Umpiring is the biggest story in football this year because the AFL is confused, disorganised, and woke (in no particular order). By extension, the umpire dissent rule is ruining AFL football and making it unwatchable.
We’re 11 weeks into the season and somehow, the Laws of the Game are more muddled than they were back in March. Interpretations vary within matches from minute to minute, driving paid-up supporters insane. This may explain why 2022 crowd numbers are at their lowest levels since 1996. There’s simply no faith in the league and the sport we used to love is being overrun by obscure rules and constant whistles.
Let me be clear: this is largely not the fault of the umpires. They are trying to interpret legislation so subtle, that you’d need a thesaurus just to work it out. Yep, it’s the AFL’s fault. And it’s an absolute nightmare.
A Unique Sport
Because football was initially a cross between rugby and soccer, it was never going to be simple to adjudicate. Few sports are though. To the untrained eye, it appears as if there are no rules. In fact, there are way too many rules.
The Laws of the Game document is 71 pages long. If you have a spare two hours, try to decipher it. In one tackle, an umpire must decide whether it’s too high, too low, dangerous, or in the back. Simultaneously, they must determine if the player with the ball kicked it, handballed it, dropped it, threw it or if it spilled clear, and if they had “prior opportunity.” These are decisions the umpires must make dozens of times per game.
Try working that out with 30 players huddled around the ball, the crowd screaming, and having already run 15 kilometres. It’s borderline impossible. Over time, the AFL has added more rules to protect the safety of players, free the game up and supposedly simplify the rules.
However, all they’ve done is make it more complicated for the umpires, players, and viewers. It has reached a boiling point in 2022 and is literally forcing people to change the channel as well as stopping fans from attending matches.
An Umpire Shortage
In the pre-season, the AFL announced they were more than 6,000 umpires short across community football leagues. It’s an alarming figure, although when you consider the explosion of women’s football, it is hardly a shock.
One of the key reasons for the shortage, the AFL said at the time, was a broad lack of respect towards umpires. To solve this issue, they informed AFL clubs any dissent would not be tolerated at the top level. Point to the big screen to tell the umpire they got it wrong? 50-metre penalty. Put your arms out? 50-metre penalty. Cough too loudly? You get the drift. It was a clampdown that was never going to work.
Dissent quickly went from being demonstrative or abusive to even just looking at the umpire in a frustrated manner. A few weeks ago, Collingwood star Jordan De Goey gave away a free-kick at a critical moment in the last quarter. He was visibly angered but held in any verbal abuse.
Despite De Goey holding his tongue, the frustration in his facial expression alone was enough to penalise him. The league believed they would be able to fix behaviour issues at in suburbs by implementing a heavy-handed approach at the top level. All it’s done is made fans disillusioned with the game.
The Dissent Rule
There are two main problems with this silly new rule. The first is that dissent is in the eye of the beholder. One umpire may be offended if a player swears, another may not. Why should a rule be reliant on the tolerance of an umpire? In a high-pressure environment, frustration is par for the course. Footy fans love the game because of its raw emotional appeal. By sanitising it further, the AFL is taking away one of its core attractions: personalities.
The second issue is it’s impossible to police. We’ve seen that across 11 weeks and 99 games, which is a fair sample size now. The AFL has literally told umpires to pay a free kick if a player puts his arms out. It doesn’t matter if they say nothing, so long as his arms are outstretched. But what if his arms are out because he’s frustrated at a teammate? Or if he’s just stretching a sore shoulder? In the last five minutes of a big game, such a major penalty for a minor infringement would have huge ramifications.
Dissent used to be defined as abusive or demonstrative. Now it’s anything vaguely to do with communication, and it’s a disgrace that is tearing the fabric of the sport apart.
In a few months, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan will leave. He’s done some great things, but the level of umpiring, state of the game, and rules that underpin football are a complete mess. If that’s showing dissent towards the AFL, then so be it. If they don’t sort it out soon, they’ll lose more fans. A total of 60 free kicks were paid in Sydney’s win over Richmond on Friday night. You read that right, in a game with only 80 minutes of live play.
Sport should be about the players, the coaches, the uplifting storylines and crushing defeats, and redemption narratives. Not the umpires and the AFL’s definition of dissent.