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The Roar



Umpiring is broken in the AFL. Why can't we talk about it?

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Roar Guru
31st August, 2020
1369 Reads

It’s so frustrating watching the umpiring in football today.

It’s a hard job. Okay. Let’s get that out of the way. Umpiring’s tough. So’s brain surgery. But we’d never excuse the surgeon who made multiple errors during a surgery. We do it with umpiring though.

There’s another reality we also have to deal with.

Umpiring is broken.

I can’t entirely blame the umpires, though.

The problem stems from higher up.

How do I know?

Why is it that interpretations can change from game to game? We’ll have a match where not enough holding-the-ball decisions are paid.

What is then guaranteed to happen the very next match? We’ll get lots of them.


This sort of course correction has happened constantly for the last 20 years.

Or, inexplicably, one rule – to the surprise of all and sundry – will be hot that week. But should there be an adverse reaction, suddenly it’ll cool down, as if the umpires were told to change their interpretation.

These directives are coming from somewhere.

If rules were concrete, neither of these schisms would happen. There’d never be a need for course correction because the rules would be fixed from quarter to quarter, game to game, round to round, season to season.

But they’re not.

And it becomes this oddity that we no longer question. Or which we’re not allowed to question.

AFL umpire Shane McInerney

AFL umpire Shane McInerney (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Ruck infringements typify what’s wrong with the state of umpiring today.


How many times do rucks tangle up, the umpire blows their whistle, and then we all – from the spectators to the commentators to the players themselves – pause without any idea which way the free kick will go?

We’re talking tens of thousands of people who will be clueless.

How is that possible? How can only one person know?

Doesn’t that suggest there is communication issue? We don’t understand what the umpire’s seeing.

Yet instead of seeking clarity, this idiocy has continued. And we accept it. Because if we question it, we’re told umpiring’s a tough job. And given it’s a tough job, let’s never, ever hold anybody accountable.

Haha. Let’s have a rueful chuckle instead at the novelty of it all.

So many rules are broken. The holding-the-ball rule would seem easy to fix. If a player does not dispose of the ball legally by hand or foot, it’s holding the ball or illegal disposal. Nope. We have insane qualifications, like prior opportunity.

If you haven’t had prior opportunity, it’s okay to drop it or throw it.


Lately, we’ve also seen ridiculous holding-the-ball decisions paid where a player is tackled immediately, is physically incapable of disposing the ball, and pinged.

We now even require theatricality. Luke Hodge and Brian Taylor discussed it during the Collingwood versus Carlton game. Hodge said the player needed to be seen trying to get rid of the ball … even when he couldn’t. Brian Taylor questioned the futility of it all.

But here’s the giddy course correction. Alastair Clarkson complained holding-the-ball wasn’t being paid often enough. And then it was. Wow. What a coincidence, hey?

The only problem is the interpretation was muck.

But at least we had holding the ball.


For like four weeks.

When the AFL attempt to enforce a rule, they work in absolutes that malign the spirit of the game.

We had a push-in-the-back rule, but that wasn’t enough. Let’s make it easier. It was decided a player could not place a hand on an opponent’s back, even when it had no bearing on the contest. How did that work? It didn’t. The rule has been flung – an admission of stupidity second only to the introduction of the rule.

Look at the deliberate interpretation: anything that goes out of bounds when a teammate isn’t in the vicinity is a deliberate now.

Forget that the player might’ve kicked it fifty metres, and the ball took an improbable off-break. Somehow, the player deliberately meant that.

How about taking out a player’s legs? Remember when that was a thing, even when it penalised the player attempting to make the play? Like the ruck infringements, nobody knew which way the determination would go – was it too high, or taking an opponent’s legs out?

But where’s it gone? Now they’ll pay the odd one … and overlook five others.

Talking about overlooking, what happened to the kicking-in-danger rule? I see at least ten instances per game where a player has the ball kicked away from their hands just as they’re about to scoop it up. And then, as if the umpire was signalling us to the Loch for Nessie’s cameo, he’ll pay one.


There you go. You’re not going to see that again in your lifetime.

Officiating is lost in the mire of what’s fashionable at any given moment, inconsistency, interpretations contrary to the spirit of the game, and a total loss of context and common sense.

Compounding the madness, we also get absurd qualifications which idiot commentary lauds, e.g. “It’d take a brave umpire to pay that”, and “They’ve put the whistle away”, and, “They would’ve paid that if it was up the ground [instead of in front of goal]”, and, “You could/couldn’t pay that for the theatricality of it”.

AFL umpire Matt Stevic calls for a score review.

How good is the standard of umpiring in the AFL? (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

How does that work? Why are the rules in the first ninety minutes of a game different to the rules in the last ten minutes of the game? Why does location matter? At what point does the law stop? You mean because something offers theatre, that affects the interpretation?

Then we also get some in the media complaining that there are too many free kicks paid. Really? Can we cap it?

AFL, umpiring is so broken, and I’m so tired of the equally tired defences to absolve it of any responsibility.

Rules aren’t suggestions. They aren’t malleable. They aren’t flavours of the moment. They aren’t qualifiable. And they aren’t to be capped.

They are a framework that governs how a game unfolds, and offer the teams – regardless of who they are, where they’re positioned on the ladder, or what they’re playing for – parity.

If your club is first or if your club is 18th, you are equally entitled to a free kick.

If you tackle correctly and enforce an illegal disposal, you are to be rewarded, whether you’re the best player in the league or the worst player in the league, whether you’re team is five points behind or 120 points up, whether you’re playing for a finals’ berth or you’re just seeing out time.

The problem begins at the top.

That means the solution needs to come from the top.

Too hard? Well, the AFL had no problem working out the hubs, navigating a global pandemic, state governments, and a rolling fixture so they could ensure that their 2020 season went ahead.

Work out what your rules are. Make sure those interpretations are honoured game in, game out, round in, round out, season in, season out.

Remove this farcical belief that stoppages are bad for the game, or that they’re unsightly, or that they’ll make the game too stop-start.

And let’s apply some freaking common-sense.

If the old chestnut of it being such a fast and difficult game to officiate is tossed out as a counter, start thinking of lateral solutions.

What would I do to fix things?

Here are some suggestions.

Allow goal and boundary umpires to call infringements if they’re in a better position.

Grab archival examples as our standards so we understand what is legal and what is not.

Think about how the umpires are positioned in relation to the play to compensate the speed of the game.

Make umpiring full time and lucrative so that it can be entirely professional, and individuals can dedicate themselves to it as a craft.

Understand and respect that a rule is a rule.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grown sick of it.