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Can umpires be biased?

Les Zigomanis Roar Pro

By Les Zigomanis, Les Zigomanis is a Roar Pro


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    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.

    Umpires, and former players, Leigh Fisher (L) and Jordan Bannister leave the field after the 2013 NAB Cup round 01. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham

    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.

    Liam Jones of Western Bulldogs looks to the umpire during the Round 8 AFL match between the Western Bulldogs and the Gold Coast Suns at TIO Stadium in Darwin, Saturday, May 19, 2012. (AAP Image/William Carroll)

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (13)

    • April 18th 2017 @ 9:36am
      Darren said | April 18th 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

      Deliberately biased I’m not so sure of. I think, for the most part, they at least try to be impartial. A predisposition to be influenced by a certain cohort, most certainly. There are players that always seem to get away with the benefit of the doubt decisions (Selwood, Dangerfield, Fyfe, Ablett). There are those that always seem to get a free against, and never get the reward for doing good.

      I think the media speculation about how good a player is, influences the decision of the umpires. I also think the home crowd advantage in places like Perth, Adelaide and Geelong help.

      Sometimes, they just always seem to be looking the other way. It’s amazing how many times they don’t see something they should be watching intently.

    • Roar Guru

      April 18th 2017 @ 9:50am
      Wayne said | April 18th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      Unconscious bias is a thing, and yes. It would also effect umpires in some way/shape/form unless they are trained in techniques to combat it.

      These skills are life skills, and there are a lot of scholarly articles that explore unconscious bias in the workplace.

    • Roar Guru

      April 18th 2017 @ 10:04am
      Paul D said | April 18th 2017 @ 10:04am | ! Report

      I don’t doubt for a moment the umpires have unconscious bias. Look at the NRL – if you’re a fringe second rower coming in off the bench there’s no way you’re getting the same amount of leeway as someone like Cam Smith, Thurston or James Maloney. By and large though I think the umpires do an excellent job – most of the complaints seem to stem from people moaning about incorrect disposal, while failing to understand that the umpires are ruling that if the player hasn’t had prior opportunity it doesn’t matter if they just drop it

      Not quite sure how you’re going to do anything to stamp that out, or whether it’s even an issue. If an umpire was deliberately favouring one side I suspect that would get up very quickly, and they get rotated around so they don’t umpire the same sides all the time. I think it’s just an environmental factor like the wind or rain, get on with the game. If you play well enough you’ll wind regardless

    • April 18th 2017 @ 12:59pm
      Brendon the 1st said | April 18th 2017 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

      Intentionally, no, and against a certain team no, but I can see them having bias against a particular player.

      If I were an umpire, I’d penalise Lindsay Thomas for diving every time he got the ball, that’s what he gets for being a serial diver.

      This conspiracy that umpires can be bias against a team is false, the cricket example used in this article is only because Hair called Murali a chucker, and Murali was a chucker.

    • Roar Guru

      April 18th 2017 @ 1:14pm
      Paul D said | April 18th 2017 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

      The only thing that concerned me re: umpiring in recent years was the Hawks blatant attempt to curry favour by getting some umps to come hang out with them prior to the 2015 season, play golf, chat socially etc. What I particularly objected to was the fact that the other 17 clubs weren’t told this was happening or given the same opportunity or access to umpires.

      “(AFL umpire Dean) Margetts and umpire Ben Ryan were invited to spend five days with Hawthorn at their pre-season training camp at Mooloolaba in December. They mixed socially with the players over dinner and golf, did fitness training with the team, sat in on all meetings and built a unique relationship with the Hawks.”

      • April 20th 2017 @ 9:02am
        Birdman said | April 20th 2017 @ 9:02am | ! Report

        I didn’t like the look of that either Paul but I’m not sure how much the Hawks are to blame here.

        It seems to me that the umps have more to account for by accepting the offer which led to an unsavoury perception by others in the footy world.

    • Roar Rookie

      April 18th 2017 @ 1:15pm
      Antony Pincombe said | April 18th 2017 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

      Of course umpires are biassed. For instance there was an umpire called Robin Bennett, who played for Norwood as a junior, who one day gave Norwood 49 frees to Glenelg 18. Glenelg were not a terrible side that gave frees away easily. they were a slick, highly skilled, top four outfit and subsequently won the match.

      With Big Gambling a sponsor of the AFL you have to wonder if they have influence over the game. It certainly looks as though they do. The umpiring is biased and has been for some time. Most of the umpires come from Victoria and you can’t tell me they don’t have a soft spot fro their boyhood teams. So if you look at the figures they do actually favour the Victorian clubs but even within Victoria there is a trend toward Dogs, Saints, Dons & Dees.. But the greater problem is not umpire bias but interpretation and AFL interference. I feel the AFL have interfered with the umpiring in the last two years. Last year’s GF was a good example and if you look even closer at the finals played by Dogs you will find they were allowed to dispose incorrectly but their opposition were not.

      I almost didn’t renew my membership due to the incorrect disposal rule not being enforced against certain clubs but being enforced against others. I believe in their equalisation plan the AFL have decided to allow some clubs that have struggled, better umpiring decisions, to allow them to basically throw the ball. As bad as Hawks were last night, the Cats got away with at least 50 throws, dropped ball, all of course incorrect disposal. When Hawks did it they were penalised. That was obvious. So if your team has been in finals for the last ten years, won a premiership, then expect to be killed by the umpires. The only club which won’t get murdered is Cats because the AFL needs a strong Cats to keep crowds coming to their games. If the Cats fall down the ladder, as they did recently, the crowds halve.

      I am an Aussie rules purist and don’t much like the rule changes as I believe most of them are ruining the game. not only that I believe if the AFL deliberately lets throws go it is turning our game into a form of Rugby Union, a game that is almost dead in Australia. If you want to kill our game keep letting players throw the ball. I can assure you if this keeps happening my friends, relations and myself will no longer go. We will no longer follow AFL as it would no longer be Aussie Rules but a form of Rugby. I loved the glib, insincere, ‘umpires can’t stop throws or control throws’ by Gliion McLachlan. What a load of rubbish. If I can see a throw that is so obvious it is a two handed rugby pass then at least one of the umpires must see it. After all I am half blind. There are three umpires to make sure these things don’t get missed. I remember one umpire not having too much trouble with throws. They are easy to pick up due to the body action even without seeing the hands. Obviously these umpires are incompetent or they are told to let them go.

      • Roar Guru

        April 18th 2017 @ 3:56pm
        Wayne said | April 18th 2017 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

        Norwood getting free kicks is beyond the #FreeKickHawthorn level. Especially if the game was at the Parade.

        Still remember a spectator asking the umpire if the peroxide was effecting his brain. The player laughed and got pinged and 50m penalty 😛

        • April 19th 2017 @ 12:14pm
          davo said | April 19th 2017 @ 12:14pm | ! Report

          The TV networks pay big $$$ and they expect drama, close games or second half comebacks (see NRL) so lopsided games for me in the AFL esp on FTA TV games means the game is still pure. However there is the chance that umps will be caught up in the romance.

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