Say it ain’t so

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;

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

About Sean Curtain

"He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad". First line of 'Scaramouche' by Sabatini, always liked that.


  1. Dear Sean, good article and good topic. When you ask how some people can sleep at night, I’ll answer you. Denial. It’s denial of the truth, denial of the process of honesty, and you can imagine that a person who can deny the truth on the footy field will be full of denial everywhere else. In my study of psychoanalytic thought over the years, the word perversion comes to mind. Perversion is seen as a denial of a reality: the umpire denied the reality of what actually happened and made it something else. He claimed a point as a goal, he named it and denied the reality. He perverted his role as an “impartial ” judge of reality in a kids footy team.

    What’s worse, he sets up a perversion for his son. His son knows. His son knows it’s not a goal. His son now knows that his father perverted the course of the truth. That is way too soon to know consciously, or unconsciously, what kind of man your father is. I feel sorry for a young man who has that kind of role model/example for a father.

    At least your son has a man who can speak and see the truth.

    Like I said, good topic, well written and, if nothing else, you can at least vent on the Almanac where people get it.

    Be well


  2. Wow Sean. A Captain of industry, eh? Shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. These people get to the top by crushing other people, don’t they? (including the starry eyed idealism in kids.) So sad that your boys had to suffer this life lesson at such a tender age.

    Great read mate.

  3. Andrew Fithall says

    It is a frustrating business Sean. Without judging the motivations of the goal umpire, the error is in fact by the field umpire. As stated in the Laws of the game:

    12.1.5 Goal Umpire to Judge Goal or Behind
    (a) The goal Umpire shall decide whether a Goal or Behind has been scored but may, before deciding, consult with the field or boundary Umpires. The decision of the goal Umpire shall be final. The goal Umpire shall only signal that a Goal or Behind has been scored when the field Umpire signals “All Clear” or “Touched All Clear”, as the case may be.
    (b) Law 12.1.5 (a) does not apply if a Controlling Body prescribes that a field Umpire may overrule the decision of a goal Umpire who has not been appointed by the Controlling Body.

    Under 12.1.5 (b) your field umpire would have the authority to overrule the decision of a “non-official” goal umpire. If the field umpire did not see the touch, then he/she would have signalled “all-clear”. If he/she had seen the touch, it would have been as below:

    in the case of the football being touched by another Player and then passing over the Goal Line, or touching or passing over the goal post, the field Umpire signals Touched All Clear.

    If the field umpire has not seen any touch, then the goal stands.

  4. Dave Nadel says

    Excellent article, Sean. The trouble is that the attitudes you have in your public life are likely to be carried over to your private life. If the full forward’s father is a privileged entitled bastard at work why would he be different at his kid’s football game.

    A few years ago my daughter was part of a team of elite gymnasts (between the ages of 8 and 12). Most of the parents kept records of their daughters’ scores in competition. There was one guy who kept records of everyone’s scores. While the girls saw themeselves as part of a team, he saw his daugter as competing against her team mates. It may have been a coincidence but he worked as a manager of a labour hire firm which would have been constantly comparing employee performance.

  5. What a Lombard!!!###***
    Lots Of Money But A Real Dickhead.

  6. Andrew Weiss says

    Sean what you have written is a sadly what occurs on numerous occasions in junior sport. I actually do field umpiring for junior and senior colts games.I have coped abuse on regular ocassions not from the players themselves but from the parents on the sidelines. There have been instances where kids have been embarrassed by their parents constant ridicule of the umpires and opposing players. I sometimes think parents are living through their childrens sporting endeavours because they could never make it themselves when they were a kid.

    Having said that there is no reason for a parent or any other volunteer goal, boundary or field umpire to blatently cheat as it seems was the case in your situation. I am starting to have the opinion that no scores should be recorded in footy games of U/12 or lower but rather just let the kids enjoy running around getting a kick and enjoyi what is this great game of AFL.

