Umpiring Australian Rules Football: A guide for passionate parents and spectators (from a former umpire)

The SANFL Juniors faced an umpire shortage this year

Like many people, I love watching the AFL. I’ve had a cousin who played AFL for St Kilda, and I’ve had an uncle who played for Essendon in the ’70s and ‘80s — the team I support to this day. I want to make one thing perfectly clear: All umpires are doing the best they can to uphold the rules as they interpret them. Australian Rules Football can sometimes be a messy sport, and the game is constantly evolving. Perhaps somewhat frustratingly, the rules get fractured somewhat at different levels of the game; however, so long as everyone is on the same page, the game can be played more or less as it was intended to be played generations ago. While the element of professionalism has undoubtedly made the game better in many respects (such as faster and more skilful play, in addition to complete coverage on TV), the gameplay has also become marginally corrupted in recent years. To give you just one high-profile example, allow me to direct your attention below to Exhibit A.

Exhibit A: Gary Ablett Jr loses his balance in what appears to be a staged flop.

In case you didn’t know, the free kick was awarded to Ablett despite the fact he was the one who instigated the contact; moreover, Ablett hits Isaac Smith high yet isn’t himself penalised. Many people on Reddit and elsewhere were quick to blame the umpire in control of the play. However, umpires don’t have X-ray vision; they sometimes have to make calculated projections when a momentary interference of vision occurs — all in a real-time situation, mind you — otherwise, they are likely to “put away the whistle” far too often.

As someone with six full years of junior umpiring experience under my belt, trust me when I say that you simply cannot see everything. Sometimes you just have to make inferences. To people who say, “only call it as you see it,” let me assure you that this isn’t so simple in practice. Part of the reason why this practice of good faith has worked in the past (at least at AFL level) is because players have historically not wanted to be unsporting or look bad on TV (except for perhaps Joel Selwood).

However, it is with much lamentation that I must say that Exhibit A makes the AFL look like it is quickly turning into soccer when it comes to exaggerated reactions that seek unjust penalties. “Milking frees” has been a dubious staple of the AFL since the time I was a young kid in the ‘90s, but downright provocation and staging from a veteran player as esteemed as Ablett is just a bad look for the game, and it is hypocritical to mock diving soccer stars like Neymar when we can’t even stamp it out in our own game. To elicit a free kick by exploiting blind spots may soon erode the umpires’ good graces if this practice continues. That’s why, as other pundits have correctly pointed out, the Match Review Panel needs to set a fierce example — a precedent, if you will, for this kind of egregious behaviour. Players should be as scared of staging a free kick as they were a few years ago for rushing a behind when the rule change for “no-pressure rushed behinds” was enforced at a professional level.

I also noticed at a junior level that most kids were very honest when it came to an on-field incident that was too close to tell, and I fear that impressionable kids might think this kind of unsporting behaviour will be deemed as okay — or even encouraged — if they see their football heroes hamming up free kicks.

To expound upon what I mean by kids being honest during my time as an umpire, let me tell you about a specific situation that came up with a fairly high degree of regularity. If I asked a kid if they got a finger on the ball to make an otherwise goal a behind (and I think they didn’t quite but the ball was too close to their fingers to know for sure), every kid I asked over my six-year career was honest about them not touching it. It was a similar story for out-of-bounds decisions. This integrity is unfortunately lost quite frequently when the stakes are raised to millions of dollars. The only thing that will effect change is for a post-match committee to come down brutally hard on players who exploit what is already a very demanding job for the umpires.

Finally, to cap off this article, I’d like to impart some wisdom to all football supporters. (This is aimed at all football fans, but I’m especially talking to spectators of football at a local level — both senior and junior football, especially as finals footy is rolling around.) The umpires at these games are mostly officiating these games for a bit of exercise and community spirit; they aren’t “in it for the big bucks”, nor are they there to try to “rig the game”.

Umpires, like spectators, just want to see a game played well and fairly. The next time you see a contentious call, or a 50/50 call doesn’t go your own way, don’t abuse the umpire; they are doing their best. Without them, you have no game. To the players: play your best and fairest, don’t argue with the umpire, and don’t be afraid to acknowledge an eagle-eyed call, especially if it was against you. A “good spot, ump” encourages good umpires to stay in the code instead of driving them away.


Author’s disclaimer: This is a free article that I wrote out of sheer passion. I strongly oppose paywalls, and I encourage a free and open online press. I am not affiliated with the AFL or any club; I am an independent freelance writer. If you would like me to write for your company, magazine, website, or anything else, please visit my website: www.deluxecopywriting.com