Australian rules football is a code of traditions. From cheer squads and paper banners to the eternal speckie, 154 years of football history have culminated in a code that is weird, wonderful, and quintessentially Australian.
But one of the game’s most longstanding traditions – one too often practiced in ignorance of its impacts – has contributed to a crisis that threatens our national game. The ritual? The derision of our game’s official adjudicators, the umpires.
Hurling obscenities at an umpire from the grandstand is an accepted cultural practice, but umpires say it is driving them away from the game in droves.
Ask Daniel Simons. For the past eight seasons, he’s been an umpire in the Victorian Amateur Football League’s (VAFA) Premier Division, Australia’s most competitive amateur football league.
As a former amateur footballer himself, Simons became an umpire to stay involved in the game he loved after injuries forced him to the sidelines.
But after eight seasons in fluro green, the vitriol of community-league umpiring has left its scars.
As a second-generation Indian Australian, vile racial taunts from spectators have been a shameful plight on an umpiring career underscored by an earnest passion for football and its power to community-build.
And although Simons’ commitment to the game appears unwavering, at least for now, the outlook for community umpiring across the country seems far bleaker.
Last year, the code’s peak body, the Australian Football League (AFL), announced some 6,000 community umpire vacancies nationally, while simultaneously acknowledging the pervasive issue of umpire abuse across national community football.
In response, the AFL implemented a suite of measures in last year’s pre-season aimed at tackling abuse across the game. The measures included the infamous “dissent rule,” which penalises players who dispute umpiring decisions during play.
The AFL has since lauded the rule for reducing abuse at a community level, citing a 3 per cent increase in national umpire numbers since last year. That figure, however, remains out of step with the record 13 per cent increase in Auskick (the AFL’s grassroots community program) registrations this year.
Accompanying the dissent rule was a suite of other rule changes, as has become common each year, aimed at “modernising” the game by giving umpires greater power to stimulate more goal scoring and exciting passages of play.
But with a stream of rule changes and little consultation, community umpires say the game has become increasingly difficult to officiate and is translating to even greater spectator hostility.
Simons argues the spectator abuse the AFL has sought to stamp out is merely a symptom of a bigger problem: a cultural undervaluation of umpires. It’s why he believes measures like the dissent rule have failed to make a decisive impact, and have instead, inflamed a common grumbling among fans that the game is “over-umpired”.
We meet at his office at the Victorian Institute of Sport’s headquarters in Albert Park, where Simons oversees the institute’s human resources department as director of people and community. Given his passion for the two, there is perhaps no better person for the role.
His outfit, reflective of the gap he bridges between business and sport, is a pair of chinos and dress shoes, juxtaposed by a 2XU windbreaker that defines his athletic frame.
Above his desk, a Melbourne Demon’s scarf is proudly displayed, a splash of colour in the bland, corporate office.
It’s the morning after the nailbiter semi-final between the Demons and Carlton. Evidently, he’s still grieving the Demon’s shattering two-point loss.
“Two points,” he laments as he fists his palm.
After commiserating, I ask what he thinks of the code’s current umpire shortage and whether he sees it as a consequence of the game’s cultural contempt for umpires.
“Absolutely” he says before I’ve barely finished asking.
“It’s a major factor,” he says. “There’s an enormous difference in the way umpires are perceived publicly as opposed to players.
“We simply don’t value umpires, but why not? They’re such an integral part of the game.”
The disparity between how players and umpires are valued is all too clear in a league like the VAFA’s premier division, which is caught uncomfortably between amateur and semi-professional football.
According to the amateur-status association’s rules, VAFA players aren’t allowed to earn a salary. However, many of the clubs within the league exist in a network of elite universities and private schools, and their vast resources may subsidise a players registration fees or facilitate their employment’.
Umpires, on the other hand, are afforded little in comparison. Aside from a modest match fee of $150, Simons says VAFA premier division umpires are largely expected to devote their time each week principally out of a love for the game.
(In comparison, AFL umpires are supported – and paid – to improve their skills via performance reviews, extensive rulebook training, and two days per week of intensive field training. Between 15-20 hours of work, including officiating a game, can net an umpire in the AFL between $75,000 and $175,000 a year.)
With the expectation the work of umpiring is its own reward, there is little incentive for local leagues to offer umpires meaningful training and support, and little incentive for umpires to remain in community leagues, particularly as rule changes and a lack of consultation make the games officiation more complex.
Since Simons began umpiring eight years ago, a total of 21 rule changes have been passed down by the AFL. “There’s been so many rule changes … it’s hard to keep up with them,” he says.
New rules introduced this year aimed at minimising concussions (on which the AFL is facing a separate crisis) has meant a tightening of the rules around the sport’s fundamental action: tackling.
“It means umpires have to interpret the motion of a tackle and whether it is dangerous. It’s just one among many factors that an umpire has to account for before making a split-second decision,” he says.
“You could argue [that] the AFL in some ways is easier to umpire. You’ve got more [field] umpires on the ground – four as opposed to two – and a higher level of skill that equates to less-congested, free-flowing footy.”
Simons says community umpires regularly quit because they feel ill-prepared, a feeling compounded by frustration from spectators.
“It’s increasingly … difficult for a fan to understand why a decision is being made.”
Simons vividly recalls his own experience of spectator abuse.
“Racial taunts have probably been the worst [I’ve experienced],” he says. “Being told that I don’t understand the game, or need to go back to where I came from.”
As he reveals the personal toll of being a community umpire, the pause between each sentence becomes longer.
“I used to get called a ‘Paki’ a lot,” he tells me, before insisting that he doesn’t let it bother him; it is difficult to know whether he means that entirely.
“I’m more upset if I’ve made an error on a call to be honest,” he says.
He also recalls slurs against his judgement and ethics.
“[A]fter a game … one of the parents had got a little bit worked up about a decision that was made.
“She followed me and the other [umpire] from the field [and] just started yelling at me ‘you bloody cheat!’”
He casually shrugs off the incident.“It’s an exciting game, and people get emotional,” he says.
I ask Simons what cultural changes are needed to tackle umpire abuse, given any respite on rule changes is unlikely.
For Simons, a greater recognition of umpires in the public eye is critical to challenging the game’s cultural disregard of umpires. It is also crucial that the AFL show greater leadership in bolstering public support for umpires, he says.
What might this look like in practice? Simons suggests press conferences for AFL umpires, where they can air their interpretations of controversial decisions and build their own rapport with the public, similar to those afforded to coaches and players.
This would also help make umpiring more appealing to young people, which the game needs as it continues to grow.
“It’s a lot easier to abuse someone when you don’t know anything about them,” he says.
It’s a poignant summary of the problem that has dogged the game all along. Without putting names to the faces of the umpires, we’ve failed to acknowledge some of the game’s best advocates, the people who help the development of football talent from grassroots to the AFL.