While there appears little doubt the AFL will ensure that Collingwood suspends its convicted young star Marley Williams from home-and-away football, it is astonishing that the Magpies would not reach the decision on their own.
The cynical view is that Nathan Buckley needs to get game time into his prodigiously talented young star, whose legal issues have kept him away from training at a crucial time. Buckley also obviously believes Williams has paid the price for a 2012 violent assault and now needs structure in his life.
The kinder view regarding the still young coach is that he is not afraid to make unpopular public relations decisions in order to stamp his own values and authority on a football team that has for most of his tenure been divided.
Clearly Buckley places a high price on redemption and penance, having witnessed too many examples of players who refuse to embrace change or simply remain repeat offenders.
The Collingwood position is that Williams is no longer the irresponsible teenager who 15 months ago stayed out too late drinking and broke another man’s jaw.
At the time the club stipulated he complete 10 weeks of community service – each Tuesday night working at the Salvation Army soup kitchen, a job Williams has chosen to own on a more senior and still regular basis.
The recontracted Williams, who achieved a top-10 finish in the Copeland Trophy, reportedly did not return home to Albany for Christmas, fearing he could be sucked into the vortex of old habits.
Buckley’s clear stand is that the club could have suspended Williams to appease the AFL and the community on one level when instead it chose to make a cultural statement based on its belief that Williams is truly repentant and has already been punished.
There is also the small matter of precedent in that West Coast rookie Murray Newman, also convicted on a similar charge, has been allowed to play NAB Challenge games. Newman faces sentencing next month.
But precedent dictates that both players be suspended in home-and-away games, just as Michael Hurley (three weeks) and Heath Scotland (two weeks) were after serious assault incidents. On both those occasions, the AFL was compelled to intervene to convince Essendon and Carlton respectively that no less a punishment than the loss of games was acceptable.
Collingwood’s stand indicates that some heavy-handed guidance from AFL integrity boss Andrew Dillon will be required in the Williams case, because Buckley’s intention to play Williams in Sunday’s practice game has demonstrated his clear intention that Collingwood alone will not suspend the player.
Buckley’s belief in Williams at a time when he is trying to reshape the club’s culture and along the way has lost faith in other more proven and better-known players, is a statement with an explanation mark and one supported by his captain and chief executive.
But playing AFL is a privilege and those who choose to do so sign on to a code incomparable with most work places. Whatever Williams’ legal team think of the verdict last week and whatever its predictions regarding sentencing, the 20-year-old must have that privilege removed in the short term.
The AFL will surely make that point on Thursday to Magpie bosses Gary Pert (chief executive) and Rodney Eade (director of football ). If Williams is the clubman Buckley believes he has become, then he will survive the punishment the game and Collingwood’s own standards should demand. And hopefully he will also continue to repay his coach’s faith in him.