SportAFL's draconian approach to crowd behaviour not helping anyone
Paul Gallen questions 'weird' pre-game behaviour from Kevin Walters
The former Blues captain raises some very valid points.
Few phrases in modern society are guaranteed to raise hackles as quickly as “political correctness”. And that’s on either side of an argument.
For some, it’s an unnecessarily formal description of good intentions, that is to show sensitivity, particularly with the use of language, to individuals or groups who shouldn’t have to feel offended or marginalised.
For others, a generally louder voice of protest, it’s an authoritarian sort of command to silence dissent, to prevent someone, as the saying goes, “telling it like it is”.
I’m usually dubious about the latter, the phrase “political correctness gone mad” far too often merely a cover for anything from lazy thinking to outright prejudice and bigotry.
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But just occasionally, the desire to moderate tone or language actually can seem completely over the top.
And AFL football might just have discovered one of those instances.
Umpires have always been a favourite target of football supporters.
They’re an easy scapegoat of course, for fans frustrated by this decision or that, or more likely, their own team’s poor performance. No one barracks for them, so there’s not going to be any blowback from a crowd when someone gives them a mouthful.
We’ve all heard or seen examples at lower levels of the game where young, inexperienced umpires with no support around them are subjected to the vilest abuse and intimidation from spectators.
Not only is that obviously wrong, umpiring officials insist the game loses way too many prospective senior umpires as a result.
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That’s something which clearly needs to be addressed. But you can’t change what is rightly or wrongly part of a game’s culture by wading into the fray wearing jackboots hoping for an instant fix. Which appears to be what’s going on at the moment at AFL games.
Earlier this season, a Richmond supporter was given a three-week ban from attending games after calling an umpire a “green maggot”. More Tiger fans were ejected the following week after an umpire was called “a dog”.
Then, last Saturday, a Carlton supporter was evicted following interrogation by AFL integrity staff after an incident in which he allegedly called umpire Matthew Nicholls a “bald-headed flog”.
And on Tuesday, the Herald-Sun reported that Richmond’s cheer squad had now requested the AFL issue a list of phrases it could or couldn’t use in connection with umpires.
The cheer squad claims for weeks it has had “undercover” AFL officials sitting nearby taking photos and pointing out supposed troublemakers to security staff.
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Yep, really. And yep, it could be a “Monty Python” comedy sketch.
From a public relations viewpoint, the timing could hardly be worse for the AFL.
The league is already on the nose with the supporter base over a variety of issues and what fans believe is a misguided sense of priorities. Now, superficially, it looks like they’re not even allowed to barrack.
Football, it goes without saying, can be an emotional game. For many, it’s an outlet from the stresses of a working week and a good way to let off steam. And provided the insults dished out don’t fall into the territory of racist or homophobic abuse, that’s the way it should be.
Where exactly, if this is the way the AFL intends to change attitudes, does it intend to draw the line?
And if umpires can react to public insults with consequences as severe as having spectators ejected and banned from games for comments which might be insulting but don’t breach accepted public standards of decency, what’s to stop a player from pursuing a similar course. Imagine the size of the floodgates that would open?
Even the most naïve youngster who decides to become an umpire realises that they’re hardly going to become a fan favourite. That’s always been the case.
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I can remember as a child the accompanying theatre of the umpires’ entrance to the ground being announced over the public address system and the inevitable chorus of jeers from the crowd.
Yet, even that was always done with an element of humour, the subtext that while football fans weren’t ever going to offer even grudging praise, they recognised the difficulty of the task and the credentials of those umpiring at the highest level.
If there’s been a hardening of attitudes in more recent times, it hasn’t necessarily been the fault of one side only. Umpires of yesteryear were far more recognisable to the public, frequently interviewed by media, or fronting “What’s Your Decision?” type segments which helped promote understanding of their role.
They had a closer relationship with players, too, something which has fallen by the wayside with the disappearance of post-match functions for teams and officials.
Do we get enough insight anymore into the amount of decision-making they do, the standards they must maintain, or simply the umpires not just as people, but diehard football fans like the rest of us? Not in my view.
It’s no coincidence that one of the best-known AFL umpires, Ray Chamberlain, is also one of the few these days for whom the football public have a grudging respect. As they should. He’s a funny, lively and extremely likeable bloke who just loves his football. There’s plenty like him in the ranks, too.
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And that’s what the AFL should be focussing on when it comes to this issue. Letting us get to know umpires. Letting us see inside their role.
Trying to make it seem like we’re all really the same. Not that this is some higher society beyond reproach and on which dissent won’t be tolerated.
Not to mention the element of reverse psychology here. Yes, it’s childish, but is there any surer way to antagonise a crowd than to point a finger, scald and tell them condescendingly not to do or say something?
That goes beyond inciting far more people than the “anti-PC” crowd. That’s an affront to anyone of a reasonable age who believes they are capable of drawing their own boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
If the AFL is serious about changing attitudes towards umpires and umpiring, it needs to bring people along with them, not batter them into submission. That’s all the current draconian approach is doing. As well as making the AFL and its on-field officials seem even more of a public enemy than they already are.
And yes, that really is political correctness gone mad.
Pictures: The greatest moments in AFL history
West Coast vs. Collingwood (2018 grand final)
Adelaide vs. Richmond (2017 grand final)
Western Bulldogs vs. Sydney Swans (2016 grand final)
Western Bulldogs vs. Adelaide Crows (2015 elimination final)
Fremantle Dockers vs. Geelong Cats (2013 qualifying final)
Sydney Swans vs. Hawthorn Hawks (2012 grand final)
Fremantle Dockers vs. Geelong Cats (2012 elimination final)
Collingwood Magpies vs. Geelong Cats (2011 grand final)
Collingwood Magpies vs. St Kilda Saints (2010 grand final)
Geelong Cats vs. St Kilda Saints (2009 grand final)
Sydney Swans vs. Geelong Cats (2005 semifinal)
Port Adelaide vs. Brisbane Lions (2004 grand final)
North Melbourne vs. Richmond Tigers (2003 Round 11)
Brisbane Lions vs. Collingwood Magpies (2002 grand final)
Essendon Bombers vs. Carlton Blues (1999 preliminary final)
Adelaide Crows vs. St Kilda Saints (1997 grand final)
Sydney Swans vs. Essendon Bombers (1996 preliminary final)
North Melbourne vs. Hawthorn Hawks (1994 qualifying final)
Essendon Bombers vs. Carlton Blues (1993 grand final)
Geelong Cats vs. West Coast Eagles (1992 grand final)
Hawthorn Hawks vs. Geelong Cats (1989 grand final)
Hawthorn Hawks vs. Sydney Swans (1987 qualifying final)
Fitzroy vs. Essendon Bombers (1986 elimination final)
Carlton Blues vs. Collingwood Magpies (1979 grand final)
Hawthorn Hawks vs. North Melbourne (1978 grand final)
North Melbourne vs. Collingwood Magpies (1977 grand final)
Carlton Blues vs. Collingwood Magpies (1970 grand final)
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