AFL boss oversteps mark on umps

AFL boss oversteps mark on umps

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou has never been a big fan of Twitter, not only because he seems to believe it's a forum for people to talk about their shopping or toilet habits, but because he thinks it makes people run off at the mouth.

"If we were all allowed to say everything we wanted to say, we'd be in a bit of strife, particularly me, so you do have to act responsibly," he mused on Friday, fully five seconds before coming up with arguably the most ridiculous and far-fetched analogy of the football year.

In the firing line: Umpire Troy Pannell gives a Hawthorn free kick yesterday.

In the firing line: Umpire Troy Pannell gives a Hawthorn free kick yesterday.

Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Demetriou defended the league's hardline stance on criticism of umpires, making the usual points about the difficulty of attracting people to the job, and the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech He supported his argument with a comparison to disgraced Melbourne sponsor Ben Polis' Facebook rants about a variety of ethnic groups, women, and residents of Frankston.

So a couple of Carlton players dared tweet their disapproval of the umpiring in last Thursday night's game, and suddenly they're being equated with a racist misogynist? Now that's offensive.

AFL umpires by and large do a pretty decent job, particularly given the extra range of responsibilities they've had to take on in recent years. And there is clearly a need to keep umpiring as a desirable football career path.


But I don't buy the theory that some teenage kid is going to abandon plans to pick up a whistle because a couple of AFL players had a mild go at decisions in one particular game.

To suggest that Marc Murphy tweeting that the umpires had "ruined a good game" creates a culture that encourages far more ritual and personal abuse of umpires at lower levels is drawing a pretty long bow.

And frankly, one that makes the AFL umps, all of whom are seasoned professionals and would barely bat an eyelid at Murphy's comments, look overly precious. Which a vast majority are not.

Partly due to Twitter, AFL players these days cop more sustained and personal abuse for making blunders than the umpires do. It doesn't seem to stop little Johnny having a crack at Auskick. A kid thinking about an umpiring career surely can't be naive enough to think he's not going to cop the odd spray from a player. And if he is, how's he going to cope with what comes his way from over the fence at an AFL game?

Murphy's teammate Jeremy Laidler wasn't even that blunt. "Are you not meant to try and be first in at the footy anymore? If you do, you will be pinned for holding the ball. Shocking!!!"

His comment was an immediate response to one of the poorer decisions of this season, the holding the ball paid against Aaron Joseph, with the Carlton defender pinned on his back, a posse of opponents piled on top, and the ball not even in his grasp by the time the free was paid.

There's been a few similar shockers this year, where the fundamental objective of the game - winning the ball - has been trumped by a silly symbolic requirement for a player to madly wave his arms around, supposedly demonstrating his intent to release it, even if it's physically impossible.

Of course that's going to frustrate players who have spent a whole lifetime trying to beat their opponent to the contest. Are they not allowed to let off a little steam about it? And can we not have a serious discussion about umpiring without everyone pussyfooting around the issues lest they cop a rap over the knuckles from an administration offended on someone else's behalf?

Does it mean there's an umpiring crisis? Of course not. But if the AFL wants the focus kept away from forensic inspection of umpiring, its heavy-handedness about a couple of tweets was about the worst course it could have pursued.

Yesterday, Nick Riewoldt and Matthew Richardson, among others, weighed in, the St Kilda skipper suggesting umpires' boss Jeff Gieschen should front the media each week to explain controversial decisions.

Gieschen already does that on the AFL's own website. But how many people care to watch other than when a decision is as blatantly frustrating as that free kick against Joseph?

Whether the football public wants or needs a blow-by-blow account of decisions is doubtful.

We probably wouldn't be talking about it had a couple of players been given a little latitude for a heat-of-the-moment remark.

Instead we got a lecture about our responsibilities, a stupendous bit of dramatic hyperbole from the AFL boss, and a role that most agree works best when it's a case of seen and not heard, gets thrust under the microscope again.

Rohan Connolly

Rohan Connolly, a senior football writer for The Age and radio broadcaster with sports radio station 1116 SEN, has been covering the game since 1983. A multi-AFL Media Association award-winner known for his passion and love of the game, he analyses the AFL for the newspaper and contributes a blog and weekly video, "Footy Fix", for The Age's football website, Real Footy.

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