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Blowing the whistle on umpire abuse

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A shortage of sporting officials due in part to umpire abuse is threatening the collapse of some Australian sports competitions (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Sporting organisations must do more to look after their umpires' mental health and well-being, with research showing an increase in anxiety and depression for Australian sports officials, writes Vikki Watkins.

I REMEMBER my introduction to the Australian Football League (AFL) perfectly. The year was 1977 and it was Collingwood versus North Melbourne in the grand final. And although our family team of St Kilda wasn’t playing, it was a match that apparently couldn’t be missed.

The game was a draw.

The match wasn’t particularly memorable to a novice like myself, but it is so cemented in my mind that it is likely to be one of the last memories to desert me in my declining years.

Somehow, I remember, it was the umpire’s fault. I remember that because the match ended with my dad wrestling with an unknown person, on the floor of a neighbour’s house. That unrestrained passion, that saw my father in a physical altercation, with a stranger, over a team he didn’t even barrack for, was a familiar scene from the days of old for many people.

It was symptomatic of a bigger problem.

Fast forward to 1 April 2021. The Brisbane Lions defeated Collingwood by a point in round three at Marvel Stadium.

An unhinged fan, furious at his team’s loss, lunged at umpires Leigh Haussen, Mathew Nicholls and John Howorth, hurling abuse as they left the field. The fan’s path was thwarted by barricades and security, but the intensity of his rage didn’t go without impact.

Spectators in the immediate vicinity spoke to the media about their fear for themselves and their children. But, notably, there were no repercussions for the fan from the Collingwood Football Club or the AFL.

At a time when sporting officials were experiencing extraordinary pressures, this was a missed opportunity to demonstrate a resoluteness to stop abuse and highlight the impact crowd behaviour has on the mental well-being of umpires. Long stints away from home. Being ready to travel at short notice. Living out of a suitcase. Being constantly vigilant with health precautions. If not managed well these increased pressures can be adverse for mental health.

On 4 July last year, AFL umpire Hayden Gavine, 27, got an important call. He had until 11:59 pm to pack his bags for ten weeks and get to a Docklands hotel. Gavine officiated a game in Melbourne the following day, after which he was relocated to Queensland where he spent two weeks in strict quarantine.

Four weeks after that initial phone call, Gavine responded to a late call-up that saw him flown to Adelaide Oval, where he umpired Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs.

He was relieved to have arrived at the ground before the first bounce — by two minutes.

Fair, fit and six-foot-tall, Gavine has an impressive presence. But it’s his equilibrium that is most striking. He is not easily rattled and that’s been good for his mental health.

According to a 2020 study into the mental health and well-being of sporting officials by Deakin University’s Centre for Sport Research (CSR), the ability to manage stress and retention rates for sporting officials are firmly linked.

Senior lecturer in sport psychology at LUNEX University in Luxembourg Dr Fraser Carson – who led the 2020 CSR research team – told Independent Australia sporting officials are:

"... at increased risk factors of things like anxiety and depression.” 

He also said that all sporting organisations had a responsibility to look after the mental health and well-being of their officials.

The truth is, umpires often have to conduct the business of facilitating a match in a hostile environment. At a grassroots level, where officials are most vulnerable, crowd behaviour can be perilous.

Veteran umpire of 39 years and member of the Southern Umpires Association (SUA) Ron Harris said a 12-year-old umpiring her third game earlier this year left the organisation because her mother had been disturbed by spectator abuse. Most spectators don’t realise the commitment parents of junior officials make — they can hear the abuse involving their child.

Harris told IA:

“You wouldn’t put them [parents of young officials] through it.”

A shortage of umpires is threatening the collapse of some local competitions. Harris said that the SUA only had "between eight and12 senior umpires” who were travelling long distances, sometimes umpiring up to three matches over a weekend.

So, did officiating matches without crowds – necessitated by the pandemic – provide our officials with a reprieve? For Gavine the answer is an emphatic "no".

Said Gavine:

“I prefer a crowd — to umpire in front of a crowd. That’s why I umpire, to get the thrill from the crowd and the noise and passion from supporters. We definitely get booed. We get booed a lot. But that’s all part of it... everything sort of blurs into one and it’s just noise.”

Harris said social distancing requirements had seen an improvement in crowd behaviour at local competitions:

“The games, now, they’re sitting in their cars — a normal game, everybody is around the grandstand, the canteen, not sitting in their cars, unless it’s raining.”

Some of the most offensive abuse comes from the coaches, Harris said. This provides poor modelling for spectators, who feel justified in mimicking the sentiment of coaches. The SUA has implemented a policy of no spectators within 15 metres of the coach’s box, but Harris maintains coaches still had a responsibility to do better.

So, too, do players and the media.

According to Dr Carson:

"Ex-players who become commentators should have exemplary records. Players with a troubled history can be disrespectful with their comments."

Dr Carson would also like broadcasters to reconsider the intensity of scrutiny around umpire decisions:

“... particularly if you’re thinking at the elite level where games can be slowed down to a minimal kind of seconds of a game and just analysed and over analysed.”

Himself a former professional English rugby player, then triathlete, Dr Carson has spent his post-professional athlete life researching how to improve performance. He said the AFL was in a good position to support officials and change the continuing decline in people taking up official roles. 

"Community Umpiring Week" – where professional umpires pay appreciation to amateur umpires – was identified by both Gavine and Harris as a positive experience for young umpires.

Michael Fallon, who has also umpired with the SUA for ten years, told IA he would like to see:

 “... a buddy system, ideally for the first two yearsfor mentoring consistency and support."

And we should be listening because the SUA enabled Gavine to follow a pathway into umpiring at the most elite level. It was as a 13- year-old from the Mornington Peninsula that Gavine secured a position to umpire local junior football for the SUA. He has benefited from a healthy experience at the local level. Mentored and undoubtedly resilient, Gavine is the realisation of what can happen when umpires are nurtured, not demonised.

I remember my introduction to AFL imperfectly.

I have revisited a memory to reveal a truth about a belief I’d never questioned. My introduction to football is remembered through the lens of falsehood and of violence involving my father – not of the feats of players or a team.

Officials don’t decide match outcomes. They enforce the rules with disregard for how that may or may not affect the scoreboard. As it should be.

Vikki Watkins completed a Diploma of Education at Melbourne University in 1991. She is currently working in the medical field and studying journalism.

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Blowing the whistle on umpire abuse

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