Easy targets

By Peter Davis

I was struck once while umpiring. I remember being surprised by the punch and how I managed to stay on my feet by jogging backwards. It was an under 14’s game of Aussie Rules. One of the kids had not liked a decision. I explained to him why I awarded the free kick to his opponent. As he continued to shout, it then seemed best to ignore him. The objective was to keep the game flowing, so I blew my whistle loudly and awarded a 15metre penalty for language abuse. Then he punched me.

Umpires have to attend every hearing where they have placed a player on report.  Tribunal hearings are not enjoyable. Both teenage and adult umpires go voluntarily on a weeknight to provide their version of the event.

At the junior level it is important for an umpire to realise that the offending player is just a kid still learning about right and wrong. Part of the objective is to try and understand what morally occurred in the player’s thought process at the time of the incident. The junior kids on report usually mumble that they ‘just lost it’. Then they say sorry, while their coach or parent watches. Some of them seem to be more embarrassed than genuinely sorry. It is probably not much different than being called to the headmaster’s office after a school ground fight.

These juniors don’t often understand that violence on the football field is the same as violence committed anywhere in public life. Teens witness their heroes getting into fights each week in the professional leagues. It isn’t very easy for them to interpret this violence as anything other than theatre. Highlights of punches are often replayed on the television. In response the commentators will remark only upon the likelihood of suspension but not often upon the morality of the actions. Only a kick, bite or blow when a player is blindsided is deemed as a dirty action.

Aussie Rules is considered a sometimes-brutal contest where players assert their dominance through aggression. Perhaps a flaring impulse to hurt back cannot always be controlled? So transgressions, while deemed unsavoury, are also to be expected. Players must ruggedly flex themselves against the physical authority of other players. And sometimes players just hit out because of frustration over their own poor performances.

A player receives a more severe penalty for hitting an umpire than another player. This is partly because umpires are not allowed to defend themselves. If an umpire wrestled while being attacked he or she would be breaking their stricter code of conduct. An umpire who hit someone would likely be suspended far longer than a player would. They must just stand and take it, perhaps putting their arms up to cover their faces.

I guess the AFL umpires can harden themselves to the anger of crowds and commentary after spending years getting to the top. At least they are physically protected by the presence of police at a game. As a teenager, I often umpired alone and there were times when I would walk from a ground at the end of a match feeling nervous. We don’t have much crowd security in the local leagues. Umpires have to rely on the support of club officials – and each other.

A popular pastime in Australian football is to criticise the umpire. An umpire’s incorrect decision can occasionally alter the outcome of a game. Meanwhile our umpires are making hundreds of decisions at rapid speed from various angles.

I feel that negativity towards umpires from commentators at elite level does filter down to the local leagues. It remains hard to get new umpires involved. Why would a teenager not prefer to earn a bit of pocket money umpiring rather than at a casual job? The answer might be that umpiring could leave them feeling like an outcast?

Umpires now receive more support from club officials compared to when I first started. Parent rage in junior football has lessened a bit by asking parents to obey a code of conduct. Some parents do have a competitive urge and are desperate for their kids to excel. They become stressed and critical. As a result, some children are like Charlie Brown’s on the pitcher’s mound: determined with a slight expression of horror.

I don’t get paid when I currently umpire on Sunday mornings the little kids in Auskick games. I used to get paid for umpiring, when younger and able to keep up with under-14s up to senior games in city leagues. In contrast I know a lot of umpires in the bush still don’t get paid for umpiring seniors. In the bush an umpire might feel lucky when clubs might sling them a bit of petrol money.

The best thing about umpiring is the mateship. As a teenager just learning, I used to love conversing with men during training. We would encourage one another to strive. I learnt that the way an individual performs is irrelevant when compared with the overall achievement of a group. Umpires will support one of their peers if they are having an average game. I learnt about true leadership this way.

The other great thing about umpiring is the fitness I achieved. I went for years without getting a cold or flu.

Let us hope we never have an incident in Australia like the 46-year-old referee fatally punched at a lower league match, in Utah earlier in May 2013. Extreme violence can stem from someone being considered an easy target.

It is important to note that some umpires in junior leagues are only a year or so older than the players. I learned a great lesson by not retaliating when I umpired games solo as a young teenager. I learnt to walk away even when others called me weak for doing so.

The tribunal hearing about my being struck at 14 lasted half an hour – an unusually long time for a junior league case. When we entered the room, the offending player waited for my reaction; I waited for an apology. When asked about my actions by a tribunal official I mentioned how an umpire is trained to remain calm. I said that it wasn’t a very hard punch – more like a push. The kid was suspended for four games. The proceeding finished with a request for the two of us to shake hands.

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