There is no other sport in Australia that has an unhealthier relationship with its referees than rugby league.
The disrespect and derision that our referees are treated with each and every week is unfair and completely unacceptable. So can these attitudes turn around?
This week, I read an article penned by Phil Rothfield which revealed two NRL referees had received death threats this season following their performance in games. Off the back of this, ARLC chair Peter V’landys has appealed to the rugby league family to “back off”.
It’s going to take more than V’landys imploring us to be different for these attitudes to turn around.
Firstly, death threats – whether it’s a player, referee or any other member of the rugby league family – are completely inappropriate. The rise in use of social media and the ability for people to be faceless behind the keyboard has resulted in threats of these nature becoming more commonplace and its not OK.
I also wonder what role gambling and people desperately wanting their multis to be successful has in this too or people taking their performance in SuperCoach a little bit too seriously.
There is no place for threats like that it in rugby league, or anywhere else for that matter.
But back to the matter at hand. I always find it curious when the media publish articles about respecting referees because in my view, the media have played a significant role in getting fans to a point where every single decision is questioned.
After every single round of footy, without fail, you will see some media outlets do a social media post that looks something like this: “Des Hasler was fuming at a late penalty controversially awarded to the Eels over a high shot” or “Was this worth the 10 in the bin?” or “the fallout from last night’s controversy was intense”.
We have created a culture where every single refereeing decision is scrutinised and put under the spotlight. There’s always a “huge gaffe” or a “controversy”.
Even when calls are 50/50 they are beaten up into major dramas and there seems to be an inability to understand that mistakes happen.
No one cheers for the referees. We all have our footy teams that we support, but the referees are an entirely different group altogether.
When one of our players makes a mistake, we are much faster to forgive. It’s extremely rare that you would see an article suggesting that Mitch Moses or Ryan Papenhuyzen had cost their respective teams the win, but we see those articles frequently when it comes to the referees.
The referees are also used as scapegoats by clubs, coaches and players, when perhaps their focus should be a bit more inward.
It also doesn’t help when many members of the media don’t seem to know the rules themselves. These are people that fans look to for explanations and better understandings of the game. When you have them blowing up because a rule has been applied in a way that “wasn’t how it used to be in the old days” it continues this narrative that the referees are incompetent and cannot do their jobs.
Consistent with so many other issues in rugby league though, we don’t seem to know what we want.
Two years ago a decision was made by V’landys and the ARLC to move from two on-field referees to just one.
Some of you may recall this decision was made quite quickly. Was it just a cost-saving measure? Would it lead to more free flowing rugby league?
Now, there seem to be calls to return to the two-person model, because surprise, surprise, things are being missed (as if reducing the number of eyes on the field would not have exactly this result).
We want free-flowing rugby league and a lack of stoppages, but we want referees to get it right all the time.
Those two things cannot happen at exactly the same time.
I often speak about the importance of our players – without them, there is no game. But equally, without referees there isn’t a game either.
And whilst their will be thousands of young men and women aspiring to play in the NRL and NRLW, I don’t think the same is true of joining the refereeing ranks. With the amount of criticism they cop, why on earth would you put your hand up to do that role?
If attitudes towards referees are going to change, we all must play a role. But the media must take a leadership role and focus on educating fans about the rules and the game, rather than trying to generate clicks through social media posts constantly referring to controversy.