Umpiring: A Matter of Perspective

Ideas can come at any time, like during a discussion about umpiring 16 years ago with a couple of mates in the cafeteria on the 16th floor of330 Collins Street, then the head office of Colonial Mutual.

Ideas can be plausible, even if others (eg said mates, Darren & Pete) think them laughable. When people laugh at an idea, it is sometimes simply because the idea is ahead of its time. Like the idea that bloke Noah had to build a really big boat. What water? Hilarious!

“Umpiring is a part of the game Pete,” argued Darren. “Players make mistakes, umpires make mistakes. Umpiring decisions don’t change the result of a game and they even out anyway. Why make changes for change’s sake?”

Darren was a highly promising junior footballer, so much so that Essendon, whom he played Under-19s for, invited him and 15 others to attend a special training camp specifically for those they considered to be the best upcoming footballers in the country. Paul Salmon, Mark Harvey, and Mark Thompson were in that select group. Just prior to the camp, fate took a cruel turn. On receiving permission from Essendon, Darren played in a school game for St Bernards for the first time that season. While getting a kick away, an opposition player fell across his knee. Despite a full knee reconstruction, it never fully recovered.

Darren is salt-of-the-earth, is now a copper, and is an ardent Cats man; as passionate as they come. He knows his football.  His opinion carries weight with me.

“How would they do it anyway? You’re a nuf-nuf!” laughed Pete.

Pete was a programmer back then, like Darren and I. A great bloke, he is a larrikin but in a measured sort of way. Pete played in the centre for Ringwood. Strongly built, and diesel rather than petrol driven, anecdotal evidence suggests he never strayed too far from his allocated position.

Pete is a Tigers man. Passionately so; not in the ‘microwave my membership’ category but passionate none-the-less.

If we ignore the standing yearly bets we had in those days on whose team would finish higher on the ladder, Pete has always been a rational type; intelligent; one of those blokes that makes sense. His appointment in the early noughties as GM for a small and disorganized yet cleverly named and somehow highly profitable clothes retailing business inGeelongwas no surprise. The fact that that business has been one of the fastest growing inAustraliain recent years, and that he is still in charge as CEO, is not surprising either.

Pete’s opinion carries weight with me.

The thing about ideas, and people laughing at them, and those people being one’s whose opinion you respect is that it fuels doubt. The ideas get pushed back into the recesses of your mind. After all, no one likes to be ridiculed.

But ideas, if unfulfilled, can stick in one’s craw, re-ignited every time the problem to be fixed by said idea manifests, which in this case, is during most games each and every weekend during an AFL season.

Sometimes the feeling of frustration is greater than the fear of ridicule. And in those times, I wheel out the idea I had almost two decades ago.

For me, the arguments that umpires are a part of the game, and that they are only human, and that players make mistakes too, are bunkum. They are irrelevant.

Whatever umpires are, the decisions they make must be correct. As strongly as I felt about the issue 16 years ago, I believe it exponentially more today given the AFL’s inexorable march towards professionalism, and commercialism. Fifty million dollar operational budgets and million dollar players demand it.

The fact that players make mistakes does not justify umpires making mistakes. The fundamental truth about all sports in which two or more opponents face off is that mistakes – that is, the forcing and limiting of them – are at their core; it is in their essence; it is how games are won and lost. In Aussie Rules footy, if players did not make mistakes then the team to win the ball at each centre bounce would invariably score without the other team touching it, and that is not how games transpire. When a team has the ball, they try not to turn it over. When their opponent has the ball, they try to force a turnover. That is the essence of the game. Winning and losing is built on forcing, and limiting, mistakes.

Umpires though, should not make mistakes. They are employed not to. It is not anyone’s goal to force umpires into error. The result of a game is irrelevant to them. They are there to ensure that the rules of the game are adhered to by both teams. That umpires make errors is innately unfair to the team they incorrectly rule against. Whether an error alters a result, particularly in close games, will never be known, but it certainly changes the course of a game. It is a case of “sliding doors”.

Many of us think umpires often guess. They deny it. Vehemently! But if an umpire makes a decision which, on review, is clearly wrong, then what are we to think? If they make a decision that is incorrect, it is natural to conclude that they did not see the ‘incident’ clearly. If they were not in a position to see an incident clearly, surely it means they guessed.

Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. And that’s mine.

So. The idea?

It too is all a matter of perspective – in this case, literally.

Perspective is influenced by where we are mentally, emotionally and physically at any point in time.

Two supporters of opposite teams sit side by side and see the same incident, yet each believes their side was infringed against. If they both know the rules then their perspectives are clouded by emotion. Sometimes umpires are accused of this, particularly at interstate games where hysterically parochial crowds support the locals. This is, of course, unfounded.

In the case of the two supporters, it may also be that one or both of them do not know or understand the rules. This would be a case where mentally, their perspective is invalid. Sometimes umpires have been accused of not understanding the rules, or at least altering their interpretations of them on a week by week basis.

Someone, say an umpire, may also be affected mentally through fatigue. Towards the end of a game, they may blow the whistle for something dubious. It may be that through exhaustion, they were just not thinking straight. Sometimes umpires are accused of not thinking straight.

And the most recognised element of perspective, probably because it is the only tangible one, is where a person is physically located at the time an incident occurs.

Due to the laws of nature, it is impossible for a human being to have a 360o view of any given event. The umpires sometimes work together, behaving as satellites around the ball and trying to cover all angles, but free kicks are still incorrectly given or not given all too frequently.

I acknowledge that umpiring is an incredibly tough occupation. I could not be one. But it is integral to the game, and getting decisions right is more important than ever for the game’s integrity.

To support umpires, and reduce the number of umpiring errors, we must address the issue of perspective, or rather, the lack of it. I believe we can.

With cameras on all sides of a ground nowadays when a game is in progress, we can view the game from all angles simultaneously.

By selecting several key angles (say 3 to 5) and assigning one unbiased off-field umpire (OFU) to each of those angles, we overcome the physical perspective problem.

By selecting OFU’s who are unbiased, who have an innate understanding of the rules, and who are not exposed to the pressure or atmosphere of a game and therefore not swayed by it, we address the issues of perspective being clouded by emotion or mindset.

In front of them, each OFU would have two buttons which represent the two teams. As soon as they see a free kick to one team, they press that team’s button. If a quorum of off-field umpires has pressed their button for a particular team within a specified period (eg.”split second”) of each other, the off-field umpire whose press was first registered informs the umpires through wireless communications.

In the event that the technology experiences problems, the fallback position would be that direct control goes back to the on field umpires.

While logistically it sounds very difficult, modern technology makes it easily achievable. While on first thought, it may appear that games would become stop-start, in reality it could be implemented in such a way that allows the game to flow seamlessly and without disruption.

Yes, it would cost more, but professionalism comes at a cost and the AFL can afford it. The question is, as the push toward professionalism reaches fever pitch, will the AFL be able to afford not to address the issue of umpiring mistakes?

I’m not suggesting that it will remove all umpiring errors. At the end of the day, human beings implement and control the technology, and human beings are imperfect. But I think the improvements would be significant.

It may sound far-fetched, even fantastical, but if we can land a robot vehicle on Mars and control its every move from Earth, then surely we can pass a message from the grandstand to the on-field umpires without too much difficulty.




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