Umpires need a louder voice

Matthew Whelan and Daniel Ward listen in to the yellow wiggles. But the rest of us have no idea what’s going on. (Getty)

This article first appeared on Footy Almanac and The Roar.

I know it’s part of footy culture, but the incessant “BALL!” shouts from the outer have gone too far.

The AFL’s loudest supporters might be the most entertaining, but they have an unhealthy obsession with playing backseat umpire.

If you were a foreigner, attending an AFL match for the first time, you’d have to assume the umpires were clueless.

The frequency and volume of disgruntled supporters is evident in every minute of every game.

Their fury is almost always directed at the men in white, yellow, green and red.

Despite popular belief, the umpires are often correct and the crowd is seldom correct.

Without having carried out a quantitative survey, I’m confident that at least eighty percent of the crowds’ tackle complaints are unwarranted.

For instance, not every tackle deserves to be rewarded with a free kick.

The holding-the-ball rule states that players can only be penalised if they have had “prior opportunity to dispose of the football”.

Everybody knows this rule. It’s repeatedly dictated to spectators during radio and television commentaries.

Yet as soon as fans enter the ground this knowledge seems to vanish from their consciousness.

There appears to be some kind of force between the MCG car-park and the level one seating area that transforms calm, earnest people into raucous bleaters.

This same force is what makes supporters so much angrier at the ground than when they are at home, watching the television imitation.

This force is the voice of the umpire, or absence thereof.

When watching AFL on television, it’s easier to be restrained. Every umpiring decision is dissected, with endless replays and expert insights.

More importantly, though, we can always hear the umpire’s voice.

As annoying as umpires can be, their amplified directions help fill in the gaps.

We might not necessarily agree with a decision made against our team, but if we’ve heard their explanation then we’re more likely to forgive them.

At the ground, however, such forgiveness is impossible.

Instead of listening to ex-coaches and football experts, one’s perception of the game is influenced by partisan diehards, each of whom hold a fervent conviction in their ill-directed jeers.

Unless one has access to a radio, they are likely to find themselves joining in with their neighbours and finding frustration in every unexplained decision.

A typical AFL crowd

This frustration doesn’t wane either; with every subsequent puzzling call, the spectator’s anger mounts. Eventually, when the final bell rings, that is all the supporter can think about.

Often their rage precipitates into an excuse; the only reason their team lost by 100 points was because of that “ridiculous free kick” early in the first quarter.

A fellow spectator’s fury can be entertaining up to a point – the passion associated with the crowd is one of the primary reasons we love the live game.

But when supporters are chronically aggravated, it begins to place a dampener on the aesthetic experience of others.

Footy is supposed to be a form of entertainment; we don’t pay a few hundred dollars a year to feel irritated, but to enjoy the spectacle of this unique Australian sport.

Broadcasting the umpire’s microphone over the loud speakers across the ground could radically change the way we watch AFL.

The policy could have its critics early on, but it would eventually offer consolation to perennially hot-headed fans.

Diehards would no longer need to feel needless confusion over every blow of the whistle.

After every disagreeable decision, they could listen in to the umpire’s justification and consider their opinion from there.

Furthermore, this could also help new supporters of the code – such as those living in Gold Coast, Western Sydney and Canberra – develop a strong familiarity with the rules.

This measure wouldn’t eliminate passion, supporter engagement or even the odd “BALL” shout. Those things will always be part of the AFL, whether we like it or not.

What the measure could do is improve the culture of AFL spectatorship and remove unnecessary abuse and wrath from our grandstands.

Without converting the crowd into a group of choirboys, this measure could foster a more welcoming environment for sensitive families and impressionable tourists alike.

The biggest winners, however, would be the men with the microphones. The umpires.

After all, all they want is a little bit of love and understanding. They just want to be heard.

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