AFL Umpiring: The Pink Polka Dot Elephant In The Room

Let’s talk about umpiring.

They say if you don’t recognise the umpire, they are doing a good job – and sadly, of late, the AFL’s umpiring department has been recognised by the footballing public – and it’s time to analyse why.

It was just over a year ago that current Essendon Coach and former AFL general manager of football, Brad Scott, uttered ‘there is no acceptable level of dissent to umpires.’ As an umpire of ten years, myself, I wholeheartedly agree with that remark. And whilst I certainly don’t agree with paying free kicks against a player who merely questions an umpire’s decision, I do believe the league needs to do more in stamping out abuse toward the men and women in green. I penned an article about that topic a while back:

But, going against the grain, I wanted to put together a piece that acknowledges the importance of not using the anti-dissent argument to exonerate umpires of their responsibility to perform their duties to a high standard.

It is a standard that I believe has not been met of late.

Without rattling off a list of umpiring decisions made over the weekend which were peculiar to say the least, its fair to say that Collingwood’s ever-so-slight victory over the Crows came amidst some umpiring that simply didn’t cut it. But, don’t take my word for it, take that of the AFL’s Head of Umpiring, Dan Richardson, who acknowledged, in respect of the Nathan Murphy incident, that the umpires ‘missed the initial free kick and subsequently the process of managing the blood rule was not followed.’

When the AFL is acknowledging it made a mistake, well, then you know the AFL has a problem. And currently, that problem is to do with its umpiring standards.


An experienced list but does that make it an effective one?

A quick scan of the AFL umpiring list indicates that the senior panel is choc-full of experience. Umpires Brett Rosebury, Simon Meredith and Matt Stevic stand out as umpires who have crossed the 400 game mark, with Matthew Nicholls, Chris Donlon and Ray Chamberlain close behind. In many organisations, such wealth of experience would be cherished – but in umpiring land, it seems as though ‘list clogging’ is occurring – whereby younger umpires endeavouring to work their way up the ranks, are simply unable to by virtue of the fact that there are so few rookie or senior umpiring spots up for grabs. It’s a situation that has only beenexacerbated the implementation of the four umpire system which, presumably, is going to extend the careers of many of the ageing umpires. This is by no means to say that an ageing umpire cannot be at the top of their game – for me, Matt Stevic stands out as umpire who continues to excel at his craft. However, there must be increased opportunities for younger umpires to get their crack at the big time – after all, this is what happens with AFL clubs; the veterans must eventually make way for the emerging rookies on any list.


Rule changes hurt umpires

It goes without saying that AFL is one of the hardest sports to officiate. AFL House has not made it any easier of late, with rule changes galore over the last few years causing immense difficulties for umpires.

Take the dangerous tackle for example – it’s evident that umpires our now second guessing themselves when it comes down to the crunch of whether or not they should blow the whistle. Naturally, when in doubt, an umpire will tend to pay a free kick. The fall-back of this being that a further disconnect is being created between players, fans and the men and women in green – a derivative of rash and poorly thought-through rule changes. It is likely that the rule changes have been the catalyst for some iffy decision making in recent time.


Bouncing – if its not straight, call it back

This is more of an ego and pride thing – and believe me, I have been there before. As an umpire, the ability to bounce the ball in the centre of the ground must be part of your tool kit, well for now anyway, as it appears that the bounce is on the way out. That should not operate as an excuse for umpires who have allowed some very poor bouncing to be called ‘play on’ this season. It has been seen far too often this year. If the bounce is poor, then the umpire has an obligation to recall it and throw it up. Allowing play to otherwise continue can result in a lopsided and unfair contest and goes against the very essence of the centre square ball up. It might seem like a minor grouch in the scheme of things, but it could have very significant consequences for a team should a scoring opportunity eventuate from a one-sided bounce down within the contest.


How can things improve?

It is unhelpful to whack an umpire for making poor decisions, without detailing a way in which umpiring standards across the board can be improved.

Ideally, the administration of the list should be democratised to allow for more selection opportunities for younger, inexperienced umpires – this could be through widening the list pool to include umpires officiating within state leagues, such as the Victorian Football League, South Australian National Football League and Western Australian Football League. Using the implementation of the four umpiring system to greater effect, the AFL could mandate that a quota of the umpiring pool is to be made up of umpires with a lower level (if any) of umpiring experience at the highest level.

As alluded to earlier, experience can be a blessing and a curse. Bringing on board younger, eager umpires keen to hone their craft at the top level may be the tonic the AFL needs to improve its umpiring standards. After all, when you have been in any job for long enough, well, you can get comfortable and complacent. It’s important the AFL does not let this scenario seep into the AFL ranks. In fact, its even more important when you think of the umpiring shortage that exists across the country.

Young boys and girls should be able to dream about officiating on the big stage much the same as those who dream of playing on the big stage – having that clear pipeline of progression for umpires and a more even spread of seniority and youth will clearly be able to make umpiring a more attractive discipline to pursue.

Umpiring will never be perfect – I have made my fair share of mistakes over the years. The importance is in minimising the mistakes and keeping the umpiring ranks sharp and agile. If this, in turn with a shifting administrative approach to reduce the weight that bears down on umpires as a result of constant rule changes, can occur, I have every ounce of faith that fans can head on down to a game of football and walk away talking about the players and not the men and women in green.

If we can reach that point in time, that will be a very good thing, indeed.


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