Keeping up with the times — AFL Umpiring

There is an old saying in football, “Two things in football have never improved; Goal kicking and umpiring”. Whilst Travis Cloke, Levi Casboult and the entire Brisbane team are sufficient evidence for the goal kicking theory, I believe the umpiring is getting to the point where it can ruin the game. Every single week, there are dodgy umpiring decisions which provide a constant topic of conversation for journalists, talkback radio shows or around the water cooler. In my opinion, the whole system needs a review, because we are stuck in old ways. The AFL seeks to change and modernise every other rule, so why not seek to also modernise those who enforce them? And the first step to achieving this is giving umpires more resources.

It’s sad that a couple of lop-sided free kick counts are the reason people are actually starting to talk seriously about the issue. Honestly, there could be an even free kick count with just as many mistakes being made. At least a red flag has been rightfully raised by Crows staff and fans.

Everyone recognises that the game has become significantly quicker over the past decade. However, there are still only 3 umpires on the pitch and personally, I don’t think that’s enough. It is always useful to compare the situation against other sports, as seen below.

Whilst both rugby codes and soccer are ranked as the hardest (in terms of metres covered), there are several differences. Firstly, none of these games are as fast as AFL. Secondly, the main umpire in these codes have help from their assistants, with all assistants having more responsibility and being able to make decisions. The AFL boundary and goal umpires simply don’t have this power and in terms of the former, they should have similar power to their cross-code counterparts.

Then there is the issue of being blind-sighted. Consider the final seconds of the Crows Hawthorn match. The umpires will rightfully stay in the central corridor of the ground to minimise running. If there was another umpire on the boundary side of the contest, they would have seen that Smith fakes a handball before being tackled and would have correctly paid a free kick. It’s almost impossible to blame the umpire in that circumstance because he couldn’t see it. Did the boundary umpire see it and could he have paid the free kick? More on this later.

In addition to the lack of vision, there are weekly changes in rule interpretations and consistency in decisions. I honestly believe that some mistakes are made because the umpire is exhausted and not concentrating mentally, or that they are not close enough to the play. The largest inconsistencies seem to surround the holding the ball and high tackle rules. This year they’ve added some bizarre decisions on ruck dual blocks and deliberate out of bounds. Whilst the latter is a good rule, the enforcement is average at best. These are frustrating issues that supporters deal with every week which really don’t need explaining, except one.

The most controversial free kick, in my opinion, is the high tackles for ducking. I simply can’t comprehend the hypocrisy of the AFL. They will continue to ban players for weeks for the tiniest of head high contact (e.g. Neville Jetta), but they will consistently allow Joel Selwood, Anthony Miles, Toby McLean and others to dip their shoulder and/or drop at the knees. If Toby McLean continues to do this for his career, it is reasonable to assume that he could have long term head and neck problems. Isn’t this what the AFL is trying to avoid? As they know, the AFL has a duty of care to the players and a scenario like this could open the possibility of a law suit.

Next, there is the home team bias. Of the 72 games played this season, the free kick count was won by the home team in 47 games (65% of the time, 2 draws). But for games where the opponent was an interstate team, the free kick count was won by the home team in 33 of the 44 games (75%). The West Coast effect is quite disturbing as well. Since the beginning of 2010, West Coast have played 75 games at home and won more free kicks on 60 occasions (80%). As a comparison, Adelaide has won the free kick count 34 times in 70 games (49%) during the same period. Surely this is something that has to be looked at.

So, how do we fix this? There are two main initiatives I want to see. Firstly, there needs to be more than three field umpires, because, as I have mentioned, they are never up with the play, frequently blind sighted or too tired to concentrate mentally. To this, I propose two solutions. Either, we add another field umpire (or more) or allow boundary umpires to make decisions. In both rugby codes and soccer, the sideline/boundary umpires are given more freedom to make certain decisions and advise the main umpire. As alluded to earlier, this could have meant that Isaac Smith would have correctly been paid a free kick against for his fake handball. Both proposals are likely to fix the problem of being blind-sighted and should cut down the distance that umpires need to travel. The AFL have stated it could also help elongate the careers of some older umpires. Whilst many may think this is drastic, it leads me to my second point.

Secondly, the AFL needs to invest in the umpires. Seriously, it’s not like the AFL don’t have the money. From my understanding, all AFL umpires are part-time. Make the field umpires (at a minimum) full-time employees. Make them sit in a classroom for 25 hours a week, review the tapes and discuss with other umpires how they can get better and be more consistent. I mentioned the issue of consistency (from week to week and from umpire to umpire) prior and it stands to reason that more communication between the AFL Rules Committee and the umpires can help improve in this area.

Interestingly, I found an unlikely ally in this area. The Crows fans’ favourite umpire, Troy Pannell, recently confirmed these two factors in a recent interview. “It just appears the game, again, keeps going up a notch”, Pannell said. “Whether that leads to full-time umpiring or, at least, four field umpires on the ground, I’m not sure”. It’s almost a cry for help. The AFL is slowly moving in this direction, with trials conducted in 2015 which will continue in 2016 for the bye rounds. Let’s hope we see four umpires in the 2017 season.

It’s probably worth making an additional point here. There is some controversy over umpire Pannell in the Bulldogs vs Crows game. There are rumours (probably a joke) he is a Bulldogs supporter which may have contributed to the 17–1 lopsided free kick count. I am not for a second claiming (or even thinking) Pannell was biased. But, to avoid any conspiracy, we can look to the world of Cricket for a simple and easy fix. Cricket umpires are not allowed to umpire in test matches in which their own nation is playing. Do the same in the AFL and we never need to talk about it again.

Let’s be honest, we don’t want to be talking about the umpiring every week. The game is about the players and clubs and the umpires should work in the background. So, let’s try and work towards this, because we are so far from it at the moment. To me, it starts with the AFL hierarchy and Gillon McLachlan. Ask for a full-on scale review of the umpiring department with an emphasis on what we can learn from other sports. As I mentioned, I don’t blame the umpires too much, so they shouldn’t take such a proposal personally. I’m almost certain that umpires don’t want to be talked about either because come Monday morning, we want to be talking about a great game, a great mark, a brilliant tackle or a superb goal from the boundary.

Written by Andrew Harrison — #andyswisewords #bergswiseedits

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