It’s a simple question, but not one that’s often explored in popular media. About as close as you’ll get is if some caller to talkback suggests they thought the umpiring was one-sided.
Does talkback ever agree with the caller? Not that I’ve ever heard. Usually, talkback will espouse the umpiring, and what a difficult job the umpires have. The latter is a point I agree with, particularly in the modern game where there’s so many grey areas, e.g. did the player dive and take out the opponent’s legs, or did the opponent’s legs collect the player’s head?
However, it’s a discussion I’ve regularly had with friends. Some swear that umpires can be biased. They’ll name umpires they dread getting. ‘Such and such always kills us,’ they’ll say. But others vow that, no, umpires are not biased.
When pressed as to how they can be so sure, they’ll invariably give the same answer: “Because they’re professionals.”
Okay. Professionals. Let’s look at that as a concept.
Footballers are professional, but some will go out, they’ll smoke, they’ll drink, they won’t prepare themselves as best as they can. Police are professionals, but every now and again you’ll get a story about police corruption or malfeasance.
CEOs running multimillion corporations are professional, but they might rort, they might embezzle, they might dump toxic crap into water supplies. These examples could go on and on and on. And, yes, they’re not the rule. They’re the exception. But they exist.
None of those examples speak to bias, though, do they? No, those particular examples do not speak to bias. But they do speak to discrediting that being ‘professional’ means an individual will behave professionally.
We all would’ve at some point in our lives dealt with somebody who was a professional – they might’ve been a teacher of one of your kids, a tradie, a doctor, an accountant, a politician (local or otherwise), etc. – who left us underwhelmed.
Of course, not one of these examples operates in the capacity of adjudication in a sporting field. They are not umpires or referees. So perhaps our expectations are different for these professionals because they’re reliant on judgement, and thus it’s their profession to be impartial.
The host country used to supply the umpires in cricket. Tour Australia, you’d get Australian umpires. Tour India, you’d get Indian umpires. Etc. These people are professionals, aren’t they? Not only are they professionals, but they’re professionals in an international sport so we could even argue that the stakes are higher.
But complaints began to emerge about occasional hometown bias. So the system changed. Now we get neutral umpires in cricket. Why would this change have been implemented if the governing bodies did not find it necessary, if they did not think that bias could go on?
A study in baseball over two seasons revealed umpires favoured the home team, that they didn’t like calling strikes on 0–2 counts, they even more so didn’t like calling balls on 0–3 counts, and they were ten percent less likely to ‘expand the strike zone for African American pitchers‘.
In Britain, there’s been accusations of British judges being biased in favour of British boxers. But this sort of criticism has been common.
There’s lots of these types of stories out there. But they’re not football – right?
In Round 2 of the 2004 season, St Kilda beat Essendon by 34 points. On The Footy Show the following Thursday, the then-captain of Essendon, James Hird, said, “I thought the umpiring was quite disgraceful on Saturday night, especially by one umpire”, and then elaborated a little later by naming the umpire and saying Essendon often felt hard done by him. Hird was later fined $20,000 for his comments.
Okay, there’s a lot to consider here. Hird’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was, but it shows the complaint of bias doesn’t just come from rabid fans in the outer who might not know any better (or be biased themselves).
This criticism was coming from a professional player, on behalf of his professional club. That might seem facetious but, hey, our whole defence here hangs on being ‘professional’.
The reality is we do see selective bias going on every week – we know there’s players who are given every opportunity, while others are penalised immediately; we see certain forwards mauled and scragged and unrewarded, while others get free kicks for being scowled at.
We have seen coaches seek to clarify certain interpretations, particularly as they’re applicable to individuals they feel might be being treated unfairly. Are we still to accept that there’s total equanimity here?
Now let’s pause a moment. Nobody is suggesting that this goes on all the time. And nobody’s suggesting that every – or any – umpire is purposely biased. It’s not like the day before a game in which they’re to officiate, they sit down for a nice family dinner, exchange pleasantries with their partners, ask the kids about school and their homework, while secretly plotting to screw a certain team over.
Nobody’s suggesting anything malicious or premeditated or conspiratorial, which is where everybody’s mind seems to go whenever this type of criticism emerges. That’s why these discussions are rarely explored.
But bias is a natural part of life. We have employers who’ll favour certain employees over others. We have teachers who have their favourite students. We even have parents who have their favourite children. It’s never (or rarely) a conscious choice.
It’s an instinctive predisposition that occurs so organically, that the perpetrator is not aware they’re doing it.
And I do believe this can happen with umpires. They umpire a game that’s extremely complex. It’s not like refereeing tennis, where (almost) every decision comes to it’s IN or OUT – and now, that’s something that can be referred to technology.
Umpires have a split second in a frenetically paced game to digest what’s happened, interpret it, and make a decision. They have a number of games, several years of experience, and a lifetime of living culminating to shape (and contextualise) their response in that instant.
To suggest they’re infallible because they’re professional must mean we hold them to a standard beyond the level of any other professional out there, regardless of what profession they occupy. Is that actually realistic?
Did we luck out that our in our poor humble Australian Rules umpire, we created this perfect, objective, unimpeachable vessel? I can tell you, if I was an umpire, I’d probably be less predisposed toward giving frees to a couple of teams I’ve grown up to loathe, no matter how professional I tried to be.
Again, it’s like the analogy of the parent with the favourite child – each child might get a different response for the same ac without the parent even realising they’re doing it. It happens.
Umpires are human. We should accept that, sometimes, their responses might be human, too.