Abuse of match officials in some sports has reached a crisis point.
The AFL’s crackdown on abuse, amidst revelations that umpire numbers are down by 6000 at the community level, should be a wake-up call for all sports codes.
Speaking to a number of people involved in grassroots sport in Canberra, there are concerns that too many have walked away from officiating games due to abuse from players, coaches and team supporters.
One Canberra sports administrator told me that people taking up refereeing and umpiring, more often than not, left the sport at about age 18.
Having witnessed abuse of match officials almost on a weekly basis, both at a community and elite level, I can fully understand the reasoning behind many walking away.
Another factor for the drop-off over the past two years has been the COVID pandemic. I have been told that many Canberra sporting officials have not returned to refereeing or umpiring after the COVID-enforced lockdown of sport.
They have simply found something else to do.
But the lack of officials adjudicating games has the potential to create significant issues in Canberra sport. It needs to be addressed and quickly.
The AFL’s crackdown includes penalties for players questioning an umpire’s decision.
What has become increasingly apparent to the AFL hierarchy is that players at the community level emulate what they see at the elite level.
If the same penalties were applied to rugby league, there would hardly be a player left on the field.
Respect towards match officials is a start, but the issue seems to have much deeper origins.
I suspect that a lack of understanding of the rules by coaches, players and supporters at a grassroots level often results in abuse.
Go to any football code in Canberra in winter and it doesn’t take long for the questioning to start before it leads to outright abuse. Having witnessed abuse first-hand, the discomfort caused is palpable.
Canberra sports organisations have signs on entry to junior sport, emphasising the need for respect. Unfortunately, the message is lost on some as soon as the game starts.
Sure, umpires and referees don’t get it right 100 per cent of the time, but it’s fair to say they have a better idea of the rules than the vast majority of players, coaches and supporters.
Players, coaches and supporters receiving greater education about sports rules is an obvious start, but an even more positive step would be to engage a greater number of former players and coaches in match refereeing or umpiring.
It was a milestone moment when former Royals player Reuben Keane ran onto the field to referee his first Super Rugby game when the Brumbies played Fijian Drua.
After all, Reuben had come through the playing ranks to become a referee. He was part of a production line of former players in Canberra who have become referees.
Unfortunately, this is far from the norm, with very few former players taking up the whistle. Perhaps it’s time for a concerted drive to get former players and coaches to consider becoming game officials.
And with more work on reducing abuse, perhaps more ex-players will take up the whistle. As we all know, without officials, there will be no sport.