Umpires cop their annual free kicking

Beyond that, there are our own personal views of how the rules should be read or interpreted, differing from one footy person to the next. And beyond that, there is the prism of club partisanship, refracting everything we see. In the heat of battle, at the climax of a close match, this clouds all views.

One man’s «in the back» is another’s «holding the ball» (aka «baaaaaalll»). One man’s «holding the man» is another’s «illegal disposal», is another’s «play on». One’s «prior opportunity» is another’s «no prior», is another’s «he got rid of it anyway». One’s «throw» is another’s «slick handball». If it is on the umpires’ blind side, it is «smart footy» to one, «cheating» to another.

One woman’s «got rid of it» is another’s «threw it» or «dropped it». One’s «dived on it» is another’s «held it in», is another’s «had no chance to get it out». One’s «first to the ball» is another’s «took out his legs», is another’s «kicking in danger», is another’s «trip».

Ex AFL player Jordan Bannister in his umpiring days.

Ex AFL player Jordan Bannister in his umpiring days.Credit:AAP

Your «in the back» is my fair use of hands or body. My «stood his ground» is your «block», your «he was holding» is my «he was being held». Your «push» is my «dive». My «round the neck» is your «he ducked», your «high contact» is my «he led with his head».

One fan’s «unreasonable attempt» is another’s «tunnelling». One’s mark is another’s «you’re kidding». One’s «played on» is another’s «no, he didn’t». One fan’s «deliberate» is another’s «come off it». One’s 15 metres is another’s eight. One’s 50 metres is another’s «what the … ?» Fifty metres itself is a variable distance. Then there are ruck free kicks, the mystery of our times: don’t get either me started. It’s a collision sport. Collisions are necessarily messy. No two are exactly alike, yet all must be forced into tickable boxes.

Not even the umpires always can see it from the umpires’ point of view; in the eternal congestion, it is often obscured. You’ve seen it for yourself, how an incident can look radically different from another camera angle. Hundreds of times a game, umpires must make snap judgments under duress, with all this mind, hoping they are right, and consistent, and that there is consistency between umpires, too, and from week to week. Some are better than others: who would have thought? Mostly, it’s «play on» or «ball up», the neutral options. That is fair enough. But it makes each free kick, paid or not paid, a weightier thing.

Contemplation of umpires is like the election campaign. It would benefit from an open mind, but nearly everyone starts from a position. The umps can’t win. If they pay too many free kicks, they’re grandstanding. If too few, they’re clueless. Altogether, they’re killing the game, and every week it revives. The AFL gets caught between a rock and a hard place. If it says nothing, it is being arrogant. If it says something, it is being defensive. Either way, it is being inflammatory. It needs an umpire. Or maybe an umpiring ombudsman.

Some say the solution is more umpires, or greater empowerment of boundary and goal umpires. Some say it is more pay, full-time jobs. These are doubtful. We play and watch an ever more manic game. Numbers and money is not going to change that. It is a condition of fandom to fume at officials, and vent. Fans can indulge in the feeling as clubs cannot. While you’re crying over spilt milk, it is already back in the dairy, bucket in hand. So have your boo, stay between the flags, then play on. You did last year.




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