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Blowing the whistle on the AFL's dissent rule

Football

Umpires like it, but has a crackdown on disputing decisions gone too far? Michelangelo Rucci reports.

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AFL umpires have never been happier, says the league’s head of umpiring Dan Richardson.

“They have never had more enjoyment umpiring the game on the back of this (new) dissent rule,” adds the newly appointed AFL community umpiring development manager, former Crows coach Brenton Sanderson.

But how does everyone else in the game feel about the new rule seemingly defining Season 2022 – the “dissent” order of 50-metre penalties to AFL players who remonstrate with umpires, particularly those who raise their arms in protest or frustration?

Fans are annoyed. Media commentators are outraged. Former coaches, such as Brownlow Medallist Nathan Buckley, fear the AFL will turn players into “robots” devoid of emotion. Former umpires, such as AFL grand final officials Mathew James and Darren Goldspink, expect the crackdown will have, to quote James, “an adverse effect at grassroots level”.

Current coaches are divided. Craig McRae at Collingwood says he would not want an AFL grand final decided on a dissent penalty. But Geelong’s Chris Scott at Geelong calls critics of the dissent rule “dinosaurs”. And some (but not all) players are fully backing the AFL campaign to create “respect” and “safety” for umpires.

“We’ve just had round 6, haven’t we?” says former AFL and SANFL umpire Michael Abbott who carries the handle of “Umpschumps” on social media.

“(Former SANFL league umpire) Laurie Argent used to always say, ‘Round 6, that’s when the umpire bashing starts’. This year however it’s been since round 1 – and it has been constant,” adds Abbott, who in 1991 became the first South Australian to earn an AFL umpiring contract.

The annual chestnut in Australian football certainly has been roasted hard and early this season after the AFL sounded the alarm from a shortfall of umpires – about 6000 – in community football on the eastern seaboard. In Adelaide, SANFL umpiring chief Shane Harris says there is no such crisis, even with the extra demands created by the explosive growth of women’s football.

The year-by-year debate has widened far and fast to bring back into question the need for full-time AFL umpires, the inconsistency created by the AFL with subjective rules based on “prior opportunity” and “genuine attempt” and where players stand in respecting match officials.

Former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire is advocating $300,000 salaries for professional AFL umpires and a radical refit of national league matches to have eight – rather than three – umpires calling free kicks, a theme that seems to guarantee even more inconsistent calls on rules loaded with grey areas.

How AFL players view umpires – and have influenced public opinion of match officials or respect in grassroots competitions – has sparked the league’s latest crackdown. This critical theme was once managed by astute coaches such as Malcolm Blight during the 1990s.

“When Malcolm was at Geelong,” says Abbott, who umpired more than 250 AFL and SANFL senior games during the 1980s and 1990s, “he would say, ‘Let me know if any of my players are questioning your decisions or backchatting’. His view was those players were not paying attention when standing the mark; they weren’t doing their job.”

Blight told InDaily how his start as an AFL coach at Geelong in 1989 began with a 20-question poll of his player squad.

“One of the questions asked was to grade, from 1 at the lowest and 5 at the most, how umpires affect your game as a player,” he says. “I had 80 per cent of the Geelong players give a 4 or 5. I could not believe it.

“In the first minute of our first practice game, against Footscray at Sunshine, we had a player dispute an umpire. I ran on the ground, stopped the game and told that player to get out of my sight and that I would decide his future on Monday. I never had a problem with player discipline towards umpires again.

“Yes, I told the umpires to let me know if they were having any problems with my players. I did the same at Adelaide. The message was, ‘Don’t argue with the umpires’.”

This was two decades ago when Blight’s former boss, inaugural Adelaide Football Club chief executive Bill Sanders, was commissioned by the AFL to lead a national review of umpiring. One of the conclusions in Sanders’ 2003 report seems to echo louder today in light of the shortfall of umpires in community football.

“What cannot be questioned is the consistent report by umpires, umpiring fraternities and observers that abuse of umpires is entrenched, ugly and an unacceptable part of the game,” Sanders wrote. “If we don’t act, we’re not going to have umpires.”

I have felt for a number of years that general disrespect towards umpires was something that needed to be addressed. That disrespect is unacceptable.

But the impression that the dissent rule was written to stop players at grassroots level mimicking abuse towards umpires by AFL players is today contradicted by the AFL’s community umpiring development manager, Brenton Sanderson.

“I don’t think we’re going to get to that point in (community leagues) where players are going to be almost robotic (as Buckley fears in the AFL),” he says.

“Part of the community spirit (at the grassroots) is the interaction and the enjoyment that players and umpires have on the field.”

So why the crackdown?

“(AFL players) have got away with it for far too long,” answers Sanderson. “The way we’ve treated umpires has been disappointing and poor for way too long.”

This point is divisive itself, as highlighted when this view was put to Adelaide defence coach and former Collingwood captain Scott Burns and Port Adelaide midfield coach and premiership player Brett Montgomery.

Burns questions why the blame game has fallen onto the players’ shoulders and not onto the AFL for repeatedly adjusting the rules with new interpretations.

“We all agree the umpires should be respected as much as possible,” he says. “But I don’t like the players being targeted with, ‘It is all your fault’.

