Umpire, please!

In the American summer of 1989 an unknown policy wonk from the US State Department, Francis Fukuyama, foretold of the ‘End of History’; an era which would follow the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and therewith the last ideological challenger to liberal-democracy.

The end of history, opined Fukuyama ruefully, would displace the ‘daring, courage, imagination and idealism’ which attended the historical period, with ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems…and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’  Be on the ready, concluded Fukuyama, for centuries of boredom.

Perhaps no-one has absorbed the spirit of the boring, post-historical world more than the AFL administration, at multiple levels.  Almost all that can be done to squeeze passion and expression from the game has been achieved by a relentless obsession with fine-tuning.

Amongst the fans we have seen bans on running onto the ground, the cleaning up of cheer squads, the censoring of banners, and for me, a premature banning of the laser pointer which had comedy potential of Benny Hill proportions.

Amongst the fourth estate, Jason Akermanis’ tabloid rantings have been given the kybosh by two clubs.  In practice that’s a tender mercy, but in principle, he may have said something controversial and interesting.   More concerning though is the posture adopted by a large claque of media supporters who have been warned off criticising the performance of umpires by the AFL if they are to retain broadcasting rights.

The rationale provided for not getting stuck into the umpires by AFL lickspittles, like Kevin Bartlett, is that it sends a bad message to fans and players and vindicates abuse of umpires at lower grades, making aspiring umpires less likely to pursue a professional career.

In addition we are informed by the impartial umpiring department and AFL that umpires have a high strike-rate, getting around 85 per cent of decisions correct.  All sounds good at the stratospheric level, but as always the devil is in the detail.

On the matter of umpiring accuracy, some of the decisions which got the tick in round 11 indicate that the umpiring department are as self-flagellating and hard on themselves as Queensland police under the reign of Joh Bjelke-Petterson.

And in regards to the phrase ‘umpire-bashing’, what a sloppy euphemism.  They knew how to bash umpires good and proper in the 19th century, as evidenced at a Collingwood versus North Melbourne clash at Arden Street in 1896.

Not particularly enamoured with umpire Roberts adjudication that day, a bevy of fans invaded the ground to explain things to umpire Roberts through the medium of wrapped up iron bars, stones and various other missiles.

That would never gel with the soccer mums of today apparently, but the North Melbourne ‘ladies’ of the late 19th century took a rather different view of violence at the game, making it a regular practice to drive their hatpins into the legs and arms of opposition players passing to the dressing-room.  On this particular day a reporter observed that a ‘brazen-faced shrew’ decided to come down to the ground and pop umpire Roberts in the face.

This particular incident was rather violent, but by no means an isolated incident.  The throwing of stones at players and umpires was a common occurrence at football matches and seems to have done little to cool the ardour of the football fan nor to have dissuaded umpires from getting involved.  A punch in the bonce is rather less compensation than umpires get today, but did not destroy the game.

Not only do we have much less abuse today, as well as greater remuneration for umpires, we seem to forget the rationales for umpires entering the game in the first place, and those rationales span all the major neuroses in the psychological text-book.  To be amongst the throng and to blow your whistle slakes a thousand egotistical and neurotic impulses.

If my eyes don’t deceive me, Ray Chamberlain seems almost to enjoy himself out there amidst the apoplexy that greets one in two of his decisions.  Surely we can afford to dish out some critical words to umpires without the whole enterprise collapsing.

About Dave Latham

Dave Latham has recently finished a history thesis on class and Australian Rules football in Melbourne between the years 1870 and 1920.


  1. David – you’ve hit upon one of the great issues of our time. You see, to criticize is to have an opinion. In today’s society it is fine to have an opinion unless it is an opinion that offends The Great Rules of Correctness that govern us all (refer Aka). Politicians are often heard to say “let’s have the debate”. That’s actually code for “let’s talk a whole lot to reinforce our own view of the world”.

    Through this process things are eventually regarded as a given. Political correctness prevails. This in turn is controlled by banning things. Its easy to ban things. It takes no intellect at all. We pat ourselves on the back when we ban war, rape, assaults, torture, armed robbery, racism, running on the ground after a game, and the bleeding obvious. Then we also ban criticism in case we offend something that’s banned.

    Sorry about this rambling. 30th June has passed and I have too much time on my hands.

  2. dave latham says

    Perhaps I should clarify my position here.

    I think the AFL’s done some very good work, especially in relation to matters of race, but it’s a matter of dosage.

    The Adelaide V North clash game – aka Carey V Archer showdown is a case in point. I remember someone in the crowd bringing their own banner to the game and being told to remove the offending item. I can’t recall the message, but it certainly wasn’t anything incendiary from memory.

    The threat of fines for those wanting to run on the ground when Franklin kicked a tonne a couple of years ago, is another episode.

    Sending text messages etc to SEN to warn about excessive umpire criticism is another.

    One of my major bugbears is the attitude taken to umpires. Okay, don’t throw missiles at them, but surely these guys are professionals and have to expect criticism when they get it wrong.

    When Bartlett started going on about umpire accuracy being at @85%, I thought, what a pile of shit. Yes they’ll make mistakes, but the umpiring bald statistics and technically correct decisions, eg. Macaffer getting a 50 in rd 11 V Dogs for touching a player.

    I think the umpiring department are defensive, the Rules Committee over officious, and the MRP an unbending Kangaroo court.

    Ahh, that feels better.

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