21 March 2022

Abuse of match officials in Canberra leads to many walking away

| Tim Gavel
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Games don’t exist without officials. Photo: File.

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.

Grant Jones refereeing

From player to referee: Grant Jones. Photo: Supplied.

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.

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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.

Reuben Keane

Reuben Keane: from Royal to referee. Photo: ACT Rugby Referees Association.

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.

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Miles Newman10:01 pm 21 Mar 22

I have been refereeing for nearly 50 years in three sports, most recently the past 35 years in American Football (Gridiron). I now teach and mentor officials. A lot of abuse we get is from people who think they know the rule book but have never actually read it. One advantage we have in Gridiron is that we work in crews of about 5 or more, so there is some modicum of support and mentoring.
Abuse of officials is endemic in all sports. I believe a lot of it is frustration that their team is not doing as well as the player or coach expects they should. Especially in contact sports they are fired up to play, and they are highly emotionally involved in their own success. So, when the referee or official says “no you or your player did that wrong”, you are directly challenging them.
We have penalties to deal with it, but it does not remove the abuse – technically assault or the insolence. Over the years I have lost a number of young officials who have just said “NO” and walked away. Then we get complaints form teams about the lack of officials to do games.

Young refs are often thrown in at the deep end…do a course….get a whistle….ref. There needs to be a comprehensive gradated mentoring system where a new ref as assisted by an experienced ref. Some sports do it some don’t. As far as modelling senior sports go many refs and administrations are their own worst enemies. New age ‘good reffing’ demands creation of a rapport with players confusing the roles of good guy and game authority. At top levels you’ll often hear refs calling players by first names and spending time explaining their every decision to any player running by that didn’t like the ruling. Once you start justifying your decisions expect it to happen again and again. Sometimes to innocent queries but more often than not to players asking with the intent to intimidate you. Every coach and player has a duty to learn the rules. As should parents if they’ve got a genuine interest in their kid’s sport. Refs should you use the absolute minimum of verbal communication as demanded by the rules eg, “Held!” in NRL or “Play On” in AFL. Whistle and hand signals should do the rest. Young refs are easily intimidated by verbal demands and they, the players, coaches and parents should not only be instructed not to verbally engage with the ref but the ref should also be told not to verbally engage with them.

Rugby Union has always had a 10 yards/metres penalty, which can be devastating if quickly taken by the non-penalised team. Maybe it should be increased to something as effective as AFL’s 50m penalty. Soccer needs to adopt a rule of this sort. The aim would be that the offending team put =s the blame where it belongs – on the offender. Not the whole solution by any means but it can severely penalise the offenders without ruining the game with send-offs.

It is not just a lack of knowledge of the rules but it is also how complicated and ever changing the rules are. Umpire Aussie rules and although two umpires incredibly more complex. No spectator can u derstand the holding the ball/ the man rules. As an umpire I am loud so at least spectators understand why decisions are being made

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