Love to whinge about the latest umpiring shocker? That’s exactly what the AFL wants from you


Imagine this scenario.

When the ball appeared to brush the arm of Fremantle defender James Aish off the boot of George Hewett, fans watching the game on TV have 30 seconds – or as long as it takes for Matthew Cottrell to have his shot at goal – to take out their smartphones and hit a button: ‘touched’ or ‘mark’.

The numbers are swiftly crunched and sent to a smartwatch on the controlling umpire’s wrist, and if enough people voted for ‘touched’, he overturns the call and Carlton are denied the shot.

It’s a crazy idea, but maybe that’s the way officiating will be in the distant future; combining sport and entertainment – and increasing viewer activity in a ‘fun’ way.

The clumsy and inefficient dissent rule could also be thrown open to public opinion. The umpire would have to reveal what he thought was said, and it could be left to outside interpretation for possible sanction.

The problem with the dissent rule and why it was such a problem in the Gather Round clash is not that I think umpires should accept abuse, but rather since the huge and ridiculous crackdown of a few seasons ago – we rarely see a free kick or 50-metre penalty paid for players giving a bit of lip these days.

Remember the dissent rule?

What happened to that? ????@SENBreakfast | #AFL

— SEN 1116 (@1116sen) April 2, 2024

Like Nostradamus, SEN’s Garry Lyon and Tim Watson predicted this very thing would happen just last week, when Blake Hardwick pushed the boundaries in Hawthorn’s Easter Monday clash with Geelong; questioning how long until it decided a game.

They only had to wait six days!

The ferocity of the crackdown brought criticism from fans for going too far, when throwing your arms out in disbelief, throwing your head back or slapping your leg cost you distance downfield.

Now it’s retreated so much, to the point umpires have basically gone into their shell, either ignoring or being more understanding of player frustration – and then this sanction against Freo comes out at such a critical stage of the game.

You can’t blame AFL fans for wanting to kick the TV set in and asking what about the dozens of worse things that are let go each week – or not picked up by the umpires microphones.

Rule crackdowns are highly publicised AFL-driven marketing campaigns more than anything else, telling the wider world that we will not accept abuse to umpires for a few weeks. Then as the attention dies down in the media cycle, so does the consistency, and fans and players are left wondering where we stand with the enforcement of it.

It hasn’t just been this one moment of controversy this season.

Jobe Watson: “If it’s a clear touched and we’ve got video evidence…it becomes a stopped play anyway, why not just go upstairs?”

Matthew Richardson: “You open up a big can of worms there with other decisions throughout a game.”

A pretty controversial finish to

— 7AFL (@7AFL) April 6, 2024

When Willie Rioli sailed across the boundary line to take a mark against Melbourne last week, it seemed that everyone – barring a few one-eyed Port Adelaide fans – could see that the ball had crossed the line, except for the on-field umpires themselves.

Blunders happen from the umpires: they always have, and they always will. Humans are not perfect. No one within the AFL can do anything about stopping errors. It’s part of the game.

I admit that my earlier proposal of fans weighing in on the umpiring through smartphones was definitely tongue in cheek (a late entry for April Fool’s Day) – but seriously, why not have a video official helping the umpires for in-play decisions?

Those opposed to technology often raise the objection that this would slow the game down. But think about it: how quickly does it take the commentators, or even yourselves as fans at home, to make up your mind once you’ve seen a play live?

Be honest – it is less than 15 seconds. If it takes any longer than that, put it down to subjectivity and move on.

“That looked out to me!”

Port Adelaide might’ve gotten lucky here.

???? Watch #AFLPowerDees LIVE on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) March 30, 2024

I am not talking about going into the ARC score review process of detailed slow-motion analysis, but just a few seconds for the video official to tell the on-field umpires what he or she sees on the screen.

Like, for example, what tennis does with the new automated Hawkeye, which has had its bugs but is soon going to eliminate line judges from the sport.

Umpires at field level can communicate with each other, so why not have an extra set of eyes seeing what we see on TV?

It just seems silly that people who cannot have an impact on the game are able to analyse individual moments so clearly, but those who can make decisions are restricted both by physical limitations, and the rules themselves.

Ray Chamberlain was recently interviewed on SEN about the West Coast boundary incident, and he explained the role of the field umpire in the decision-making process:

“The umpire’s looking forward and asks himself is the player with the ball getting tackled, then he turns his head to look at where the ball is going to go because he is the end-zone umpire and the ball is going to go into the goal square. He’s not looking at whether it is in or it is out… if you (the field umpire) could clearly see it, you could definitely blow your whistle. But the circumstances here, I did not anticipate the field umpire intervening.”

This suggests that on-field umpires have too much on their plate to determine, independently of the boundary umpires whose job it is to make such decisions, if a ball is in or out.

The controlling umpire is already thinking about the play ahead and trusting his fellow official to get it right – but mistakes do happen, for whatever reason.

The fact the boundary incident has happened so many times this season alone in a few short weeks, again, shows they need more support, probably from a video official.

“That felt very, very out to us!”#AFLSwansDons

— 7AFL (@7AFL) March 23, 2024

It is 2024 – technology has become so advanced cameras these days can include artificial intelligence functions.

In the sporting world, microchips can be put into balls (Tottenham fans will know this technology was recently used to deny them a goal against Luton), and the AFL is trialling this technology in the VFL with the aim of speeding up score reviews and making them more accurate.

But that is only going to tackle some of the problems. Technology can only do what it is permitted to do within the rules and structures set out by the league’s administration.

The problem the AFL faces with continuous (some would say increasing) umpiring mistakes is that it steals from the narrative of the game, and suppresses the essence of what sport is really about.

With broadcasters providing instant replays and sharing controversies, errors and mistakes for the AFL community to go nuts over, positive narratives like player milestones and great athletic achievements are often overlooked as attention is stolen by fans fighting among themselves in the comment sections.

‘That was in the hotdog stand!’ Eagle Jake Waterman’s shock escape leaves footy fans fuming

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) March 17, 2024

On the other hand, maybe fans and commentators just like whingeing.

At times, it seems like complaining about the umpires is a sport within a sport, something that makes games more, dare I say, enjoyable.

There will always be disagreements and differences of opinion, and that’s what creates community – discussion.

On the other hand, while there should be no expectation that everyone has the same viewpoint, but disputes can become dangerous and damaging, not only to the game but to an individual’s mental health. Especially if these ‘discussions’ become too aggressive and people want to be right all the time, and that overtakes their ability to agree to disagree and move on with life.

Aussie Rules has never been more accessible, through social media and increased interactivity through online channels. But has this created an overload of extensive opinions and media commentary surrounding the game – and has all this been for the game’s betterment or worse?

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There was an American study published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that found the average human is ‘more physiologically activated by negative than by positive news stories’.

The more negative content, the more interaction between the game and its fans.

Maybe the cynical commentary and in some way, the umpiring howlers create attention for the AFL – so they are happy to go along with 90 per cent of it, as long as it doesn’t cross any legal or moral lines.

After all, as the old saying goes, any publicity is good publicity.

So while the AFL does have a responsibility to ensure as many calls as possible are correct to uphold the integrity of the sport, as fans, we probably should be taking more responsibility for how the game is being marketed towards us as well.

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