Let the umpires off their philosophical hook!

Once I smugly looked down on Rugby Union. Its penalties seemed to contribute far too much to the final score and, worse than that, they seemed trivial and opaque. Fans apparently waited with bated breath and accepted the direction of the referee’s pointing arm with the best good humour they could muster, and then mutter something about what a technical game it was. It must be, I thought, but, then again,  how would you know?

I knew that, at the same time, Aussie rules had its grey areas, but you could at least see what the umpire might be thinking. The direction of the umpires arm was rarely a complete mystery to you.

This weekend, while watching some WAFL on the banks of Leederville oval, my father commented that holding the ball decisions had more or less become arbitrary. I could only concur, and feel my hubris come back to haunt me.  As players grapple- supporters, players, coaches- we simply wait bemused for our fate to be decided. What the umpires mean these days by “You’ve got to make an effort,” God only knows. Must players, for all intents and purposes in human straight jackets, make frantic twitching movements to the point of convulsion?

Similarly, what diving on the ball entails is anyone’s guess. What if you don’t know whether you’ll end up on your feet or not?  What if you don’t know whether you or your opponent is going to reach the ball first. If you come second, you are tackling. If you come first, you are now diving on the ball. It is a strange crime when you have no idea whether you are committing it until the very last second.

Sadly, I recon we’ve now descended to the same lesser plane as Rugby Union where only a rough logic operates. The longer a team camps in its forward half the better the chances the footy gods will capriciously award them a free kick. That is at least halfway fair, since no-one is accusing the umpires of bias- just self-delusion.

I say self-delusion because the confidence with which they make their decisions belies the metaphysical nature of the matters over which they judge. As philosophers and psychologists will tell you, most concepts and categories cannot be satisfactorily defined. There just is no way of telling definitively where the human back starts and the side ends, for example. But that sort of boundary dispute is nothing compared to the mysteries of deliberate and intentional actions.

Take a favourite Philosophy 100 example. Is the pilot who turns a plane around with a gun to his head acting deliberately? Well, he is moving his hands, no-one else, so yes. But then, of course, he isn’t. You get the picture. The same applies to a player being closely chased over the boundary line. His own feet freely take him over the line, and yet he is pursued over the line. Has he taken the ball over the line deliberately or not? Must he be physically dragged over the line to count as inadvertently taking the ball over the line?

Or, consider the surgeon who opts to undertake a dangerous operation. He doesn’t intend to kill the patient, but the patient dies.  Has he killed the patient? The doctor has no intention to harm, yet his actions may be deemed criminally negligent.  Similarly, the Full Back’s primary intention may be to keep the ball away from the opposition. Yet in handballing wide of his opponent he propels the ball over the line. Did he deliberately hand ball the ball out of bounds or did he deliberately handball the ball away from his opponent and away from his opponent’s goals? It’s frankly impossible to precisely describe his actions. No-one knows how in our brains intentions are realized, summed and translated into motor signals. Our psychological terms are only approximations.

Things get murkier if the ball has travelled a long way to the boundary and bounced several times.  Now, the player can only predict the consequences of his actions. And yet, an umpire will presume to know whether the outcome was deliberate or not. No wonder crowds go berserk.

Leigh Mathews made the point the other night on TV. Today it’s almost as if the onus is on the players to make sure the ball does not go out of bounds. In other words, before a defender could defend, now he can only defend within the white lines. Before a player might chose to kick towards the wing, now only the corridor is safe from penalty.

These difficulties in describing human actions are called philosophical for a reason- they don’t have answers, at least for now. So, why are these concepts sitting in the rule book? Even if umpires Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche were available next Friday night, they would still struggle to implement the rules consistently.

Perhaps they would give this advice to the rules committee. Take psychological concepts like deliberate and make an effort out of the rule book. At least, reserve their application to the most blatant and easiest of cases, say when the player handballs a considerable distance sideways to the boundary line. The more the player is constrained in his actions, the more a player is like the pilot with a gun to his head, the more leniently he should be judged.

We can also make things easier for the umpire by at least giving the fist free reign. Let players punch the ball wherever they like, all the way to the opposition members if desired. There’s a natural, righteous feel to that thump over the boundary line. The forward thrust turned back by the uncompromising defending fist.

Given the unpredictable nature of the bouncing Sherrin, we should probably let players kick the ball wherever they wish, as well. If it goes out, and a respite is cheaply won by lesser-skilled caution, that’s footy. Boundary lines exist, get over them.

In short, c’mon rules committee, give umpires a break; let them concentrate on spatial problems. Although these problems are not necessarily straight forward, they’re at least comprehensible.


  1. Mark

    You have touched on something I have often thought and been coming around to.

    I too have always looked at Union as being very much influenced by which referee is in charge of the game, and what interpretation they put in decidions or actions. This is often influenced by being from the Southern or Northern Hemisphere.

    But I have always been fascinated by seeing the ref blow his whistle and neither the players nor the crowd being able to reasonably predict which way a decision would go. I always felt that a game that was that hard to predict, in which teh players are not sure what the decision is going to be, had flaws.

    What I liked about AFl, is that in the main, despite predictable crowd protestations, the decision was fairly clear.

    What’s happening now is that when a decision is pending, everyone looks at the umpire (at least for holding the ball calls) and holds their breath, not knowing which way it will go.

    I agree with the commenst made after the West Coast Cats game of don’t blame the umpires themselves, blame those setting the rules.

    Union to me is a confusing game where there didn’t seem to be, at least to a novice, consistency in decision making. I fear we are going the same way.


  2. Hegel and Nietzsche would have been hopeless umpires. Kant, however, could have made a good tribunal president. Take the Judd chicken-wing incident. Kant would ask himself two questions: One, Could tearing your powerless opponent’s arm from its socket be universally accepted as part of the game? Two, Is he treating his opponent as a means or an end?

    Take four weeks and smile, Juddy.

    On the question of how deliberate an offence is, all the umpire has to ask to ask to decide is this: Could the player’s action have been intended to have another consequence? In the case of a ball that goes directly out of bounds, clearly not. If the ball bounces first, not guilty by reason of the fact that there was no certainty that it would cross the line.

  3. Mark Simms says

    Yes, Juddy’s foray into sado-masochism wouldn’t pass the categorical imperative test.

    Not sure “directly out” is going to get the umpires off the hook.”Directly out” is still pretty vague. In any case, we still won’t know whether the primary intention of the player was to get the ball out of bounds when other physical and circumstantial factors shape the ball’s movement.

    Sometimes, for example, it’s physically impossible for the player to release the ball in any direction other than towards the boundary. This doesn’t mean he has deliberately propelled the ball towards the boundary. Sometimes there’s only one train out of town if you have to get out of town you take that train, wherever it’s going.

  4. By directly out, I mean that the player propelled the ball and it crossed the line without anything happening to it on the way that might have caused this. The player’s intention and his physical circumstances are irrelevant: he caught the train and, for the purposes of umpiring, that’s that. The only question that matters is: Did the player cause the ball to cross the boundary?

  5. Mark Simms says

    The soccer option, although simple, would eliminate the throw in. I would go the other way and keep the current rule only for handballs. All other boundary and goal line crossings would be legal. I admit it would keep “deliberate” on the books, but I would write in the caveat of “sole intention” into the rule, if it doesn’t already exist.

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