Why Spectators Should Suck it Up, and Move On

You may not agree with what I’m about to say, but bear with me.


It’s time to give umpires a break.


Unless you’ve pulled on the whites (or greens, reds, blues, striped black and white etc.), you have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to umpire sport. I’ve done the breakdown for a game of netball, and the (admittedly slightly dodgy) stats are terrifying.


A standard game of netball is 60 minutes. In a game of netball, the ball has to be passed at least every three seconds. This results in the ball being passed, at an absolute minimum, 1,200 times a match. Every time a player catches the ball, an umpire has to check seven things involving the player with the ball and their opponent (footwork, contact, how they got the ball, obstruction, offside etc.).


Almost simultaneously, the umpire has to look down the court and check other players are in their correct areas and are not blocking each other in their attempts to move. This could involve scanning 10 different players, while keeping one eye on the player with the ball and their opponent.


So that’s seven things involving the player with the ball, plus potentially another 10 players to watch, each with three actions involved (contact, obstruction and offside). That’s 38 different actions to watch for per pass, including the held ball rule. 38 times 1,200 passes equals 45,600 decisions umpires make per match. Even if that figure is split between the two umpires, that’s still 22,800 decisions each.


22,800 decisions a match! And that’s assuming players take the maximum three seconds to pass the ball. The real figure is probably much higher.


So it may be time to lay off on the umpire abuse. Each sport has its own difficulties. I can’t imagine trying to decide the precise moment when a player has held the ball in footy, and I’ll never understand the offside rule in soccer. Trying to ascertain the difference between a charge and a foul in basketball must be near impossible sometimes. And it bewilders me how cricket umpires can call an LBW so accurately (most of the time), or how tennis linesmen can pick balls up going over 100km/hr.


This plea will probably fall on ears deafened by their own booing over the years, and heaven forbid I tell Australians what to do and take away our sacred right to boo at sporting events (thanks Warnie for enlightening me), but give umpires a chance. I know myself I’m not one of the easiest players to umpire, as I obviously know every single rule (as does every player I’ve ever umpired). And god knows I’m not here to defend lazy umpires, one of my pet hates. But if a 15-year-old is umpiring grown women, and you offer them a pair of glasses, accuse them of bias or tell them they’ve made the worst decision you’ve ever seen, it’s probably time to take stock of what you’re actually doing.


People will say this comes with the territory of umpiring, and that we should just suck it up. I’m well aware other umpires from other sports have it much worse off than netball, which is comparatively genteel sometimes (although I did have to break up something verging on a brawl on the weekend).


But maybe we shouldn’t have to suck it up.


Maybe you, the spectator, or you, the player, has to suck it up. When a decision doesn’t go your way, act like an adult and move on. Because chances are the next dodgy decision (out of 22,800 may I remind you) may just go your way. A commentator at the Hawthorn vs Richmond match, the first after a week of Adam Goodes discussion, remarked, “And booing has returned to the MCG tonight, but it’s okay because it’s just at the umpires.”


Since when was it okay to boo human beings doing their job? Would you like it if I turned up to the house you were building, and spent an hour criticising everything you were doing, even though I clearly had absolutely no idea about the technique or skill involved? Or leant over your shoulder every few lines and offered you a pair of glasses while you wrote a business proposal, despite never having studied business in my life? [There’s an excellent Seinfeld episode in which Jerry does this to a heckler. Comedy gold. – Ed]


Of course people are passionate about their sport. I’m passionate about my sport, and groan along with 50,000 other people when a decision doesn’t go Richmond’s way at the footy. But do I boo umpires? Never. Because I know what it feels like, and I have a vague idea at the immense difficulty involved (although not to the same elite level of course). People see umpiring decisions through one eye – the eye of their team. Maybe it’s time to open that other eye a fraction and see things a smidgen more objectively.


Especially when it comes to abusing umpires at club level, who are mostly teenagers trying their absolute heart out, and are absolutely terrified by the vitriol coming towards them both on and off the court/field. It’s time to draw the line, suck it up, and be an adult.


You may not agree with the decision, but you should respect it.


And if you’re a parent going absolutely nuts at the umpires during your 23-year-old daughter’s club level, section 3 semi-final, it’s probably time to stop playing your sport vicariously through her, and grow up.


Return to the home page at www.footyalmanac.com.au

Read more about The Women’s Footy Almanac 2018 HERE.


About Sarah Black

I'm a freelance sports journalist, primarily covering AFLW for AFL Media, but I have a passion for all sports. (Except rugby. Someone needs to explain the point of that game to me.) Having never grown past 5 foot tall, I've given up my dream of being the first professional dual netball/football player and I'm doing the next best thing - writing about it.


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Well said Sarah.

    I’m not sure that I agree with your maths, but your points about spectators and perspective are well made (how did you know how old my daughter was?). Do they ever stop to wonder why 15yo girls are having to umpire a seniors match?

    I still think that netball is a 21st century sport shackled by 19th century rules, but I’m not sure what the answer is.

  2. Yeah, good stuff Sarah. 100% with you on amateur / kids sport. The moronic abuse they see, occasionally physical, definitely intimidatory, is bang out of order. I think more people should take a leaf out of one of my nephews’ book. When on the end of a dodgy decision, rather than abuse the ump, he slowly but determinedly walked to the forward pocket and sat down for the remainder of the game. Junior footy gold!

