You are standing on the field. The wet, green grass glistens in the afternoon sun. You are surrounded by a plethora of vibrant, psychedelic colours. The confines of the stadium are encompassed by a murmur of white noise. You hear a faint bounce and what is a clear picture instantly becomes a blur. A flash of yellow drifts past you, followed by a stampede of purple, then white. You frantically run out of the stampede’s path – you don’t want to be caught between predator and prey. You cautiously follow and observe the cluster of bodies chasing the ball. The murmur of the crowd gets louder as they progress along the field, inching towards the 50-metre line. The cold steel of the whistle touches your lips and you wait for something to look out of place.
When you think of football, what is the first thing that comes to mind? You’re probably thinking of the gravity-defying marks, the bone-crunching tackles, the goals taken from angles that seem impossible and probably the players and coaches. But what about the umpires? Despite their bright green shirts and grey shorts, the umpires often go unnoticed, at least until one of their decisions causes contention among the crowd, the players or the coaches. News articles are made out of their errors and social media gets flooded with accusations of bias. It makes you wonder who would want to be an umpire. AFL field umpire and WA Football Commission umpire development manager Dean Margetts says he treats umpiring as his sport. “It’s challenging and I love the aspect of competition and preparing as well as keeping fit,” he says.
To become a member of the green and grey army, the AFL provides several accreditation courses and programs. These include the Club Umpire Program, the AFL 9s Umpiring Course and the Umpires’ Coaching Academy. Grassroot pathways are also recognised as ways of becoming an AFL umpire. The Grassroot pathways start with prospective umpires gaining experience in community junior leagues, followed by community senior leagues, state leagues and finally the AFL. Pathways are also available to cater for Indigenous people and women, as well as providing a transitional pathway for former players to become umpires. More than 100 people umpire at the national level, including three women – Chelsea Roffey, Rose O’Dea and Sally Boud. Margetts says the AFL is starting to see more diversity among umpires with more multicultural backgrounds, varying ages and women because of the upcoming women’s league. “It’s not just the standard six-foot, athletic-looking white guy anymore,” he says. “You can be from Sudan, China or Korea and if you want to have a go then the game will embrace you and you’ll become a part of it. We even have a couple of guys umpiring at 60, 70 years-of-age and they just love it.” Margetts also says being an umpire allows you to get a little extra pocket money, with umpires getting paid between $35 and $100 per game, depending on the level, and most umpires picking up two or three games each week.
Now that you know what it takes to be an AFL umpire, you’re probably thinking, how does an umpire prepare for game day? It doesn’t seem like much preparation is needed, does it? Just like any AFL player, preparation for weekly games includes training sessions and game-day briefs. Margetts, an AFL umpire of 14 years, says umpires find out their scheduled game on a Monday afternoon and after travel, if necessary, they arrive at their appointed stadium two hours before bouncedown. “We go through a few warm-ups, speak to the clubs, speak to our coach, who usually supplies the game plan for the day, and we go out there, do our job and hopefully keep the crowd happy,” he says. Landgate communications officer and AFL goal umpire Brett Rogers says goal umpires go through the same amount of preparation as AFL field umpires, even though their job description is different. “We walk around the field to check out the weather conditions and wind patterns, have a stretch and get our brief from the coaches,” he says. “It puts us in the general mindset and gets us thinking and talking about footy. The countdown usually begins about 30 minutes before the game and everyone gets pretty serious, and it’s very tense in the room before we walk out.”
When the umpires march out onto the field, their main objective is to be as impartial as possible, while also trying to satisfy the demands of the crowd – although they know not everyone is going to be happy about the calls they make. “People are very passionate about their clubs and it is important to not be swayed by the crowd to make certain calls,” Margetts says. “Initially, it can be challenging for the younger guys because they’re not used to it, but the most experienced guys know it’s just part of the game.” From a goal umpire’s perspective, Rogers says calls are more “black-and-white” because it is either a goal, a behind or no score. But when it is a close call, Rogers says the goal umpires can cop a bit of abuse from angry fans. “The disadvantage for [goal umpires] is that we can’t run away from it, unlike the field umpires,” he says. “We have to stay in the one spot, but when people do make comments it comes out as a loud blur, so I can’t really hear what they’re saying.”
Negative attention towards umpires is becoming more common in the age of social media, particularly during the finals. Margetts believes the comments dehumanise umpires because they are only seen as the people who lay down the laws of the game. “People can say a lot of things behind the anonymity of a keyboard,” he explains. “I always say to the younger umpires that the only people you need to worry about are your friends, your family, your coaches and your peers. They’re the ones that know how you train and who you are as a person, whereas the people in the crowd who don’t know who I am, they see me as the umpire who makes silly decisions. I even have my own ‘I Hate Dean Margetts’ Facebook page which has a total of 29 likes.” Rogers says the worst of the abuse tends to happen in lower leagues where crowd numbers are smaller, and the abuse is easier for young umpires to hear. “It’s pretty frustrating because the umpires are learning and that’s probably the reason why umpiring has a bit of trouble with retention,” he says. Margetts says umpire retention is the most challenging aspect of recruitment. “A young kid might get an experience that they don’t like and they might walk away,” he says. “It’s no different to working as a trainee at McDonald’s – just because you get a burger wrong, it doesn’t mean you’re required to get abused. So if an umpire gets a decision wrong while they are still learning, does that mean we should have a crack at them? I think it’s ingrained in footy culture, but maybe we need to temper it.” While most of the umpire abuse is verbal, it can turn physical. There are cases of umpire assaults in smaller leagues across the country, including the September 2015 South West Football League incident, where umpire Brenton Bartlett was punched by a spectator shortly after the league’s grand final.
Having worked with football umpires throughout his career, sports psychologist Shayne Hanks says most umpires block out the negative comments and do their job to the best of their ability. “What people don’t know is that the umpires have to pass fitness tests to prove they have the speed and agility to umpire the game, because it is such an athletic role,” he says. “They are athletes and most athletes don’t tend to focus too much on what is being said about them. The umpires have a community in the umpires’ association where their performance is evaluated and they are given feedback from their peers in their community.” Hanks says umpires shouldn’t dwell on external comments, but focus on the comments from the internal community that supports them.
But sometimes the attention given to umpires isn’t about bias. Margetts, who suffered a burst stomach ulcer while on a flight from Melbourne in March, said the media coverage of his plight was bigger than he had thought. “I initially posted on Facebook as a joke, ‘if you want a free trip to Adelaide, get a stomach ache and your plane will get diverted’ and then people figured out who I was and a massive story was made out of it,” he says. “When I was in hospital, it gave me the perspective of a lot of people do care about you. Of course there would be some people who would want you to die and that’s all fine, but it made me appreciate, while lying in a hospital bed for a period of time, that I really missed what I loved to do – running around and being part of a great game.”
A highlight of being an umpire, according to Margetts, is getting the opportunity to travel to schools or community forums and talk to people about AFL. “A lot of people come up to you and say, ‘I had no idea you guys were just normal people’ and you can have a laugh and share your story. Some people do think we are just robots that put on a green shirt every week and go out and deliberately destroy football games, which is not the case at all,” he says.
When asked about advice for prospective umpires, Margetts says getting involved and taking the first step takes a lot of courage. “It’s not easy to go out there knowing you’re not going to be the most liked person,” he says. “You’re going to make some fantastic friends and be part of a really supportive and inclusive environment. The sport needs them.”
So what is it like to be an AFL umpire? It’s a lot more interesting than you might think.