Do we care about the health and wellbeing of our referees?

Mary Konstantopoulos Columnist

By Mary Konstantopoulos, Mary Konstantopoulos is a Roar Expert

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    Enough of this nonsense. It's time to support our referees. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

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    It was two Fridays ago that a decision was made during the Canberra Raiders-Cronulla Sharks game that stirred up refereeing controversy the likes of which rugby league has not seen since, well, a little earlier this year.

    But while we were all debating just how wrong that decision was and what the game needed to do to fix its apparent refereeing problem, touch judge Rickey McFarlane was inconsolable in the dressing room after the game and was so distressed following the game that he was too shaken to drive home.

    Finding that out was deeply troubling.

    I want to know what we as a game are doing to ensure the health and wellbeing of our referees. After what we’ve seen over the last week, I would hazard a guess that the answer to this question is ‘not enough’.

    Often, we as fans forget that referees are human. These men and women are making upwards of 400 critical decisions per game. You do the maths on how many that is a minute.

    The referees have plenty to focus on during play. They have plenty of noise in their ears while that’s happening too – communication from the other referees, a direct line to the bunker and the sound of the crowd. Along with focusing on play and the noise in their ears, there is also a level of physical fitness that referees need to have to do their job. Add all this together and you are looking at a role which is not for the faint-hearted.

    The problem with those 400 critical decisions that a referee makes during a game is that not all errors are created equal. For example, a decision in relation to a poor play-the-ball is, in most circumstances, far less costly than a decision about a forward pass which leads to a try. If only all the errors could be in relation to inconsequential moments.

    Our officials are not perfect and they are never going to be. This is something that we need to accept, no matter the levels of technology available to us. Imagine if players received the same type of scrutiny every time they made an error. Imagine if the internet went into meltdown every time a player dropped a ball or threw a forward pass.

    To be fair, this culture of ‘refs fault’-ing has always been around the game and, despite what the sport’s crisis merchants would have you believe, general footy fans have been even more vocal about supporting the referees in the face of criticism this year, particularly at the start of the season during the infamous crackdown.

    No matter how much support from the general public the referees have, there will always be a segment of the fan-base who are content to blame referees for losses and to hammer them in a way which is neither fair nor appropriate.

    I expect this type of behaviour from fans, but what I don’t expect is the perceived lack of support that the officials have received this week from the upper echelons of the game.

    Let’s talk about the refereeing appointments this week. McFarlane made an error last week. Instead of backing him in, supporting him and giving him an opportunity to learn and to grow, this week he was given a game in the InTrust Super Premiership. He was sent to Cessnock Sports Ground to be a touchie for the game between the Newcastle Knights and the Wentworthville Magpies.

    Perhaps a decision has been made by those in charge to send a strong message and to punish errors in that way – a sink or swim approach, if you will. That might work for some, but may be demoralising for others.

    It’s also of interest to me that the ‘sink or swim’ approach wasn’t taken in relation to Gerard Sutton, brother of referees boss Bernie Sutton, who was still ‘demoted’ but to the NRL game between the Gold Coast Titans and the New Zealand Warriors.

    Gerard Sutton

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    Leaving aside how disrespectful to those two teams the word ‘demoted’ is, the fact is that both these referees were responsible for the decision last weekend – one has remained in first grade and the other was sent to Cessnock.

    I wonder what message this sends to the other referees. I wonder if this approach is encouraging them to be brave and to back their own decisions, or if it is only creating additional stress around a job which is already by its very nature stressful.

    It may not be time to make fundamental changes to who is looking after our referees right now given how late it is in the season. Further change may lead to further disruption when we are heading into a crucial part of the year.

    But how our referees are looked after and supported is something which should be at the top of the list in the off-season.

    As fans, I know we love our game. We love our clubs and we love our players. But we need to love our referees as well. Because without them there is no rugby league. Let’s make their health and wellbeing a priority.

    Mary Konstantopoulos
    Mary Konstantopoulos

    Mary Konstantopoulos is a lawyer, sports advocate and proud owner and founder of the Ladies Who empire, including Ladies who League, Ladies who Legspin, Ladies who Lineout and Ladies who Leap. You can find her podcast on iTunes and find her on Twitter @mary__kaye and @ladieswholeague.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • Roar Guru

      July 30th 2018 @ 8:25am
      The Barry said | July 30th 2018 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      Just because MacFarlane was appointed to a game in Cessnock doesn’t mean he’s been cast aside without any support.

      At a minimum I’d assume the refs and touchies have access to an Employee Assistance Program like millions of other working Australians do. I’d also be surprised if the referees group didn’t have direct access to psychological assistance, they certainly should.

