I had been sitting on writing an article like this for some time, but there was always something else that got in the way. It also doesn't help that I have been guilty of committing many of the sins I'm discussing now. Except assault. I've never gotten so angry that I've felt the compulsive need to assault a match official. That is what Monty would call "A Bridge Too Far".

I love mixing genres like that.

After Collingwood supporters entered the news cycle for trying to jump the fence and attack an umpire after a painfull loss to the Brisbane Lions, I felt compelled to write an article. And not just because I wanted to chase trends. Or poke fun at Collingwood. Though both were very tempting. In service to making sure I didn't make a hot take for clicks, I let the topic simmer on the back burner for a period of time.

Somewhat unrelated to that, I feel it is important to note that Collingwood lost because of a miracle ball inside fifty and a goal on the siren. The umpires had nothing to do with that. There isn't a Collingwood player within coo-ee of... whoever it was (Zac Bailey). What is important to note, is that these facts didn't stop abuse being hurled. It certainly didn't convince Collingwood fans to try and attack match officials. This absence of logic in the emotional common failing of all sports fans is to look for a scapegoat to soothe the pain of loss. Far too often, this falls on match officials.

Here's the kicker.

In order for the standard of match officiating in Australian sport to improve, the culture of abuse of officials, needs to stop. I know I am asking for the impossible. Contact sports like the AFL and NRL, when viewed live, are very gladitorial. At a fundamental level, there is not a lot of separation between the Roman Collosseum and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Emotions run high and logic exits the building not too far after the start of the first period.

In modern times are far fewer casualties and no wild animals. There is a joke to be made here about Victorian AFL supporters, but I will avoid reaching for that particular low hanging fruit.

That makes putting your emotions aside when your team loses in a heartbreaker almost impossible. It also makes for good headlines and articles to farm clicks. It's the perfect storm for desirable outcomes for everything but quality officiating. It ties into a larger issue about the human psyche, where we don't appreciate when things go right, but cannot wait to get up on the parapet when things go wrong.

The point I'm laboring to make here is that it is very difficult emotionally to admit, but abusing match offcials achieves the opposite outcome to what footy fans want. Which is officials that don't make mistakes and get every call right. Putting aside how impossible that is in either the AFL or NRL, because it's a human game policed by humans with biases and failings in a game with vague rules.

The reason sports fans don't understand why harshing out referees is counter-intuitive is because they don't see the effects first hand. They're not at the coalface. It's a little bit like the old adage of butterfly wings. Except replace "Butterfly Wings" with "angry fan throws bottle at referee after making correct call in football game". And whilst it might seem fair to criticize a match official that makes a mistake at the sport's highest level as a referee is paid handsomely for their work at that point, no-one starts life as a top flight referee.

It's not hard to find stories of officials in lower codes, or organisers at the grassroots levels who are desperate for additional match officials. You won't find many people being paid $2,000 a game at that level. But match officials are still abused and mistreated, because that is the culture perpetuated by professional sports. Who in their right mind would sign up to recieve abuse, for free, because society does not value them.

David Klemmer and James Graham of the Bulldogs confronting Gerard Sutton over a game-deciding penalty in 2015.

Do the math. It's not hard to put two and two together.

Fewer volunteers, less skill in the system, fewer match officials with the experience and skill required to officiate top flight football. When your talent options are limited, of course the standard of officiating will decrease. Football fans can understand this in the context of their own football team. Fewer juniors, less skill, worse on-field performances. But the emotional nature of spectator sport blinds them from the somewhat obvious fact that these same systems apply to match officials.

I'm not solely blaming the fans for these outcomes, either. The media is equally responsible for hammering the officials whenever they can. Although I would argue their motives are a lot less pure (though, not wholesome) as a rabid sports team fan base. A referee mistake costs column inches and airtime. Who would want to officiate at the top level knowing that every mistake has a change of getting that person named, shamed and harrassed in print and social media.

If you don't believe me, believe the officials themselves. We've had testimonials from both codes about the hideous abuse that officials suffer in their roles.

All sports fans have a duty, regardless of if they choose to acknowledge it or not. The match officials are to be beyond reproach. Mistakes happen, sometimes those mistakes will decide the outcome of a game. That is modern sport. It will not improve until we, collectively as sports fans, realise that abusing umpires and referees will not deliver unto us the outcomes we desire.

As an inverse to the previous equation, less abuse and focus on match officials means more grassroots volunteers, means more talent to pick from at the top grade, resulting in a better officiating experience. It will never be perfect, but it would improve.

Meaning the only thing to blame when your team loses, is your football team.


Catch you next time,

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