“I have a huge amount of empathy for the umpires who have been dealing with the constant tinkering of rules for the past 10-15 years. Maybe that is why there is a shortage of umpires – because we are getting confused and scratching our heads with how the game is to be interpreted by the umpires.”

Montgomery argues the players do deserve blame – and have for a long time.

“I do like where we are trying to go with this (crackdown on dissent),” Montgomery says. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is long overdue.

“I have felt for a number of years that general disrespect towards umpires was something that needed to be addressed. That disrespect is unacceptable. So taking a strong stand is fair enough.”

McGuire, now a high-profile media commentator rather than a powerful club leader, has made a key point in this annual debate saying: “Stop putting band-aids on this and actually come up with a solution.”

McGuire’s answer is to remove goal and boundary umpires to load up the field, in a copy of American football, with a team of eight umpires; two inside each 50-metre arc and four in between. And he wants professional umpires, arguing paying the match officials $300,000 a year would set up treasured career paths from the grassroots.

Abbott thinks not.

“No, no, no,” says Abott, who combined his umpiring pursuits in more than 200 matches, including 23 AFL games from 1991-1993- with a career at SA Police.

“You would become obsessed with football. You can’t spend all week studying decisions. Where is your release? That’s crazy. If you want respect as an umpire, you get that by how you perform, by the decisions you make. And those decisions today are being made with a rule book – and a set of interpretations – that can deliver different outcomes from different umpires.

“The AFL makes it harder ever year, tinkering with the rules year after year. Take the holding-the-ball rule. It is never clear cut. What is ‘prior opportunity’? What is ‘genuine attempt’? They are subjective calls. And the AFL has added more subjective rules, such as ‘insufficient attempt’ to keep the ball in play; and ‘unrealistic attempt’ in a marking contest.

“Then there is the ruck rule that demands the field umpire call out for two players to nominate they are going to contest the ruck. What? We couldn’t leave the umpire to penalise if a third player gets involved. Now we have umpires – field and boundary – waiting for the nominated ruckman to get the contest, holding up the game when the AFL wants to keep the game flowing.

“You wonder why players get frustrated? Even that is now a subjective call on when – and which – umpires will react with the dissent rule.”

If you want respect as an umpire, you get that by how you perform, by the decisions you make.

This was notable in round 5 after which new AFL football chief Brad Scott confirmed the inconsistent use of the dissent rule by the umpires themselves.

Former players such as Leigh Fisher, who played 55 AFL games with St Kilda from 2003-2010 and since 2013 has officiated in more than 100 AFL matches, was more tolerant of players questioning his decisions than his colleagues who had no senior football experience.

“You must have a feel for the game,” says Abbott, who in 1992 at AFL level reported Carlton premiership defender Peter Dean for umpire abuse. A year earlier, Abbott was physically challenged at Football Park by Glenelg defender Ross Gibbs, who copped a two-month ban from the SANFL tribunal.

“You can’t take it personally (when a player questions your decision),” he says.” There always will be decisions that players do not agree with.”

St Kilda’s Nick Hind raises his arms while remonstrating with the umpire in 2020. Photo: AAP/Darren England

Adelaide midfielder and 2021 club champion Rory Laird has twice in the past fortnight wanted to put out his arms to question an umpire’s decision and resorted to placing his hands on his head amid frustration.

“It is a fine line,” Laird says. “And I have dodged a couple (of 50-metre penalties). There was one or two at the weekend when I was in disagreement with the umpire and tried to show a little bit of frustration, but managed to control it. And I will need to keep on top of that.

“I do get frustrated and I do get very heated when I play and sometimes I disagree with call, as most players do at times. I accept umpires have tough jobs,” adds Laird, who does not want to be denied the right to respectfully question the umpires without being accused of being a dissenting voice on the field.

“I had a couple of times at the weekend when I went to the umpire during a dead ball,” Laird says. “I had a general chat – that is the way to go about it now. I asked the question on a couple of free kicks, wanting the umpire’s view on it, just asking what he saw from his angle and his thought process behind the free kick.”

So does the AFL need a Sanders Report Mark II?

“I made 32 recommendations in that report in 2003 when the AFL was looking to attract more umpires to the game – and retain them,” Sanders tells InDaily. “Only one has not been taken up – get rid of the centre bounce to throw up the ball like we do everywhere else on the field.”

Tradition, with then AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou being the strongest advocate, saved the centre bounce. But this has held back umpire development, with many match officials who are sound in their decision-making of the rules being sidelined by shoulder and back injuries from the bounce or their inability to bounce the ball in the centre circle.

Sanders describes the dissent rule as an “over-correction” from AFL House in Melbourne.

“Surely, in a respectful way, the players are entitled to ask the umpire a question,” he says. “And I am not sure (the dissent rule) is going to change anything at the grassroots. I was at a junior game at Flinders Park at the weekend. The umpire was not interested in that stuff from the AFL. He just let the game go on … and the kids were happy and no-one got hurt.”

The AFL umpires are happy. The AFL coaches and players are accepting, even when frustrated as highlighted by Laird’s remarks, that they have a critical part to play in the league’s campaign to end umpire abuse.

The media will continue to debate the game’s rules, the subjective interpretations forced onto the umpires and the 50-metres that will influence games.

And what of the fans who still are not returning to AFL games in the pre-COVID numbers of 2019?

“A lot of ‘understanding’ football people,” says Sanders, “say it is not the game it was … and they are staying away.”

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