Lay down law on umpire contact

May 16, 2018

Geelong's Tom Hawkins was suspended for one match over umpire contact. Picture: AAP

AFL players making contact with umpires has been a hot topic in recent weeks with several instances referred directly to the tribunal.

Geelong’s Tom Hawkins was suspended for one match for intentionally making contact with umpire Dean Margetts during a match against GWS Giants.

A week later, three more players were cited for similar reasons.

Gold Coast’s Steven May escaped suspension, but was fined $1000 for making careless contact with an umpire, rather than intentional.

At the time of writing, it was not yet known what type of punishment would be dealt to Carlton footballer brothers Ed and Charlie Curnow, who were sent to the tribunal for incidents during the weekend’s match against Essendon.

Before the hearing, several AFL commentators suggested the brothers were likely to receive a one-match penalty, similar to Hawkins.

But it’s time for the AFL to make this black and white. If a player is found guilty of intentional contact with an umpire, it should be an automatic minimum one-week suspension.

That way, all clubs and supporters, coaches, players, officials, umpires will always know what the consequences are.

Given the endless camera angles and replays available to reviewers, most instances of contact with an umpire are pretty obvious — in most cases it’s either intentional or accidental.

Hawkins’ incident was clearly intentional, he pleaded guilty and copped the one-week suspension.

Accidental contact with umpires is usually pretty obvious to spot too — generally it’s a player whose focus is on the footy and may be unaware the umpire is there, or if an umpire backs into a player.

And while it seems the right penalties have been given so far, the AFL should send a statement and enforce a mandatory suspension period.

In all instances so far this year, the contact has not been excessive. But that’s beside the point. There should be no grey area here.

Intentional contact with umpires should be an absolute no-go zone and the penalties have to be there, clearly and in black and white, to support that.

Decisions made at the highest level flow down to lower levels.

It impacts on whether young people choose to take up umpiring a sport or not, and their perceptions of whether they will feel safe doing so.

I’ve written previously in these opinion pages about the importance of protecting umpires.

I recounted my own experiences of being verbally abused on multiple occasions and threatened with physical violence while refereeing basketball over several years.

While incidents of this nature are completely unacceptable, I am sure I speak for many officials when I say we are not immune to criticism. We are human and do get it wrong sometimes.

As someone with officiating experience in a semi-professional national basketball league, I can assure you that referees and umpires are critiqued and given honest feedback on their performances via the appropriate channels.

While I am not involved in the sport anymore, I am also sure I speak for many when I say we are often our own biggest critics too, and most of the time know when we’ve made a mistake. And we want to improve.

Officials expect feedback. It is not an easy job. Umpires and referees are there to call the game to the best of their ability and under the rules of the sport or competition. It is impossible to please all coaches, players and spectators 100 per cent of the time. There will always be someone unhappy with a decision at any given time.

But without umpires, the game cannot go on, and they deserve to feel safe while doing their duties.

Regardless of force, it needs to be made clear in black and white that intentional contact with umpire is completely out of bounds.

Cameron Whiteley is editor at The News.

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