Almanac Footy: Don’t touch the umpire


Watching sport can suspend the watcher’s view on abuse, and it tends to be most evident through the treatment of umpires and referees. A mob of barrackers screaming at an official for hours on end is justified, suddenly. It’s one of the caveats of umpiring and sport that is more or less accepted by the wider fraternity. Everyone with a whistle just hunkers down and deals with it. Yell at the ump, or don’t yell at the ump – it’s a choice and there won’t be any repercussions either way.



Crucially, though, you don’t often cop it as much from players as you do from supporters. I’ve umpired footy through my late teenage years, and now into my early twenties. Piss-and-wind 16-year-olds and hulking weekend warriors were no match for the sharp tongue of their fathers and brothers sitting in a Hilux by the boundary. Even worse: the grandmothers. But generally, it is the blokes, and there’s a discussion about masculinity worth having in relation to the weekend ‘tradition’ of sitting by the side of a ground, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, caterwauling at sports people and officials and calling it all good fun. This article is not about that.



For better or for worse, umpires know that when they oversee a match, they will be subject to reasonably intense levels of abuse and naked dislike by all and sundry. It makes it difficult to adjudicate at times, with a cacophony of abuse and ‘feedback’. You must be tough-skinned to be an umpire, but you don’t need to be physically imposing or be able to handle yourself in a verbal or (god forbid) physical fight. Players disagree, whine, and cajole, but they will generally stop short of anything worthy of infringement.



There is a grey area there of course – an inferred parliamentary privilege of sorts that allows supporters to feel more comfortable aiming abuse at whistle-blowers and players alike, that allows players to jumper-punch and sledge, that allows umpires to tell players to piss off to the bench should their behaviour become unreasonably unruly. But the border on the grey area is clear:


You do not, do not, touch the umpire.


Context matters of course – bumping into the umpire when you’re not looking, a pat on the back after a quick conversation. What Toby Greene has done in marching toward Matt Stevic, jabbing a finger furiously in his face and colliding, shoulder-to-shoulder, with him is break an unwritten law of the player-umpire relationship. Players can lose their temper and be ropeable with a decision, and even tread the line of abuse while maintain a safe distance. But you never touch the umpire, you never encroach too far on the umpire’s personal space.



Stevic himself nailed it in his testimony to the Tribunal on Tuesday morning as Greene’s fate was exhaustively debated for nearly four hours. No, he did not feel threatened by Greene. No, the contact was not forceful. But, he says, it was disrespectful, arguably demonstrative, and definitively a bad look for the game.



It’s reasonable to ask: what does the ‘bad look’ consist of? For me, a 20-something who umpires kids and ressies on weekends, private schoolboys during the week, it’s the walk to the bus stop after a game and those driving by who recognise me. It’s the parents and friends who rush onto the ground at the quarter breaks, while I stand in the middle with my fellow umpires, having a chinwag. It’s down the street in a relatively unfamiliar suburb, where I’m working many jobs and recognised for a ‘green maggot’. There’s been occasions, in and after rugged games of football, where the situation has felt volatile, dangerous, but I haven’t felt threatened, as no-one has entered my personal space, blocked my path, marched toward me. Greene has moved the goalposts and leapt from the grey area to a new area of conversation entirely.



Who is to say that Greene, a seemingly unknowing role model, hasn’t now paved the way for umpire abuse through his careless and disrespectful treatment of one of the AFL’s best decision makers? Through one bump, and a passionate self-defence at the Tribunal, Greene has made me certainly worried for the next time I umpire an unruly game of football. The AFL can’t afford this – there has been a sustained drop-off in umpires in Victoria, post-pandemic. No umpires, no games. As dislikeable as the umpires may be in the eyes of footballing people, men and women in green are needed for the game’s survival. There is a consequence to ill-treatment, and I believe that Greene has done nothing to stamp it out.



Greene has history. A man who has undercut his immense talent by acts of random and spontaneous violence on and off the field; his assault of Marcus Bontempelli and Lachie Neale (in subsequent weeks) in 2019; his king hit of Caleb Daniel in 2017; and his gross and frankly disgusting spit toward Anthony Miles in 2015. This is an abridged list.



