by Gerard Whateley

Tricky.

That’s how I’d describe the AFL’s decision to allow Jaidyn Stephenson to play in the VFL on Saturday.

Tricky and manipulative.

If you take this back to its origin, the penalty for gambling on games he was involved in was completely arbitrary.

It was negotiated and contrived. It was presented in the gravest possible terms.

The ban began at 22 matches – the principle understood to be a season. It was a sound precedent.

It was wound back to 10 matches through the convenience of suspending a portion of the penalty and was obviously linked to the remainder of the regular season.

Again the intent was clear. Stephenson would be banned until finals.

It was debated as too lenient and too harsh. The number was arbitrary and opportune.

The penalty offered the 20-year-old hope of a finals return rather than snuffing out his entire season.

Now the penalty has been altered further.

A literal 10-game suspension and because Collingwood plays the Friday night fixture in the AFL, Stephenson is free to play VFL the following day with the ban served.

His penalty prescribed 10 matches and specifically mandated he couldn’t play VFL during that period.

The adjustment holds up to no level of scrutiny.

Stephenson himself decided it was worth asking the question. Brilliant by him. Collingwood took his case to the AFL.

I reckon they would have expected a pretty quick “No, thanks for asking”.

Bizarrely the AFL agreed with the submission. So what are we to think?

We are to believe there’s a difference between the penalties issued by the integrity department and those handed down through the tribunal system.

There is no difference in the language. Every week the MRO report deals in games rather than weeks.

"In summary, he can accept a one-match sanction with an early plea."

It is precisely the same principle and language used through the integrity department.

"The AFL has today suspended Collingwood's Jaidyn Stephenson for 22 matches, with 12 matches to be suspended."

Under this literal interpretation a player could be suspended in the VFL, SANFL or WAFL and as long as his AFL game the following round was played after the state league match he’d be eligible to play.

And we all know that’s not the case.

The AFL with solemn scowls told us how serious the Stephenson offences were and the threat they represented to the integrity of the game.

Now they’ve endorsed the manipulation of the punishment and undermined their own premise.

And it directly affects the season.

It’s a tremendous leg up for Stephenson to be able to play this weekend rather than go cold turkey into the first week of the finals without a competitive hit out since June 10.

He knows it.

It’s why he asked the question in the first place. It’s poor governance by the AFL.

It’s inconsistent with how the rules governing suspensions have always been understood.

And it treats us as fools.

It’s tricky.

Tricky and manipulative.