AFL umpires have one of the toughest gigs in sport

Date: May 2, 2014 / Posted by control

Having hosted sports talkback programs for over two decades I can assure you that know sporting officials in this country draw more ire or criticism than those who adjudicate Australian Football.

And having listened to plenty of sports talkback overseas I can also vouch for the fact that the airwaves abroad do not carry the same amount of comment and critique with respect to the various sporting codes in other countries.

It certainly is not predicated on the fact that Australian Football fans are more passionate about their code than other sporting devotees. But it does speak volumes for just how difficult it is to officiate our indigenous game.

For starters I cannot think of another sport where a referee or umpire has to actually possess a ball skill. The necessity to be able to bounce an elliptical ball vertically is a challenge that is not confronted by officials in other codes.

And then there are the laws that govern the sport itself. So many of the individual laws that must be assessed by Australian Football umpires are highly subjective, perhaps more so than any other ball sport.

For example … what constitutes prior opportunity and hence holding the ball; just what degree of interference constitutes a push in the back; how do you accurately decide whether a player has run 15m without bouncing the ball or kicked it 15m to facilitate a mark being awarded; what specific action warrants the awarding of a 50m penalty; just how much grappling between ruckmen is required to warrant a free kick; at which point is a player deemed to have taken the ball over the boundary line deliberately?

They are just some of the so-called ‘grey’ areas that face the sport’s umpires.

One of the great appeals of football – the global game – is the fact that the rules that govern it are far more easily interpreted and less in number.

The change of style and the way the game of Australian Football is played nowadays has also increased the degree of difficulty for the men in white … or lime green, yellow or whatever the latest dress code maybe.

For many decades the sport was basically a linear one where teams pretty much transmitted the ball in a relatively straight line toward their own goal line. Nowadays the ball spends as much time going laterally and backwards as it seemingly does going forward and its transmission is far faster than days’ past.

The rugby codes, for example, are by the nature of their rules linear or lateral which makes the referee’s job easier. Whilst the ball is projected backwards in football it is not transmitted with the same speed that it often is in the Australian code. This ‘cyclical’ style of football brought with it a whole new set of problems for the game’s administrators.

In 1976 it was decided to increase the number of field umpires from one to two to cope with the fact that the ball speed was increasing and the direction it was heading was becoming more unpredictable.

Then the move came in 1994 to increase the number of field umpires to its current level of three. It was believed that this move would bring about greater scrutiny of the players who were within the 50m arcs at either end of the ground – many would argue though that that particular area of the game has not changed dramatically as a result of the added adjudicator.

Another complication for those with the whistle was the development of flooding whereby all 36 players on the ground will be in one half of the field, and at times, even one-third of the ground. The drastically increased congestion around the ball and its random and rapid movement has made the ability to be in a position with a clear line of sight to the contest a very challenging one for the umpires.

One of the other areas where Australian Football administrators have further complicated things is the seemingly never-ending changes that have been made to the sport’s laws.

In the 1980s changes to the laws that required either a different or totally new application to be adopted by the field umpires occurred seven times; 11 times in the 1990s; 19 times in the first decade of this century; and already seven times since 2010. How many other codes have had such radical change in a similar period? The constant tinkering with the sport’s laws has, in the main, simply added new levels of complexity for those that are chosen to officiate it.

All these reasons have made the sport of Australian Football perhaps a more complicated sport to adjudicate than most.

But, of course, that will not stop the fans from venting their spleen given the slightest opportunity.

First published on The Roar – www.theroar.com.au – on 1 May 2014