Abuse directed towards umpires is a widespread issue at all levels of football. The AFL has seen multiple cases in 2019 where spectators have verbally abused on-field officials. Fans have been evicted from stadiums for calling officials a “green maggot” and “bald-headed flog”.
This type of language isn’t unique to the AFL and can be seen and heard at local junior footy. It hasn’t, however, put people off giving it a go, despite the stigma. Around the country, more and more umpires are signing up at young ages to help officiate the sport they love.
At the local level, the South Metro Junior Football League (SMJFL) is leading the way with record umpire registrations in 2019. The league’s 667 registered umpires are the largest group in Victoria.
With nearly 150 games each weekend, the league is always looking to recruit greater numbers, which led to the creation of the SMJFL Umpiring Academy in 2018.
Umpire Academy Manager Cameron Watts said umpire registrations had been consistently increasing year on year.
“We had a really successful year of recruiting this year and gained an extra 100 umpires this year,” Watts said.
The Academy was established with the goal of fast-tracking the development of umpires, through mentorship and structured programs to help junior umpires onto senior football.
Watts, who has been an umpire for eight years at local and VFL level, said the general health and atmosphere around umpiring in the league is positive.
The SMJFL has become a leader among Victorian football leagues regarding its umpiring pathways and numbers. However, the league still suffers from the primary reason that umpires walk away from the game – “abuse”.
Abuse towards umpires has always been a topic of discussion in the sport. It has been part of the reason that retention is one of the most significant issues umpiring departments have to deal with.
“The main reason why umpires leave is spectator/player/official abuse – something that all local umpiring departments and footy leagues are striving to change,” Watts said.
In 2013, the AFL Umpires Development Program developed a handbook: Umpiring Retention Initiatives Guide, which stated that 55% of umpires walk away from the sport because of abuse. It remains a significant issue to this day.
Current SMJFL and SFNL umpire Ryan Mann said he hears many things from supporters over the fence.
“I guess you’re always prone to clowns on the sideline attacking you,” Mann said. “Whether you make the right call or not, not everyone’s going to like it. So, you get called bloody buffoons… I haven’t had anything too bad, but I’d hate to know what some people may say behind my back.”
Mann discusses incidents below where he has been subjected to abuse while umpiring.
The AFL took a stance during the 2019 season by hiring “Behavioural Awareness Officers” in an attempt to hold AFL crowds in compliance at games. These officers were met with backlash as fans argued for their right to cheer and support at the footy.
The issue goes beyond spectators, however, as club officials displaying poor behaviour towards umpires is a regular occurrence in local football too. In July 2019, a coach in the Mornington Peninsula Nepean Football League was suspended for seven games for taking an ‘intimidating attitude’ towards the umpires.
Even AFL coach Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has had a history with umpires.
Five years later, Clarkson was also fined for calling the umpires a “disgrace” in a post-match interview.
With steps being taken at the game’s highest level, local leagues have begun to suspend and fine offenders, indicating a no-nonsense attitude.
Leagues have also started to adopt other measures aiming to eliminate not only umpire abuse but player abuse from spectators and officials.
Mann says as an umpire, he has noticed a lot more signage around grounds reminding spectators that umpires are generally young kids.
It didn’t stop a coach from insulting the way Mann would run up to throw the ball. The coach received a four-game ban at the SMJFL Tribunal – a typically strong response from a league tribunal.
The SMJFL also participates in the AFL Victoria initiative of “Community Umpiring Week”. The annual event is designed to recognise those who officiate the game and to raise awareness to create a positive environment that young umpires can feel comfortable in.
Leagues sometimes have to go beyond education and begin enforcing their policies if spectators and coaches aren’t complying.
“Another thing (strategy) I’ve heard of is employing people to go to grounds for the day and not be branded in league attire, just to watch the crowd and see how they behave,” Mann said.
Watts envisions a future where young umpires want to return year on year.
“I have absolute faith that if a more positive and nurturing environment is created, more umpires and players will come back the following season,” he said.
An unseen consequence of the low retention rates of umpires is the requirement of some umpires to do multiple games in a day. The SMJFL had lost over 100 of its umpires in 2018, leaving the league short on occasions, requiring umpires to back up and do multiple games a day.
SMJFL Appointments Co-Ordinator, Nick Ritchie, says backing up is something the league tries to manage to help avoid umpire fatigue as it impacts on performance.
“We try to keep umpires doing a maximum of 2 games which sometimes works out to be back to back games. During finals we avoid it totally to ensure umpires are fresh for extremely important games,” Ritchie said.
According to Mann, once you get to 3-4 games “you’re really cooked”. Mann says he backs up regularly doing 2 or 3 games on any weekend.
“If you’re fatigued, you’re more likely to make mistakes. It will impact on your decision making. If your decision making is poor, you’re really going to struggle during your game.”