  3. Paul Buxton says

    Agree with every word, Sarah. I played, coached and umpired basketball for 40 odd years, starting as a 15 year old and even back then we copped some pretty heavy stick. Umpiring outdoors in rain on bitumen courts was always fun! As you get older it can become more enjoyable and you can give a bit back too, but the kids just starting out don’t have that luxury. Best comment was a spectator who came out of the crowd while I was sorting out a fight in which the other umpire (an 18 year old girl) was struck; “where’d they get you, under a hollow log?”

  4. GREAT…BUT….
    This is a great article, and as a former footy junior umpire in Canberra (I loved it when the kids played in the cricket pitch mud instead of playing or a forest of hands went up as well as those of the player on the mark) I endorse it.
    EXCEPT. Part of the problem is wanky language. ‘Suck it up’ has been used by dumber people of more stupid views eg the booing controversy (and I don’t mean the Nicole Kidman boo-mob).
    ‘Move on’ is even dumber and is used in other contexts which I happen to know a little about eg after the death of a person close to you..
    So, let’s maybe ‘put a sock in it’ (if that means hold your tongue) and avoid those terms…as we recognise that umpiring is a great skill. As most of us can’t play as well as those we criticise nor could we umpire as well. (And when I umpired I sometimes blew the whistle, after a hard Friday night, could not remember why so I bounced the ball – is that lateral thinking or just a deft escape?)

  5. I’d say each to their own Sarah. Language is a complex subject.

  6. Sarah Black says

    Mark – I should probably clarify with my maths – when I said 22,800, that’s including non-decisions. So I based it on an umpire looking at a player, and deciding they aren’t stepping, they aren’t offside etc. Although I’ll freely admit it could be a bit dodgy! And yes, there’s not many girls left who are willing to umpire the opens, but the problem with parents goes right down to the under 9’s. Completely unrealistic expectations!

    Dave – absolutely love it! I’d love to do that as an umpire sometimes too!

    Paul – I’ve grown up playing on bitumen courts, not much fun at all.

    Stephen and John – interesting points of view. A lot of this article was written in anger, so that may be reflected in the rather basic/frustrated language! The most important point I wanted to get across from this article was umpire abuse is not on at any level. Could I have said it more eloquently? Possibly. But maybe I was subconsciously trying to make my language as accessible as possible in order to convey this message to as many people as possible. And I wish the toss-up in netball was as common as the bounce in footy! It’s a nice little get-out-of-jail card sometimes.

  7. Sarah,
    An interesting read…and very refreshing to see this point of view put across!

  8. A good read Sarah,

    I find it interesting that the vast majority of people who think it’s their god given right to give immeadiate and loud verbal feedback when a decision goes against them will run a mile when it is suggested they take up the whistle.
    In our local junior competition this results in 18-19 year old umpires umpiring 17-18 year old players or middle aged gents who have lets say, been in a good paddock. Therefore the umpiring standard drops and people get even more frustrated and who would want to take on the job if you are going to cop verbals all day. We end up getting the standard of umpires we deserve instead of stepping back and encouraging competent people to take this role on and realising they will make mistakes just like players so roll with the punches and promote the fact that this is a critical role rather than a subject for the spectators to vent their collective spleens.

    Cheers JY

  9. As an International Netball Umpire, this is music to my ears!!!

  10. Hi Sarah,

    I run the netball umpiring for my Association, so I shared this article on Facebook as it reflects so much of what I see every week (and it’s finals time).

    Our Association then on-shared it with a comment about how proud of our umpires we all are, and then it went share-crazy for a while.

    Hoping it makes a difference, at least for a while.

    Congratulations on a great piece of writing.

  11. A brilliant peice of writing unfortunately though I think majorally it willl only be read and liked by past and present umpires. I shared it with my daughter to encourage her and to remind her of the great job she is doing. In the last two weeks of umpiring the finals serious the 3 games she has done from 10s to seniors brought intimidation and abuse from players and spectators. She is a brilliant badged umpire, only 15, and I am proud of her maturity in the way she conducts herself on these occasions. She continues to umpire with the little hope that the next game will be incident free. But unfortunately the words of a mother may not be strong enough and come Grand Final next week she may choose just to enjoy being a player, so an umpiring incident doesnt dampen her day. I’m at a lost of how we can control the verbal insults, netball is not a widely understood sport and half the spectators have no idea how it is played, however this article is a great starting point. Thank you.

  12. Loved this – and shared it.
    We created a sign for the association pinboard –

    An umpire makes 11400 decisions in one game.
    Which one did you not agree with?

    :) Thanks – great read!
    Oh and I’m a tennis line umpire too, so thanks for covering both my bases (yep, softball umpire too!)

  13. Kasey Symons says

    Great stuff Sarah – brought me back to my netball umpiring days as a teen when I used to be begged by senior sides to umpire them due to the shortage of accredited refs in my area. Then they would scream at me if they thought I missed a ‘step’ or ‘contact’ and I would be like, ‘I’m trying my best and I’m doing you a favour here!’ – from that experience, though I still get incredibly frustrating with some officiating, I still try to be understanding and remember what it used to feel like to be an ump!

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