The footy world was quick to wrap its arms around AFLW star Taylor Harris after she was subjected to sexist and misogynistic innuendo regarding an Instagram post of her kicking a Sherrin football.
While I was one of many who applauded the overwhelmingly supportive response towards Harris, it seems as if the saga highlighted a double standard amongst the football community when it comes to quelling abuse.
If we can call out disgusting behaviour directed towards female footballers, why can’t we do the same in respect of the AFL’s men and women in green.
The trumpeting of a ‘respect the umpires’ rhetoric is often channeled through several tired clichés.
“You can’t have a game without them,” some will say.
“Cut them some slack, they’re trying their best,” others will remark.
Whilst true, I fear such an approach has done more harm than good in mitigating malicious conduct towards the AFL’s whistle blowers, in the sense that the issue of umpiring abuse has been defined as cut and dry.
As a former umpire, I am all too familiar with being lashed with hateful remarks from fans, coaches and players alike. Yet, it seems as if the AFL has conjured up the idea that umpires are immune to being threatened, sworn at and in some cases physically assaulted. While the ‘green team’ may have thicker skin than some, the abuse directed towards umpires doesn’t magically wash off and dwindle away once the final siren sounds.
When a player is racially vilified, our game makes a stand to call out the act in the hope of eradicating the broader issue of racism.
When an AFLW player is discriminated against based on their gender, our game comes together to call out the act and shape community attitudes towards women in sport.
When a player is dealing with mental health issues, our game comes together to dispel the stigma that men can’t seek support when they are struggling to deal with their emotions.
When an umpire is abused by a fan at the footy, our game doesn’t even raise an eyebrow at the issue. We let it happen again, and again. This isn’t about comparing racism and sexism to umpiring abuse. Each are separate issues which need to be dealt with through separate means.
What’s critical is that an AFL fan’s depiction of an AFL umpire is altered to align with reality, not the presumption that our top officials are ‘robotic’ in nature.
I always chuckle when scrolling through the comments scattered across AFL pages on social media.
“3 votes to the umpire.”
“Free kick Hawthorn.”
“The umpiring cost my team a win.”
It’s easy to play the blame game when it comes to umpires. It’s even easier when the AFL doesn’t even give the umpires any sense of identity in the eyes of the fans. Recent rule changes have also driven a wedge between umpires and the wider football community. We’ve all the seen the controversy surrounding the ‘jumper punch’ rule and its interpretation.
What we have also seen is our umpires being made scapegoats for simply trying their best to get it right. If there is anybody fans should be attacking, it should be Gil McLachlan and co. After all, umpires don’t write the rule book, they read and interpret it.
Abused on the job
When the ball is bounced and proceedings commence, umpires have officially started work for their day or night. Yet, they will face tirades of vulgar language for the duration of a given game, the fans seizing any potential mistake as a chance to pile abuse on the umps.
Can you imagine sitting at work everyday and copping it from your colleagues or from someone watching you through the window?
When the young apprentice gets the lunch order wrong, their co-workers don’t demean them to the point that they want to quit. By-standers watching the workers don’t start heckling them.
When the administrative assistant mixes up the documents, they won’t be called a “blind maggot.”
Can you also imagine having to work in front of thousands and thousands of people, getting a split second to decide between a ball up and holding the ball?
Yes, it’s overstated, but we all make mistakes in our working and everyday lives. Why should umpires be exempt from the safety net of forgiveness when they make an error?
Umpiring numbers declining
Whilst the normalisation of umpiring abuse would no doubt have a detrimental impact on the mindset of young umpires, there was a 4% increase in umpiring numbers in 2018 as compared to the previous year. It is so important to maintain this momentum, and it is vital to ensure young umpires feel safe in performing their duties. Having them sign up is one thing - retaining them is another issue all together.
Like the next superstars of the AFL playing group, the next crop of professional umpires will be borne out of the grass roots ranks.
At a community level, there has been a spate of nation-wide attacks on footy officials:
· A teenage umpire was forced to lock themselves in the change rooms to avoid ominous threats
· A senior WA umpire was physically assaulted after a game
· An umpire was reported to have ‘run for his life’ after being subjected to vile threats
But it’s not just the ‘Average Joe’ of the fans who are to blame for terrorising umpires and officials.
Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson admitted to and later apologised for abusing an umpire at a junior football game.
Former Kangaroo Glenn Archer was convicted of assaulting a runner, but it was overturned on appeal.
It’s role models like these who are integral pieces in solving the puzzles of other issues in the football world.
Commentators are another catalyst behind the growth in umpiring abuse. Whether it’s Wayne Carey saying, “that was an absolute shocker,” or Matthew Richardson remarking “the umpire got that wrong,” footy’s commercial media figures are quick to heap criticism on our umpires.
Often such criticism is false – it’s ludicrous to think that ex-players can retort advice to umpires without even knowing the ins and outs of the discipline.
Abuse: call it out
If the AFL is seriously concerned about growing our game, then now is the time to stamp out umpiring abuse for good. Gil and his team may be stroking the cheque book at will, but the commercialisation of the game still relies on a team of men and women in green calling the shots.
The next time you’re at the footy, why not challenge yourself to view the umpires in a different light? If a decision angers you, bite your tongue and realise we all make mistakes. If somebody hurls an insult at an umpire, call it out for what it is: abuse.
We are one football community.
We stand united against racism.
We stand united against sexism.
We stand united against bullying.
We stand united against actions contrary to the spirit of our great game.
Is there any reason why we shouldn’t stand united against umpiring abuse?
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