St Kilda's Dougal Howard with an umpire. (Photo: AFL)

Regardless of opinions on the new rules, the AFL's crackdown on umpire abuse opens dialogue for important conversations about how Australian society treats sporting officials.

It’s a narrative that finds itself being reverberated within sports media year after year, often putting the people behind the whistle as the antagonists.

From bold claims of home side teams being given advantages on the court, missed penalties, and even having the blame pinned on oneself for a team falling short of a win, it can become provocative viewing when players and coaches are broadcasted in heated exchanges with the people pivotal to enforcing rules, and guiding the decisions made during matches. 

But behind the countless viral clips splashed across the headlines once in while which ignite reactions and internet memes online, such as Daniil Medvedev’s outburst to an umpire at the 2022 Australian Open, lies a bigger issue that is starting to see its impacts trickle down to even the grassroots levels of sports.

Discussions surrounding the treatment of umpires were ramped up this week after an announcement of a crackdown on umpire abuse was announced by the Australian Football League (AFL). 

The crackdown follows news as reported by afl.com.au of a memo being distributed to club football managers and senior coaches that outlined expectations of players, as well as reiterating the importance of respect towards umpires. 

Speaking in a recent press conference, AFL CEO Gillion McLachlan made an apology and declared he “take[s] responsibility” for the escalation of abuse hurled against umpires in recent years. 

The CEO had also admitted that amidst the news of the crackdown, there is a national shortage of 6000 umpires. Some media outlets are reporting that the numbers are at crisis levels.

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“It’s a great credit to the growth of our game, but it’s also the fact that the supply of umpires hasn’t kept up because it’s a tough job and it’s made tougher by the players, supporters and others,” McLachlan said. 

“And I think the rules are clear. We are not going to tolerate the abuse of umpires.”

McLachlan pointed out that a shortage of umpires at community level was a key reason for the introduction of the crackdown.

Whilst many agreed for the importance of the rules, there were mixed reactions over the likelihood of whether the crackdown would actually improve the situation or cause more of a hindrance on the game.

Regardless on individuals’ opinions of sporting adjudicators, there’s is a much more pressing matter in which the AFL’s crackdown aims to tackle a complex issue which is plaguing a number of other junior and community sports.

At breaking point?

Local leagues are starting to feel the impact of dwindling umpiring numbers with sports including cricket, basketball and soccer also reported to be dealing with the issue.

Right across the country, there have been countless stories shared about the lengths clubs have gone to in an attempt to address the shortages. 

Such stories include stories about volunteers covering multiple games in a row during weekends, players having to combine umpiring whilst playing and even having to play on without an adjudicator as a local soccer team was reported to have done. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made the impact of the shortages on sporting clubs more apparent as a result of public health orders, continuing lockdowns and the cancellation of games. 

But the pandemic seems to be more of a catalyst to the problem rather than the cause of an influx of reported abuse towards game day adjudicators, which scratches the surface much more complex issues affecting not just leagues across Australia, but globally too. 

Umpire abuse driving force of shortage

Back in 2019, A-League referee Kris Griffiths-Jones spoke on the Fox Football Podcast and revealed that about 1000 referees a year were lost due to the abuse that is received from just doing their job. 

He conceded that a loss of 1000 out of 5000 officials a year was an unsustainable number.

Sporting leagues right across the country are feeling the brunt of umpires walking away from the game, with many citing abuse as a factor in their decision to step away.

Instances where umpires are put in the firing line of spectators frustrations for decisions that aren’t agreed with have been widely documented. Living in an era of social media, there are even more avenues for us to see tensions boil over on the sidelines of live games.

Unfortunately, because of the prevalence of social media, it isn’t a new concept to see media outlets report on ‘grown’ adults causing disturbing scenes, often at junior sporting clubs where young children are witnesses to appalling behaviour.

As reported by the ABC News, Basketball Victoria handed down a ban for a former employee after a tribunal imposed the penalty on him for an altercation with an umpire at a junior basketball game back in 2018.

Meanwhile in 2021, it was reported that the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) handed down a life ban to a spectator after it was alleged that a 14-year-old umpire was assaulted at a football match.

Within that same year, a 15 match ban was handed down to a South Metro Junior Football Club player for verbally abusing an umpire.

A question of the current system

While it is no question that umpire abuse is a significant issue endured by those that officiate sports, there are other factors that play into the shortage.

Another major aspect of the issue is when it comes to the pay of umpires and other sporting adjudicators.

There is currently no one set system when it comes to the amount of money that is paid to umpires and other sport officials, as it is dependant on the sport that is being umpired and the individuals’ level of experience.

The AFL Queensland website states that pay rates begin at $25 for a single game and can reach up to $130 for senior field umpires.

South Metro Junior Football Club has a $51 starting rate for field umpires for those 11 to 13, and $86.50 for those 17-18. Those who are under 14 vying for the position of boundary umpires begin at $33.50 before increasing to $46 for the under 17s.

Meanwhile, according to local Sydney basketball club Hills Hornets’ website, their prices range from $6.00 for a trainee referee to $35.00 for national standard (FIBA).

Whilst there is pay for umpires, there has been debate over whether there should be an overhaul of the current system and allow for umpires to be full time as many involved in the job juggle the role with other working commitments.

Interestingly, well-known AFL umpire Ray Chamberlain admitted in 2020 that he was against the idea of making umpiring a permanent position.

“No one wins with that,” he said in a radio interview on SEN.

Outside of the elite level of sports, there are concerns that local leagues and sports will see a struggle to recruit a younger demographic to umpiring duties.

With the world starting to bounce back after the last two years, time will tell whether umpiring in sports will start to see a turning point in terms of recruitment numbers.

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