What isn’t spoken about as much is his assault of a bouncer in May 2014, where Greene, while on crutches, punched a man four times, enough to make the victim think that one more blow would’ve killed him. Greene, along with some friends, was in the process of being booted from a Caulfield restaurant after being told they would no longer be served alcohol. Greene was charged and later fined $2500, an amount he would pay again when he dropped a knee into Isaac Heeney in the 2018 Elimination Final.



Greene was sued in 2019 by the bouncer he assaulted, who had been left with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and loss of income due to injury.



This year, Toby Greene has been named stand-in captain of the GWS Giants when Stephen Coniglio hasn’t been able to take the field. He’s been named to his second All-Australian team, dragged his team’s forward line into an unlikely Semi Final and is one of the most talented, most watchable players in the competition.



What is most frustrating is that, in his 10th AFL season already, Greene doesn’t seem to learn. No-one wants to sterilize emotional and intense footballers and remove the passionate aspect of Australian football from the AFL. Scott Pendlebury is absolutely correct when he says that Greene is treated more harshly by the AFL purely due to his track record. But Greene’s conduct is undeniably a problem. What I am saying is that he can and should be better and by god is it frustrating that he’s not.



Greene has provided precedent for all those who play local football who have held back on their aggression toward umpires, to all the children who look to AFL players for the footballing etiquette copybook. The grey area has moved but moved the wrong way.



It doesn’t matter what was said between Greene and Stevic, or how forceful the contact was to Stevic’s shoulder, or if Greene usually gets on with field umpires and plans to become an umpire – it doesn’t matter. The fact is that Greene thought it was within the realms of reason to walk a straight line toward the umpire and bump into him, not by accident, but in the process of criticising a decision. He doesn’t get it. It isn’t about the impact, but the action behind it. Not abusive, or impactful, but demonstrative, disrespectful and inherently aggressive at heart. As soon as you cross into the umpire’s space, the umpire is not safe. Stevic is a professional, and his decision-making was unaffected. Mine would absolutely be affected. I would have trepidation in pulling on the greens again the following week.



To put a time on it – Greene does not deserve to play again this year, and probably the first few weeks of next year either. A 3-week suspension reflects this somewhat, but this will be an ongoing story.



What a waste.





The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE



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  1. Very well said, Paddy. Very much agree.
    The average supporter has no idea just how desperate the umpire recruiting situation is at the grassroots level.

    I regularly umpired when my boys were playing junior footy, and I grew to resent it. Who wants to umpire a game of u/10 footy at 8am on a Sunday at Wyndhamvale when the crowd on the outer fence are already hoeing into bourbon and cokes?

  2. Matt Zurbo says

    I am a HUGE Toby Greene fan. Both of his football, and his unlikability. I think footy needs characters, villains. Not a lot, but enough to round out the game’s personality. And our barracking experience.

    I also think you are 100% correct. A beautifully written piece by a passionate servant of the game.

    Thanks for all you do. We would not have a game without you.

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Paddy. A fantastic contribution written from the heart (and importantly well presented from the head). There are going to be some interesting (no doubt, some unwanted) situations evolve around the country when (if) local community finals, at all levels, take place. I, for one, hope the AFL do appeal the leniency of the sanction in the best interest of the game. This season if my fifth year away from any sort of umpiring involvement after some 40 plus years. I am not missing this shit whatsoever.

  4. We need you and so many others in the game Paddy. Echoing Smokie, we had actual VAFA umpires on only maybe five occasions this year – every other time we provided from our own emergencies to adjudicate (I did three games on the boundary)…though I don’t think we had anyone on the turps for the morning games, Smoke! Must build ’em different way out west!

    It’s such a thankless role at the best of times, but people do it because they love the game. How awful that others who supposedly also love the game would abuse and harass umpires so regularly and so brazenly…it only hurts the game and lays bare their naked self interest, privilege and sheer bloody mindedness.

