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The AFL isn’t prepared for the vitriol the umpire crackdown is going to set off

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Roar Guru
20th April, 2022
34

“Arms out, that’s 50,” says the umpire to Harris Andrews.

And certainly without realising in the moment, as he back pedals quickly down the field, sets off what is going to be one of the most difficult bombs to defuse that has now landed in the AFL’s lap that they’ve had for some time.

This issue, about how players are allowed to interact with umpires, and why this is suddenly an issue, intersects with a huge amount of red lines on all sides of the debate.

And it’s going to be quite difficult now for the AFL to get themselves out of this any time in a hurry without either the urgent cooperation and good will from the players or some sort of embarrassing climbdown from the AFL.

Depending on when and how it happens, that could be a minor stain or a rip right through the fabric of the game.

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But otherwise, now that it’s been started, I don’t see how the AFL has any other option but to see this one out and back their umpires in.

Arms out is 50, that’s now where we are at. Maybe this isn’t an issue after all – maybe the players go away this week and retrain their brains and it never happens again for the rest of the season. They’re professionals, right?

I don’t think it will happen though. Umpires being human will make mistakes and a player caught up in the moment in the trip of a game going down to the wire and he’s right out in the middle of it will scream in desperation and frustration, for certain.

Will they pay it to decide a game? I’d think they’d have to.

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Toby Greene of the Giants gives away a free kick

(Photo by Steve Bell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

I look back in 2017 when the umps paid the Luke Shuey free kick against Port and there were enough players with their arms out for him to march them into the Karrawirra-parri. It’s going to happen again.

So what do the AFL do now? Let’s assume they don’t back down on this. The onus then lies on the players as professionals to behave themselves or the umpires will keep blowing the whistle.

This is where the AFL, if it is not already, needs to be doing everything it can to get them on side with what this new reality is and they need to do it as quickly as they can.

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Because what the AFL doesn’t realise or acknowledge much of the time is that while it’s true the actions on an AFL field can and do have a positive influence, that pendulum sure as hell swings both ways, and it’s swinging back hard right now into negative territory off the field.

Pundits on TV, news articles, memes, jokes, fan sites, socials – everyone, everywhere is piling into the umpires. And the more often it happens, when a player is marched 50 for dissent, the more people are going to scream and howl.

A big part of the problem is the 50-metre penalty – the ‘one size fits all’ solution to a discretion on an AFL field. It can be at different times an insufficient, ideal, ridiculous, severe, fair or pointless penalty for the incident that it’s for.

If I was the AFL and I was looking for a way out of this, I’d quickly introduce something more surreptitious and individual for dissent that didn’t have the visibility of a 50-metre penalty for the crowd or the impact on the team, such as a five-minute sin bin where the player has to go to the bench and be substituted and can’t return to the field, but no 50-metre penalty.

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Tom Mitchell of the Hawks speaks with AFL Field Umpire, Hayden Gavine after a 50 metre penalty was awarded to Geelong during the 2022 AFL Round 05 match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Geelong Cats at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 18, 2022 In Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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

Team structure is less of a convenient scapegoat for spectators. But while players keep throwing their arms out and it keeps being 50, this issue is going to become uglier and uglier.

We haven’t even got to why we’re in this mess. It’s because the AFL recently realised that one of the things affecting the overall health of the game in Australia is a shortage of umps at grassroots level: some 6000, to be precise.

Some would argue it’s more – former umpire Darren Goldspink certainly thought so when asked his opinion by The Age.

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“I’ve been involved at the grassroots level the last ten years, I haven’t been the last couple of years, but umpiring is bleeding in the suburbs and that number of 6000 is grossly under exaggerated from what I’ve seen.”

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But regardless of what the number actually is, there’s a big shortage of umpires. Lots of umpires are getting on in years and are doing multiple games in a row. Not many people are putting their hand up to umpire at grassroots level.

You know why? Because a lot of people at that level who attend those games think it is actually perfectly okay to yell at them and throw their arms out at the umpires.

It would seem the art of complaining about the decision to the umpire has made it a long established cultural tradition in the annals of sport in this country, from the reactions this weekend, for better or worse, and it would seem the AFL has once again got ahead of its target market in launching this new initiative.

So now we have a situation where an initiative designed to improve support for umpires at grassroots level has resulted in support for umpires at elite levels plummeting, while presumably support for grassroots umpiring remains unchanged at this point.

Ray Chamberlain

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It strikes me the AFL isn’t prepared at all for how much vitriol this is going to set off. Hence my suggestion above for either a far less visible penalty that affects the player in question, not the team as a whole, or some kind of deal with the players involving a reward as a collective for minimising incidents throughout a season.

Something, anything, so we don’t see players getting marched down the field 50 metres for dissent in key moments for showing frustration.

I personally back in the umpires on this. Umpiring is a thankless task and anyone who criticises them doesn’t know anything about how hard it is.

My issue is chiefly with the penalty they have on hand to use. It’s the wrong tool for the job – but if the AFL is going to see this out, they have got to police the line on this for years and years.

They will have to stick this one out and cop all the brickbats every time this happens and either is or is not called. Because I assure you now, “arms out, that’s 50” or some variation of that has already firmly lodged in the nation’s collective AFL consciousness after this week.

As for how to fix the problem off the field, that’s beyond the AFL’s ability to achieve, no matter how well the players treat the officials, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to see zero dissent on the TV screens.

The AFL’s ability to influence the attitudes of ordinary people watching or playing footy at suburban ovals is limited and issues where the umpire is mistreated or abused stems a lot more from people’s inherent cynicism of authority (a problem that’s only going to get worse in future) rather than anything the AFL has said or done.

Against that pleasant backdrop, I do wish the AFL all the best. It’s going to be an interesting and perhaps a bit traumatic season.

Again, so much now is going to depend on the players, and their coaches, and the will and the ability of the AFL to encourage them through whatever means as professionals to change habits of a lifetime to quickly get the umpires out of the headlines, which is the one place above all else they never should be.

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