The status of AFL umpiring

by Domenic Favata

The nationwide reputation of our great game is under threat. Not due to financial insecurity, poor performances or sponsorship difficulties, but to the alarming rate of the downfall in standard of AFL umpiring. It is not the umpires themselves most of the time, the Laws of the Game committee and head of AFL umpiring Jeff Gieschen are the ones that are taking away the pride of our game with newly introduced rules that are trying to speed the game up or prevent serious injury. It’s not a question of whether the new rules are good or bad (although most new rules are debatable), it is whether the players and umpires have a sound understanding of what and what is not correct.

There are several issues with the standard of AFL umpiring.

1. Consistency: This is probably one of the major issues in the game at the moment. The number of free kicks that were paid in the early part of the season are now not paid as often. It is like the umpires come out firing in the first 5 rounds to set the standard about the rules, but after that they die down and not pay the free kicks that they would have paid earlier in the season. Not only is consistency a season-long issue, it is affecting each game as it comes. Umpires are not perfect, they are human and make mistakes like any one else would. However, at this standard of the game, you cannot afford to make any mistakes. We saw this weekend, three goal umpiring decisions in big games that caused uproar from the fans and the football critics. For instance, what if a mistake was made during a Grand Final that cost one side the game? People would be out with their torches and forks knocking on the door of the AFL with a ‘please explain’. Mistakes are costing our game, but it comes under consistency which is evident during a 30 second passage of play in a game. You would see a holding the ball free kick paid and 15 seconds later you would see a free kick in the exact same instance not paid. Consistency is what is driving the players and the fans crazy.

2. Interpretation: The interpretation of rules is what is driving the fans made these days. Players do not know what to do because the understanding of the rule is not there. This is not the players fault, but the people who make the rules (i.e. the AFL Laws of the Game committee). For instance, two fairly recent rules are not being interpreted correctly by the players and umpires. The first is the ‘rushed behind’ rule, where the player cannot rush the ball deliberately through the goals and can only do so if they are under a suitable amount of pressure. Players are hesitant when they have the ball on the goal line and being corralled by an opposition player. The law states that they are allowed to rush the ball, but their understanding of the rules is not there because they do not want to take the risk of the umpiring paying a free kick. This is also a consistency issue, where the umpire does not know the rule any better than the player, and therefore does not pay it to save their scalps. Since this rule was introduced, it has been there lots of times, but has only been payed a couple of times. The AFL must educate the clubs and umpires so that they both have the same understanding of the rule. The second is ‘hands in the back’ rule, where a player cannot put his hands in the back of a player (even without force) to help mark a ball. This rule was brought out a few years ago, and yet even today the players do not have a complete understanding of it. It is a stupid rule that is making the players look stupid. It cost Richmond its first win of the season in 2007, where Matthew Richardson famously marked a ball illegally by putting the hands in the back and then taking off to kick what thought was the winning goal, only to be undone and then paid 50 against. This rule is clearly not being interpreted right. You cannot compare this rule with others to say that players may not have an understanding of them because they still get those ones wrong. The ‘other’ rules are not like the hands in the back, because players are deliberately putting their hands in the back, only to be outdone with a free kick every time. If stupid rules like these were not brought out in the first place, the players and umpires would not have an issue with interpretation.

3. Stupidity: In the Collins Australian Dictionary, the word Demonstrative is defined as, tending to show one’s feelings unreservedly. On the weekend we saw a 50 metre penalty paid against the two time Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes for shaking his index finger in a ‘No’ way. The umpire’s reasoning was because it was a demonstrative action. If parenting was an AFL game, the parent would have enough 50 metres penalties to go around the world considering the amount of times they would perform this action to their child. I use this childish aspect because that is what is our game is turning into, a kindergarten. AFL umpires are treating players like children at a kindergarten. You cannot touch them, you cannot say ‘no’ or perform any no type of gesture at them and you cannot give them a look that may be classified as demonstrative. I think soon the umpires should carry a detention booklet and fill out a form on the spot for ‘unruly behaviour’ every time a player is seen to be demonstrative. Seriously, this is how silly our game has go to. Sharod Wellingham of Collingwood will probably be fined or reported because he put his arm on the shoulder of an umpire during the half-time break on Saturday night. We’ve seen it happen to Heath Shaw 3 years ago. Now, the players know that they cannot touch the umpire in any way, shape or form. But should they really be suspended or fine for touching or making accidental conduct with an umpire. I’m pretty sure most of us would say no. The umpires and co need to address the amount of stupidity that goes into refereeing a game.

I’ve had my fair crack at the umpires and I could go on forever. These are just a few issues. What about the Tribunal and the hip and shoulder debacle, the ‘limited time only 50 metre penalty giveaways’ and the inconsistency in the Match Review Panel? There are more issues that need to be addressed, and fast. Because I know people, including my father, that are being driven away from attending games due to their annoyance with the umpires. If the AFL were so interested in developing our game and attracting attendance/viewers, then they should start fixing the standard of umpiring and not let out great game become so ‘soft’ that it will resemble netball in the years to come. Get to work AFL, or there will be and even bigger mistake than those on the weekend, that will one day cost a side a premiership.


  1. Dom,

    Great effort in writing that article, but I think you’re overreacting on a few things.

    Firstly the Richo hands-in-the-back incident. You need to wash away the scars of that decision. Sure, I was outraged at the time, but looking back on the incident more rationally, I can now see why they paid the free. Richo WAS applying force to Mal Michael’s back, to prevent him from moving backwards to spoil.

    If anything, Richo and he acted in such a heartbroken way (not pointing blame, just his natural tendency) that it became a major issue, and also at the time we were all still getting used to the reality of the rule.

    I definitely agree with you regarding the ridiculous inconsistency of the umpiring though, did you see J.Brown’s clear push on M.Brown in the dying minutes of the Lions-Eagles match? Also, apparently the words the umpire used to Adam Goodes were “demonstrative eyes”, which I’m sure you’ll agree sounds like a joke.

    I’m surprised you didn’t address one of the most ridiculous rules of all – the interchange rule. Such a minor, trivial incident, and Cyril Rioli is robbed of a shot at goal (and conceding 50m) despite the fact that the infringement had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the play? Again, that’s a farce.

    I’m assuming your dad’s a Tiger supporter? I can understand his annoyance, Richmond regularly get slaughtered by the umps. Especially recently – we’ve lost the free kick count by a differential of -30 over the past five weeks.

    All in all though, I understand your concerns, but don’t worry, AFL will never resemble netball. Not whilst players are still throwing themselves fearlessly at loose balls on a regular basis.


  2. Thanks Adam.

    Your probably right on the fact that i was over-the-top in some areas, but im really passionate in this area which drives my frustration.

    That Richo decision still plays up in my mind today, but back then, i knew the rule was where i just didnt agree with it which was mostly everyone’s opinion on the matter (unless ur a bombers fan!)

    I’m surprised that i didn’t mention the interchange ruling either!I guess i was too fixed on the other ideas.

    My Dad is actually a Hawks supporter which may surprise you.


  3. Yeah, my Dad’s a non-Tiger too actually – he supports the Cats.

    Dom, I assure you, at the time I was probably just as annoyed as you were about the Richo hands-in-the-back decision. Luckily, 3 years have passed since then, we’ve got a new coach, a new direction, and watching the new Tigers under Hardwick has helped me put past injustices from my mind.


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