“This is the worst umpiring I’ve seen since….”
At some point in every game I hear those words, usually coming out of my own mouth. When I get on social media after the game, I see fellow footy fans echoing my thoughts: “The umpiring has been terrible this year”. Which got me thinking, when were we, as a football loving public, ever happy with the umpires?
I cast my mind back to WAFL games I attended with my father. Nope we weren’t too happy then, judging by some of the stuff I heard in the crowd. Maybe it was later on at the beginning of the expanded VFL/AFL? Nope, I’m pretty certain no one was all that happy then. Was it at the beginning of footy on the internet, when we would go to footy sites to look at other fans’ reactions to a game? No, definitely not then either – of anything the complaining escalated.
Or is it now in the social media age? Definitely not. I’ve seen poor umpiring blamed for everything from teams losing to crowd violence. That’s right: people wouldn’t fight in the crowd if the umpiring was better. You heard it here first.
So is it the worst ever? And if it is, what are we going to do about it?
First things first. Of course it’s the worst, mainly because it’s more visible and more highly scrutinized now than ever before.
When I started watching footy as a kid, one game of WAFL footy was broadcast each week. If you went to a game there was no screen to watch a replay of anything at the venue, let alone a dubious free kick. The umpiring department certainly didn’t turn up on the TV during the week to explain the contentious decisions. There was one segment on the telly called: What’s your decision?
In this segment, the umpires would view a bit of video and explain the decision. Sunday night we would watch the winners and assume that the VFL ran on wall to wall highlights. Umpires? I couldn’t tell you about them. Didn’t know their names.
Fast forward to 2019; there are two screens to watch the replay on at most games, we can go to our phone to check the free kick count (which means nothing by the way) and we can check Twitter for other fans reactions, feeding the beast that is the outrage we’re feeling. If we are watching at home, one of the 14 special comments people will give us an explanation of why that wasn’t a free kick in his day, while it’s replayed from multiple angles on super slo-mo.
Now, we could probably go through some stats to work out if the umpiring is worse or better but what stat would we look at: number of free kicks paid? Do we want more or less? Number of mistakes made by the umpires? Well, as we learnt in the wake of recent umpiring fiascos, they simply don’t make (I have a theory why and I’ll come to it). Number of fights in the crowd, perhaps?
And besides, this is an opinion piece and we can’t have pesky facts getting in the way now can we?
So let’s assume it’s worse than ever, what are we going to do about it?
I’ll tell you.
You heard me. Absolutely nothing. Why? Because, wait for this… umpiring has absolutely no effect on the outcome of games.
Right at this point I can see people wondering if I’m a little bit challenged, and preparing to give me a whole bunch of “what abouts…”.
So here’s what I think - when I’m thinking rationally; please don’t expect me to believe this at three quarter time of any game - there are close to 120 minutes of football in every game. There are hundreds of kicks, marks and handballs, pressure acts, tackles, bounces and tap outs every week. There are injuries, fatigue and game plans - both good and bad. And then there are a truckload of mistakes, mainly due to pressure. Some real, some imagined. Most of these mistakes are being made by the players, but the odd one is being made by an umpire.
These mistakes are made within the pressure of what I think must be one of the hardest games in the world to umpire. Constant rule changes, play going in every direction, a large playing field and a guarantee that regardless of whether your decision is correct or not somebody somewhere will question it.
The “what about” in all this is the close games What about the 2018 Grand Final, ANZAC Day 2019 or even Sydney v Essendon on Friday night in May? In every case I won’t have to travel far to find someone who can point to umpiring mistakes late in the game that “cost” their side the victory, but the problem with that theory is it conveniently ignores every other action and mistake that got us to that point in the game. Any missed free kick or player clanger in the first quarter is ignored in favour of the mistakes made by one person in the last few minutes. Also, keep in mind if the decision had gone ‘your way’ then a similar number of people on the other side of the coin would be howling that the umpire should have just put the whistle away and let them play.
Now of course, during the week the AFL will say that nobody made any mistakes. My theory on this is a result of the AFL’s affiliation with betting agencies. While I’m happy to accept that these decisions have no effect on the game, I’m wondering whether punters or - perhaps more importantly to the AFL - the bookmakers might get a little funny about results being called into question later in the week. The denial of any wrongdoing is possibly a cover against litigation.
Like it or not, the gambling companies have influence within our game. And it’s a stretch as to whether that can ever be construed as a positive.
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