Marley Williams.”Just think,” urged the AFL in 2009 in one of several campaigns it has run or lent its weight to in the cause of stamping out ruinous violence by young men. This one was especially powerful because it was initiated by a group of contemporary players.
If Collingwood just thinks now, it will abandon its plan to play Marley Williams in a practice match on the Gold Coast on Sunday, or at any time in the near future. Otherwise, it will repudiate all that the club and the AFL says it stands for.
Fourteen months ago, in his home town of Albany, Williams put himself in the way of the very harm AFL players are sternly counselled to avoid: drunk late at night, in the midst of late-night drunks, aggravation thick in the air. They were evicted. Whether he followed or they loitered is unclear, but one punch later, a man’s jaw was so badly broken that it needed a permanent plate to repair it.
This week, Williams was convicted of inflicting grievous bodily harm. He will be sentenced in April. The maximum penalty is 10 years’ jail. It is improbable that Williams will avoid a custodial sentence.
If you take the cold view that Collingwood is the employer and Williams the employed, it is obvious that he should not play. Collingwood takes a more paternalistic view. It sanctioned Williams at the time of the incident, setting him to work in a Salvos soup kitchen for 10 weeks.
Now it intends to support him through a difficult time, putting ”structure” around his ”limbo”. That means training and playing while waiting. The Magpies would have played him against Richmond last Saturday except that three days of sitting in a WA courtroom had left him unprepared. They intend for him to play against the Suns.
”Step Back. Think” is a Melbourne initiative formed in reaction to three one-punch deaths to alert and educate young men about the catastrophic effects of even a single thoughtless blow. It is at least tacitly supported by the AFL. An ad driving home its message was aired at Etihad stadium last season.
If Collingwood steps back and thinks for a moment now, it will see that playing Williams is folly. First, it will expose him to further scrutiny. More than that, it will reflect poorly on their commitment to the ideals the club and the AFL claim to uphold.
The minimum behaviour expected of an AFL player is to abide by the law of the land; to that extent, Williams already is being dealt with. But AFL players are held to a higher standard. Mostly, they don’t like it, but their extra privileges carry extra responsibilities; they are hand and glove. Junior players, junior clubs, society more broadly take their cues from these exemplars.
If Williams plays for Collingwood while awaiting sentencing, the implicit message will be that all is well in the Collingwood/Williams world, except for the fact of a momentary mistake and the accident of its consequences. Young men to whom such accidents befell lie in hospitals and bedrooms around the country. And in morgues.
Williams is far from the first AFL footballer to have to deal with a conviction or the imminence of one. Each case is different in its gravity and progress, though few have faced a long jail term while playing. The most analogous case at the moment is West Coast rookie Murray Newman, who also has been convicted of grievous bodily harm, also is awaiting sentencing, and is playing in the Eagles’ practice matches.
Collingwood prides itself on being a leader, not one of the led. Captain Scott Pendlebury, once the target of an assault himself, is an ambassador for the ”Be the Influence” campaign, which aims to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence. Across the AFL, the lesson is slowly being learnt, the better that it may be taught.
Step back and think, Magpies.