awarded by the umpires, teammates and members of the cricket media chosen on a game-by-game basis.

The Dally M medal in the NRL is chosen as a result of votes cast by the media.

The MVP in the NBA is determined by votes cast by sportswriters and broadcasters as is the MVP in Major League Baseball.

The Norm Smith Medal, awarded to the best player in the VFL/AFL grand final since 1979 is voted on by a panel of football experts chosen by the league.

For mine, the Brownlow should not be the sole preserve of the umpires but broadened so as to canvas more diverse input.

I would still have the umpires voting along with the two coaches and one former player who is working on the game for a media outlet.

Many may argue that the coaches will have a vested interest in promoting their own players but if you look at the weekly votes in the current coaches’ award it would appear that is not the case.

A players’ ineligibility could still remain with respect to the “fairest” component of the Brownlow – if so desired.

Nowadays, the majority of player suspensions and reprimands are delivered via the Match Review Panel without them having been raised by the umpires anyway.

Should a player be reprimanded or found guilty by the MRP or a subsequent tribunal hearing they become ineligible as they normally are.

I think the game at the highest level has become incredibly onerous for the umpires.

The very nature of the way the game is played nowadays, having moved significantly away from the goal-to-goal linear style of days past, has made the umpires’ job infinitely more challenging.

To expect them to be the only arbiters of the sport’s premier individual award is to my way of thinking no longer best for the game.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 21 August 2014