      MacFarlane’s decision to incorrectly and inappropriately raise and lower the flag quickly and call “knock on, no check it” was the howler that set this whole thing off. From there I can see why Sutton was confused and thought “I’b better check for a knock on with the bunker”

      I can also understand the bunker looking at it and thinking “there’s no knock on, he didn’t go out, I don’t have grounds to decline this try”. Maybe different decisions would have been reached with more time but it was MacFarlane’s call that put the, in that situation. So long and short, I don’t have a problem with his penalty being the harshest as his error was the worst.

      Until we get to Bernard Surron, Archer and Greenberg’s “no one saw it, nothing happened” response.

      Hopefully MacFarlane gets the opportunity to learn and prove he’s up to NRL standard but clearly by his actions in that game he’s not there yet.

    • Roar Guru

      July 30th 2018 @ 9:23am
      Adam said | July 30th 2018 @ 9:23am | ! Report

      I would like to know how long it might take for the referees to have a bit of a strike. Maybe not full blown industrial action but something close. I just think it would be good if any release about referee “errors” mid-week so the anger might have subsided a little bit, make it part of the referee schedule for the weekend. It’s showing accountability but also looking managing the fallout a little better

      • July 30th 2018 @ 10:56am
        Tom said | July 30th 2018 @ 10:56am | ! Report

        The NFL referees did something similar a few years back. The scab replacement referees they got in were so awful that the NFL quickly folded and acceded to their demands.

        • July 30th 2018 @ 6:53pm
          terrence said | July 30th 2018 @ 6:53pm | ! Report

          Tom,
          Do the NFL actually need refs? It’s so slow that it could be done at home by a 90 year old looking at the TV in a nursing home phoning it in.
          I reckon a ref strike in Australia would be interesting if all refs in codes and at all levels joined up (NRL, AFL, Union, Soccer, etc.) for back-to-back weekends, mainly to voice their concerns about their poor leadership at the top, but also idiotic parents/supporters/coaching morons at lower levels (with again poor support from management).
          Imagine after two weeks of nuffie refs? The media would be begging the top line refs to come back, the parents/supporters/coaching morons at lower levels would start showing a bit more respect to refs.
          Happy days.

    • Roar Guru

      July 30th 2018 @ 9:47am
      Nat said | July 30th 2018 @ 9:47am | ! Report

      Put your hand up if you haven’t made a monumental mistake at work? Put your hand up if you were not chastised or sent to do another role because of said mistake? It happens everywhere, it shakes your confidence but you either learn and get better or that’s not the job for you. Unlike the vast majority of (perceived) wrong calls, McFarlane’s was a beauty. He left all other refs with little options. Sending him back to lower grade serves two purposes, it shows the NRL will do something as a consequence but probably more importantly it takes McFarlane out of the spotlight. Imagine putting him on the sideline this week? He would’ve been crucified by the crowd and he will be next time he comes back. At least in the middle, a ref has other focus points, a touchie is a sitting duck for every boffhead who never knew his name before last weekend. No ref has every walked off to a round of applause but the NRL can only encourage them to meet their KPIs and block out the rest.

    • Roar Rookie

      July 30th 2018 @ 3:00pm
      Hard Yards said | July 30th 2018 @ 3:00pm | ! Report

      I like my taxi drivers to know where they’re going; engineers that build bridges that stay up; pilots that land in the right city; and restaurants that don’t burn the dinner. Also like refs to get the calls right. But I am crazy.

      • Roar Guru

        July 30th 2018 @ 3:43pm
        Adam said | July 30th 2018 @ 3:43pm | ! Report

        Yes you may be right. But then again engineers don’t need to make split second decisions, restaurants burn dinners all the time – it just never reaches your table as it goes in the bin. Pilots have millions of dollars worth of computer technology that do everything for them and taxi drivers have street names and GPS.
        Now if we could just get a all these tools to a referee who makes 400 split second decisions in 80 minutes of League we would be a-okay.

    • July 30th 2018 @ 4:56pm
      jeannine wallace said | July 30th 2018 @ 4:56pm | ! Report

      Thanks for the article Mary…Yep I think peeps have forgotten that referees are human and humans make mistakes.

      The perpetuation of negative talk via channel 9 commentators (I do not have Foxtel etc) regarding referees has reduced the game for me, not the referees themselves. It is annoying when the referee makes an error (particularly when it is against your team), but you get over it. However, the persistent pessimism from ex-footballers and players whom can barely string a sentence together puts a dampener on the game. I have started viewing the games with the volume muted, as I was yelling expletives not at the referee’s but alternatively at the idiots speaking.

    • July 31st 2018 @ 4:32pm
      Dwayne C said | July 31st 2018 @ 4:32pm | ! Report

      A good article Mary, hopefully give people food for thought.. but also, did you realise that the assist ref Gavin Reynolds was also dropped to ISP as well the following week. Which IMO makes the fact the Sutton stayed in 1st grade even more dodgy.

      I agree with you Jeannine, Ch9 just keep going on and on about any call.. I’m glad i have fox to watch.. they generally wont dwell too long on decisions at least compared to 9.

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