It was the ugliest moment in what was otherwise a thrilling AFL round. When Richmond’s Bachar Houli crudely swung his arm out and struck Carlton’s Jed Lamb in the face. The strike knocked him out cold and he did not return to the field for the rest of the game suffering a concussion. It was an incident we do not want to see in any sport.
Houli was reported right there and then, his conduct was referred straight to the AFL Tribunal due to the seriousness of the charge as it was a high impact blow to the head. Despite clear video evidence Houli had the audacity to plead not guilty arguing the strike was not intentional.
Most AFL pundits predicted a lengthy ban, but were left stunned by the tribunal’s decision to suspend him for a meager two weeks. There was widespread condemnation for the fact that tribunal appeared to be convinced by the character references given to Houli from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Project host Waleed Aly. Even the left-wing Age condemned the punishment and said that Houli’s clean record or high profile character references should not have reduced his ban.
The result of the tribunal’s decision has been to blow this up into a national scandal. Many AFL fans and ordinary Australians believe that Houli was received preferential treatment because he is the AFL’s most prominent Muslim player and is involved in promoting the game to Muslim youths through the Bachar Houli Cup and Bachar Houli Academy.
Plus using the Prime Minister and a Muslim TV host as character references also looks like he was using high profile connections to escape a punishment. On Monday Houli was able to get Malcolm Turnbull to give $625,000 of taxpayers’ money to the Bachar Houli Cup where Turnbull heaped praise on his community leadership skills.
Even though it is only an AFL tribunal decision it has the effect of communicating to Australian community that there appears to be one rule for ordinary Australians and another if you are from a perceived victim group. There is now a deep resentment developing in the AFL fan community for the manner in which Houli has successfully weaseled out of a just punishment.
This resentment could be still there when he returns to the field after his two-match ban (if it stays that way). There are suggestions now that opposition fans could boo him in the same manner that Adam Goodes was in his final year of football. Of course, that development would then turn Houli’s career into another aspect of the culture wars. The left would argue he is being booed because we are a racist and Islamophobic country, not because Houli abused his standing with the cultural elite to get out of a just punishment.
All of this outrage could have been prevented if Houli had just been prepared to admit he did the wrong thing, copped his punishment and things would have moved on. It also could have been avoided if the AFL Tribunal had just upheld the laws of the game and given Houli the appropriate punishment.
Not that we should have expected much of them but Malcolm Turnbull and Waleed Aly should not have sought to unduly influence the decision of the AFL Tribunal with such glowing character references, especially when such character references are so unprecedented in an AFL disciplinary hearing.
If the outrage from this decision does carry on when Houli returns to the game, don’t blame it on allegedly racist and Islamophobic AFL fans, blame it on the people who contributed the laws of the game not being applied equally to all players. The fallout from this is entirely on their head.