    As for Greene – three weeks is considerably unders. This incident however sets back his lukewarm image rehabilitation considerably.

  5. Daryl Schramm says

    I meant to add, stick with the umpiring Paddy. I’m just old, cynical and grumpy.

  6. Yvette Wroby says

    Thank you Paddy both for what you have written and your umpiring work. when I watch crowds or am in them and see people jump and scream at umpires… I hate it. I am all for more weeks for Greene and he has let his team mates and football down yet again. He may be talented but he’s obviously got deeper problems.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. george smith says

    i wrote this in another forum:

    Matt Stevic is not paid to be a strong upstanding member of society. He’s paid to be Pontius Pilate, Johnny Kerr, Garfield Barwick, a male appendage. He’s paid to break your heart.

    Check the last 5 minutes of the St Kilda v Geelong qualifying final 2010. Geelong players going ape droppings because Stevic disallowed a match winning mark. He, like Greene, has form…

    Even more reason you should never touch them. Doesn’t matter if it’s Aussie rules, cricket, soccer or netball. You touch an umpire, you do the time.

  8. Paddy – great piece and all power to you for your umpiring work.
    However, can I suggest that you (and plenty of other commentators) may be diluting the central message here by piling into Toby Greene and bringing up his lengthy rap sheet. It’s fine to say “when will he ever learn” when it’s yet another indiscretion against a player. We justifiably heard plenty of that sort of commentary during the recent Greene-Dangerfield case. But touching an umpire goes way beyond the realms of discussion about a player’s temperament, tribunal record or even off-field incidents. Calls to throw the book at Greene for touching an umpire should relate solely to the action itself. As you’ve so eloquently stated, the risks from this incident to the image and reputation of the game and, particularly, the impacts on grassroots footy, are key here. It’s too serious an offence to be getting into arguments about the severity of punishment based on the perpetrator’s track record. Whether it’s Jack the Ripper or Mother Theresa bumping Stevic – same hefty penalty IMO.
    A final unrelated point – I’m constantly amazed at the extent of referee contact and intimidation in top level soccer and how little seems to be done about it. It’s even more appalling when you reflect on the obscenely high pay packets the players receive whereas I understand the referees are still at best semi-professional.

  9. Mark Poustie says

    Great article Paddy and with you all the way. If nobody umpires there is no game. More to see on this yet – 3 weeks looks light and I think Gil and the AFL will appeal.
    I agree with Stainlesss point on the degree of contact and intimidation of soccer refereees. It’s reprehensible and I dont understand why socccers’ governing bodies tolerate it. By comparison, I noted hockey games at the recent Olympics had none of those shenanigans. The referees were in total control and the players just respected the decisisons and got on with playing.
    Soccer has the remedy to address the issue. It’s up to players to control their actions and behaviour. Any contact with or abuse of the ref or disrespectful ,threatening or demonstrative behaviour towards the ref yellow card ,repeat it or keep it up, red card. Give them to multiple players if necessary.

  10. Thanks Paddy.
    I hope your words are read and considered widely.

  11. Hayden Kelly says

    A good read and you are on the money . Personally my view is that umpires make mistakes [less than players] but they rarely influence the outcome of the game so why abuse , threaten or touch them .I am a Toby fan but he had to be suspended and he got off lightly in my view . I love the way people are justifying 3 weeks by pointing out it’s the equivalent of 6 weeks given its 3 finals . Jeez you can have a shade of odds from me about GWS playing 3 more finals this year .
    Keep up the good work .

  12. I’ve watched footy for years, mostly detached …… I’ve always been curious about the way umpires are the object of so much venom and fury from both the players AND the crowd. For me it almost seems like part of the game but unacceptable in my mind. And then to witness the same behaviour directed at my sons….there’s been honest conversations in our home.
    The only way the culture will change is through leadership, from AFL, our metropolitan and regional clubs and from the parents and guardians of our junior players.
    I’ve been following your writing for years Paddy and this is an excellent piece of work.. great job

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