Almanac Footy Writing: Continuing the umpiring debate…


Last week, Dave Warner wrote about the state of umpiring in the AFL. This is a reply to that piece.



It’s the time-honoured ritual of footy fans that’s as old as the game itself.  Who of us can honestly say that we haven’t, at some stage, launched a tirade against the umpires?


Last week, two pieces on the Almanac presented differing perspectives about umpiring decisions and their influence on games.  Davesuburban takes an in-depth statistical approach, demonstrating significant and consistent advantages over time in the free kick count for home teams.  His point is that this evidence raises a serious concern about fairness.  John Gordon, on the other hand, concludes that even in the heat of the moment, we should just get over it and temper our indignation, or that of others, with a dose of good-humoured respect for the game’s officials.  “Free kicks even themselves out”.  “The umpires don’t put the score on the board”.  “The man in white (or fluoro green) is always right”.  So go the cliches.  John’s view is that to persist with complaints about umpiring is pointless.  They never change their minds, and results are never overturned.


I readily concur with both views.  Home teams favoured by the officials?  Whoda thunk it?  Bleating “we wuz robbed” an exercise in futility? Ah…yup!


I respect the vital and difficult role the umpires perform and have great admiration for the physical and mental strengths that enable them to do this.  Umpiring AFL footy is one of the toughest jobs in sporting officialdom.  The rules are so open to interpretation.  Decisions need to be made in split seconds, often amidst a melee of bodies, and with loud parochial crowds desperately trying to exert influence.  No surprises that questionable calls are made and that the home teams often get the rub of the green.  I think most of us grudgingly accept this state of affairs.


But this doesn’t mean that the rules that they apply and the way they apply them should be immune from criticism and scrutiny.  Based on my observations of season 2021, I have some serious concerns about the way AFL games are being officiated.


My concerns centre around three areas.


The first and most obvious is the frequency of incorrect decisions, several of which have decided games. A few glaring examples:


  • Failure to penalise Mark Blicavs for incorrect disposal in the last seconds of Geelong’s game against Brisbane. The resultant free kick, taken within a few metres of goal, would almost certainly have won the game for the Lions.


  • Several weeks later against Sydney, the Cats were on the receiving end when Jeremy Cameron was denied a mark on the basis that the kick hadn’t travelled 15 metres, when it clearly had. Cameron was thus denied a shot for the match-winning goal on the siren.


  • Melbourne’s one-point loss to Adelaide that came courtesy of two umpiring howlers in the last seconds – another missed “holding the ball” decision from which resultant play-on Adelaide scored the winning goal, and a missed deliberate out of bounds that denied the Demons the chance to regain the lead virtually on the siren.



At this level of the game, clear errors like these are unforgiveable, even when they’re not costing teams games.  From my observation, erroneous decision-making is not only occurring in the intensity of frantic close finishes or when there is a strongly parochial crowd in attendance.  In the recent “Dreamtime” game, for example, a litany of clear umpiring errors occurred throughout the game.  The crowd was loud but its support was evenly dispersed.  On balance, I reckon Essendon copped the worst of it that night.  Umpiring errors probably didn’t cost them the game but the fact remains: frequent errors were made, pure and simple.


My second gripe concerns the appalling state of the rules around tackling, prior opportunity and holding the ball.  These could be packaged up as another novel in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series – albeit, with greater literary merit!  Time and space prevent me from delving into the details of these rules and how they’re being applied.  Suffice to say, fans approach each week with trepidation about the lottery treatment that our sides are likely to receive.


My final point stems from this.  When so many rules are subject to “interpretation” rather than unambiguous application, the potential exists to use them to serve an agenda rather than protect the integrity of the competition.  I’m not suggesting anything corrupt is going on here, but the reality is that when the lines blur between sport and mass entertainment, there’s a risk that squeaky clean results may take a back seat to the entertainment appeal of the product.  A narrative with a strong dose of outrage, injustice and revenge will always trump one where clear, rational decision-making predominates.  The AFL hasn’t reached the WWE stage yet, but you get my drift.


A key element of the AFL’s entertainment offering is an even competition in which success is shared around.  The League routinely skews the fixture in the interests of maximising attendances and revenue and, importantly, to make it harder for the stronger teams to be consistently successful.  Its draft and salary cap have a similar objective.  Is it therefore so unreasonable to suggest that their officials could, consciously or sub-consciously, be inclined to tow the equalisation line?


The thought first occurred to me during the 2016 finals series that selective “interpretation” of our game’s notoriously complex rules could subtly but effectively influence match and even season outcomes.  The consistently “helpful” umpires’ influence (for the record – 79 frees for versus 48 against across the four finals) in the Western Bulldogs’ extraordinary 2016 finals success will, rightly or wrongly, be an enduring thread in the narrative around that campaign.  Clearly, the outpouring of goodwill towards the Dogs, the League’s ultimate Cinderella side, overwhelmed the grizzles from the minority of aggrieved Sydney and GWS supporters.  There’s no doubt that the “story” of the Dogs’ triumph was far more noteworthy than how it was achieved.  So, the umpires missed that obvious 50 metre penalty against them in the last seconds of the Preliminary Final that should have cost the Dogs the game? Meh…little details!


Fast forward to 2021 and I feel that I’m watching, even as a neutral, far too many instances of this apparent systematic bias at play.  For example, Sydney’s early season good form seemed to prompt a charmed run from the officials, particularly in their narrow win over Essendon.  Yet last week, the Swans couldn’t take a trick from the umpires throughout their upset loss to Hawthorn.  Even with my long-term disdain for Sydney, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.


Now I’m quite prepared to be put back in my box for challenging the sacrosanctity of umpires and for peddling outrageous conspiracy theories.  But let me finish with another example closer to my heart.  I watched the recent Brisbane-Richmond encounter in a state of total bemusement.  As I saw it, the Tigers’ fast start and early threat of an upset win was systematically and resolutely demolished by a string of umpiring decisions ranging from soft to baffling to downright wrong.  Once again, I recalled my equalisation agenda theory.  Was I watching evidence of a concerted campaign against the side that’s won three of the last four flags?  Or was it the mere paranoia of the rusted-on fan?  Well, let me just channel Davesuburban with some stats.  At the end of Round 14, the free kick differentials for 17 teams range from +40 (Western Bulldogs – again!) to -20 (St Kilda).  Richmond’s differential is -67.  That’s more than three times the next most disadvantaged.  Just saying…



You can read Dave Warner’s piece HERE.



The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. 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 HERE.


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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!

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