  7. Thanks all

    Andrew, at Auskick the sessions always finished with a game. We always told the kids that it was a draw when it was over, but they always kept score themselves. At least they were learning their 6 times table! I agree though, many parents are living out their desires and unfulfilled youth through their kids, and often it is the kids who tell their parents to chiill out. Amazing to see how their upset faces turn to happiness, even at 12 years old, with a hot dog after a loss.

    Peter Z and Dave, the wealth is frightening and I fear that you can’t grow up in that home and not be turned to the dark side. Would be nice though if they kid didn’t see what his dad did, unless he’s already been bought up with the ‘winners are grinners’ logo printed around the (large) house.

    Peter B, that’s always been one of my favourites.

    Yvette, I hope it is denial. I am really scared though that it is acceptance, that you do what you have to do to win, and disregard the consequences. If someone is dodgy in that part of their life, it’s clear that it permeates other areas too. I understand what you say about denying reality, but I think what he did was more see reality then disregard it as being unnecessary to his objectives.


  8. Sean,
    I’ve read the piece a few days ago, but wanted to think a bit before commenting. I’ve umpired over 500 matches, with all but a few having club-provided goal and boundary umps. I can only think of one instance where a goal umpy “cheated”, but plenty of “honest errors” – positioned poorly so guessing whether it was over the post, for example. I have on occasions over-ruled an error, when I’m absolutely sure, thanks to my better position, that I can correct; usually however the error has to be accepted. AF has given the formal picture, but I think it’s a bit harsh to fault the field umpire. The correct position may be 30 metres from the touch, from where it can be virtually impossible to determine the truth. I had an instance a few weeks ago where the goal ump was ducking for cover as players flew for the ball close to the line. I asked him was it touched in front or behind the line, and he genuinely couldn’t say. So, as they do (unsatisfactorily) with the review system in the AFL, we had to settle for a behind.

    I think you have handled the aftermath well, and if it’s referred to again, it may be worth your acknowledging to your players your own sense of regret about your reaction at the time. There’s a life lesson there for the kids, that life isn’t always fair, but as individuals they have to face their responsibility to do the right thing on and off the sports field. I think I’d pose the question for them, would they feel comfortable if a decision like that was the difference between a win and a loss? For ethical people such a victory or a success is hollow.

  9. I was talking to a young guy in the factory yesterday about the Alistair Clarkson incident. I brought up Sean’s story, and then we moved onto another issue that makes my blood boil – the sexualisation of children (particularly girls). Mia Freedman wrote powerfully about it recently.
    The common theme is adult issues and dramas crowding out the innocence and exploration of childhood.
    By destroying their childhood we poison the foundations of their adult being.
    That was Clarkson’s sin – albeit minor. He made himself, the process and the result more important than the confused joyful mess of kids chasing a ball around a paddock.
    AW’s suggestion about not having formal scoring until after under 12’s is well made.
    It is a principle that applies to many areas of life – one of the most insightful axiom’s I ever heard is “We are the first generation to have colonised our kids.”

  10. Thanks again

    Alovesupreme, Fair point about how I’d react if it happened to us and we won. I haven’t been subjected to a tea bag test yet (finding out how strong I am only when placed in hot water) and would hope that my seat on the high moral ground was not temporary. The balance between life lesson and fair play is a very good point. You can’t shield kids forever, but they need to know that these things will happen and be measured by how they handle adversity.

    I firmly believe that they are learning more in a losing season than from winning most games easily in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Discovering that life isn’t all big wins and high fives has been a great lesson, albeit occassionally upsetting, and I think the more mature ones will be better players and people for this year.

    Peter B, interesting situation with when it is Ok to start to focus on winning. I don’t go with the move to have ‘everyone wins a medal or gets a ribbon’ in competition, but don’t want kids to think that it is all about the win at this stage. Often at age 12, sports are dominated by a few regadrless of what sport it is, and you don’t want kids to drop out of team sport and exercise if they aren’t getting recognition. When does it start, is 12 right, or older? Hard to say?

    Kids will grow up, at ther own pace. Events like the one I described sadly mean they grow up quicker than they should have to and see and learn poor adult habits.


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