Romantics and egalitarians like to believe that “having a go” at the umpire stems from an anti-authoritarian streak which is part of the archetypical Australian character. There might be some truth to this.
But it is also true that, as a sport, Australian Rules has some unique characteristics which lend themselves towards criticism of the umpire.
Umpires, their coaches and football commentators are fond of stating that the umpire’s job is one of “common sense”. If this was true anybody capable of running well enough could successfully umpire our game.
In fact the job of the umpiring Aussie Rules involves the split second application of a multitude of complex and sometimes ambiguous rules to a series of rapidly occurring and quite diverse events.
What is it about Aussie Rules that attracts criticism of umpires?
First, Aussie Rules umpires often look a little funny. Unlike the players, they are strictly required to keep their shirts tucked in and their socks pulled up. Like with the Victoria police, at least at AFL level, there are rules against beards. Beards obviously interfere with good decision making! Umpires’ legs usually look skinny compared to the players. And, perhaps most of all, umpires must engage in a strange and exaggerated array of hand and body signals to communicate their various decisions. These are part of the game’s rituals.
Second, there is the sheer quantity of decisions that umpires must make in the course of a game. As with life in general, the greater the number of decisions required, the greater the probability of mistakes arising.
An average Australian Rules game (played at AFL level) may have 600-775 or so total disposals, 110-140 or so tackles, 150-220 hundred or so marks and normally around 28-40 or so free kicks (the average in the AFL in 2012 was 32 frees per game, down from 40 in 2011). There are probably even more free kicks paid at community and junior level football.
An average soccer game has just 12-16 frees or fouls, less than half the typical number of frees in the average AFL game. The average number of penalties and free kicks awarded in a game in the 2011 Ruby World Cup series was 21. This is higher than the number of frees in soccer, but still well below Australian Rules.
And even where umpires “throw away the whistle” and pay relatively fewer free kicks they are still making numerous decisions- namely the decision to call “play on”.
The prevalence of the “play on” call in Australian Rules is unique to the game and indicates the true extent of adjudication required. “Play on” calls are decisions- if they were not there would be no need for them to be communicated.
Third, while perhaps 70-85% of decisions in Australian Rules are straight forward enough, another 15-30% are frequently referred to as “fifty-fifty” decisions. This phrase indicates that the “correct” decision could have gone either way.
If it was not such a mouthful, it might be more accurate to refer to some of these decisions as “33 percenters”. This is because the “correct” decision could have gone one of three ways- a free kick to either one of the teams, or a “play on” call. Indeed sometimes “play on” calls are the result of more or less simultaneous infringements by two opponents.
The capacity of Australian Rules to throw up simultaneous separate infringements of different rules, or the simultaneous occurrence of a mark and a free, greatly contributes to controversy in umpire decision making.
While the general principle is to pay the “first occurring free” the application of this principle can itself be difficult. For example, controversy is almost certain to result when a first occurring incident is a “borderline” infringement and the second occurring incident is a more blatant, or aggressive, infringement.
A fourth reason contributing to criticism of umpires is the rules themselves. Some are ambiguous and are not well written. Others simply reflect grey areas of the game. But more than anything else, the rules are both complex and subtle.
This complexity and subtlety can best be appreciated by categorising the different rules according to type. Some of these categories will be recognised by lawyers. The categories include rules:
- that are strict liability in the sense that they involve no guilty intention (EG: out of bounds on the full);
- that require “guilty intention” as an essential element of the infringement (EG: deliberate out of bounds);
- where level of force is crucial in the interpretation of the rule; (EG: high contact other than a high tackle);
- that involve intention being a vital element in providing an exception to the rule creating the infringement; (EG: push in the back or other contact incidental to a legitimate attempt to mark i.e the intention or attempt to mark creates an exception to the push in the back rule );
- that depend, for their interpretation, upon actions that occur immediately before, or after, the main incident for which the free kick is given (EG: holding the ball- if there is “prior opportunity” before the tackle an “immediate” kick or handball is required; if there was no prior opportunity before the tackle a “reasonable opportunity” is given to make a “genuine attempt” to dispose of the ball).
What is more, this complexity is exacerbated by the fact that the rules as set out in the AFL’s ‘Laws of Australian Football’ often do not correspond to the manner in which the game is actually umpired in practice. The best example of this is the “holding the ball” rule which requires that a player who has had a prior opportunity dispose of the ball “immediately” when tackled. But “immediately” is interpreted differently depending upon on the context. Thus:
- A player tackled while bouncing the ball or who has taken the ball out of a ruck contest will usually be penalised if he does not dispose of the ball in the same instant when tackled; BUT
- A player who has dragged the ball in or who has possessed the ball for some time before being tackled (but who has not bounced the ball or taken it out of the ruck) is invariably given more time to dispose of it before being penalised.
There are plenty of other examples of where the written rules do not correspond to the way the game is umpired in practice. If you want to read my long, technical and tedious analysis of this problem you can look here.
Umpiring legend Bill Deller (who umpired five grand finals) has stated that umpires need to be people who “enjoy making decisions”.
But this cannot be the whole story as to why a person, especially a younger person, chooses to umpire. Players make just as many decisions as umpires- numerous “split second” decisions about where to run, when to kick, handball, tackle, bump, evade and so on.
But the decisions made by umpires are of a fundamentally different nature to the decisions made by players. Umpires interpret rules. And the decisions they make are binding upon the players whether or not the decisions are correct. The job of the umpire therefore certainly has the potential to attract people who are sticklers for rules or who like attention or who enjoy the exercise of authority. Thus some umpires may have a slightly officious streak or, worse, an authoritarian personality.
A player is part of a team. But a player is also an individual competing for selection with teammates. A player will therefore want to be noticed by the coach, spectators and fellow players.
Umpires also compete with each other for selection. But by way of contrast, an umpire has probably done a good job when the umpire has not been noticed. Fans get annoyed when they sense (sometimes correctly) that not all umpires always see it that way.
But even for those umpires who understand that a job gone unnoticed is usually a job well done, the game, by very its nature, is one where this aim is often easier said than done.
Extra tit bits:
1. Beards—especially among clergy—were once serious, symbolic matters. They separated East from West during the Great Schism, priests from laity during the Middle Ages, and Protestants from Catholics during the Reformation.
2. Constable Thomas McIntyre was a policeman who escaped the Kelly Gang ambush that killed four police officers at Stringybark Creek on 25 October 1878. He made it to the Mansfield Police Station where he wrote a report giving a description of the events that had taken place. But, in 2014 his facial hair would disqualify him from being a Victorian policeman or AFL umpire.