One thing I have learned about being a parent is that kids have to grow up and as much as you want to protect them from the world and what comes with maturity and age, you can’t always do that.
One thing I have learned about junior football coaching is that you want to set a good example in every way, but that is always subject to your foibles and that of others.
These two areas came together for an unfortunate life lesson for my U12 boys last week. They got to see a number of different things in one act.
They got to see that football, wonderful game that it is, means too much to some people. They got to see that brain fades occur at every level of the game, not just to a player twice voted the best and the fairest by AFL umpires. They got to see that adults aren’t perfect.
In the whole scheme of things, this event seems trivial. On the pages of the Alamanac even today, there are stories of kids having to grow up too quickly having seen their school friend struck down tragically in his prime at Pembroke in South Australia, and another family farewelling a loved family pooch. Read any weekend paper, and there are potentially much bigger issues that kids will have to try to deal with and comprehend.
But it’s the principle of the matter that I came in contact with that has me more disappointed than riled.
With three minutes to go in the third quarter, we are just under three goals down, but still well in it against a good side that we can beat. We’ve won the clearances but been outmarked in our forward line, and against the run of play, our opposition has scored earlier in the quarter when they ended up with three players in their goal square to our one.
Then a wobbly kick from about their centre half forward area falls towards the goal square to a contest in which we have the numbers, and our half back flanker mid square palms the ball through for a rushed behind.
Some context is needed here;
- Goals in junior football are celebrated with as much gusto as they are in the AFL, so the lack of response and any high fives from our opposition is telling.
- Apart from the central umpire, all other game day roles are filled with volunteers, mostly dads, (increasingly mums too), but boundary and goal umpires are just parents helping out.
- The central umpire makes all the decisions, boundary umpires pretty much only tell you when the ball goes out, but goal umpires are very often called upon to make their own decisions.
- It’s a big ground, where the 15 year old umpire, who was very good I should add, was a fair way from the action.
Despite the size of the ground, the touch through was clearly seen by our backline, on the wing at our coaching spot, by the opposite goal umpire at the other end of the field (who straight on could see the clear deflection), by the boundary umpire and by most fans.
In time, just as Wayne Harms was said to be in the front bar of the Hilton when he knocked the ball back in late in the ‘79 GF, so this rushed behind will have been seen by all to have been thumped through to the next ground at a 90 degree angle.
So it was with some surprise that the goal umpire simply smiled and indicated full points.
Now kids and parents get emotional at the football, and we all see things that should have been paid but don’t, in a jumble of awkward bodies with just one umpire. I get that.
But this one took the cake. Shock, anger, disbelief, all reigned from around the ground. The boys were dumbstruck, and a few minutes later, when the three quarter time huddle came together, upset and more than peeved.
It’s hard, as my son has explained to me, to tell the boys not to worry about the umpire’s decision, when they’ve heard you yell out comments about it from the sideline.
You have to tell the kids that it’s on the scoreboard and won’t be changed, even though deep down, you are seething.
Mistakes happen, and I watched 2 junior sporting matches on the weekend, played a senior game of hockey myself, watched another and a bit of ALF footy, and I saw loads of mistakes. The hockey match I played had two volunteer umpires (not accredited, and the clubs provide one each) in which many awful decisions were made, however were made by the umpires from both clubs and didn’t favour anyone.
Having umpired occasionally myself, all you can hope for is to stuff up both ways and hope the rotten calls balance out.
So mistakes happen, it all comes out in the wash, and all those other platitudes and clichés around karma and fair play.
But this was a doozy. If it was a mistake, then not seeing what every other person saw when it is right in front of you is hard to explain. If it wasn’t a mistake…
On a completely unrelated issue (of course) I have only played in two hockey matches in over 25 years where I have seen an umpire actually cheat, once I am embarrassed to say was someone from my club, trying to even up an old score. Recently, there was a game where I thought the tally had increased to three, such was the bias.
But whilst the DRS in cricket has removed some of the old saying, the man in white is still supposedly always right.
I recall Ian Chappell saying what a character building game cricket was. You are out of form, needing a big score, and get a poor decision first ball. You have to turn around and walk back that moment, and that builds character.
Well, sadly, the kids learned character on Sunday, when they saw an adult do something that they didn’t expect, like or respect.
Have I mentioned that the goal umpire’s son played full forward? Or that he is a recognised captain of industry, a life of amazing wealth since birth?
Laws of libel prevent too much more being said, and I have probably gone too far. Emotion can get the better of you in some situations, but a day later, the only thing I can come up with is what I am alluding to.
Yesterday it was anger and disappointment. Today, more pity and concern.
Every week at the football, we see people for whom football and winning means too much. After the angry, vitriolic, even one eyed supporter, there is the one for whom football occupies a dangerously large part of their existence and for whom reason and rationale have packed and left years before.
Recently I heard a supporter on SEN say how pleased he was that Wellingham had broken a Carlton player’s jaw, this for an act that Wellingham, his coach and captain all instantly stated he was guilty of and accepted his punishment.
For that supporter, football has taken on too large a part of his life. The desire to win at all costs has gone too far.
It’s hard to protect kids. They can’t watch the news without seeing an act or repercussion of a senseless act that defies reason or logic. Humans are emotional and illogical, and kids learn that. So you can’t protect them forever.
But it would be nice that just as you hope they cling to Santa for a while, they also don’t get to see what adult behaviour is like until they need to.
That they remain for a short while to live in the fantasy world that their parents, flawed as they are, wouldn’t stoop that far, to place that much emphasis on winning that they would deliberately make a decision they knew to be blatantly wrong, for the sake of a junior football win. Would they?
The response here from readers may be that kids have to grow up. It may be that I need to deal with it, drink a cup of concrete etc and move on. I anticipate being called naive.
They would be fair points all round.
But for me, this isolated act said volumes. It’s not about the score, we weren’t the better side. It’s not about the umpire as decisions don’t always go your way. It’s even not about the boys as 10 minutes after the game, they and their opponents are in the canteen line for hot dogs and snakes.
But they saw something yesterday they shouldn’t see. They saw what football means to some people and what price people are prepared to put on their integrity to win.
Someone asked me after the game about the goal umpire “how does he sleep at night?” Very well I said, in a huge comfortable house, with his choice of bedrooms, on very expensive sheets.
You can put a price on all that. But what price fair play?