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Sport, by its nature and structure, places referees in a vulnerable position.
Not vulnerable to acts of physical violence. There is no circumstance, in Australia, under which breaking a referee’s jaw is a logical extension of the tension inherent in the scenario that sees two athletes or teams play as hard as they can to beat each other in pursuit of a win.
But vulnerable to an impassioned expletive, in the case of Grant Atkins’ run-in with Josh Reynolds, or an insinuation of bias, in the case of the Super Rugby officiating team that copped the wrath of coach Simon Cron last month (Cron was given a warning over the incident).
The field of play is a space that idealises the possibilities of sport. It’s where the superior power, skill, speed and strategy of one party can triumph over another’s. It sells a fantasy that an objective result is possible without interference. That if you’re the best on the day, you will win.
Perhaps in a pool or on a track that holds. Of course, you’d have to ignore decades of reporting on doping to convince yourself it is always the case. But it is athlete against athlete, racing from point A to point B. Sensors and cameras on starting blocks, finish lines and pool touch pads have brought us as close as possible to a fair, accurate and transparent result.
It is more complex in team sport. Rules are the problem. And then, parents.
The first one is straightforward. If you have rules, you need referees and umpires. They’re the impartial, close observer of a game to make sure the rules are followed and the arbiter in any scenario that requires a call be made.
The bigger a sport’s rule book, the more power and influence a referee has. The more power and influence a referee has, the more contentious their calls have the potential to be. They become a lightning rod for a team or player’s frustration. Hello, Josh Reynolds. Hello, Michael Cheika. Hello, Shane Reynolds.
They’re also human and not always right, and there goes the ideal of the pure and even contest. The closest we can get is if a referee is wrong enough times for it to even out in the wash. We give them assistants and video referees and we build them bunkers to help them get it right, more often. But it can’t completely rub out human error, especially in a game with as many as 36 players on the field at any given moment.
Most players and coaches accept this. Except on game day, that is, when all they can see is an umpire and/or television match official missing the opposition’s infractions and picking up their own side’s.
Most coaches – or at least their bosses – also accept that it’s part of the social contract to protect referees. One, because they’re an isolated neutral but, two, because to make them fair game would be to cross a line in sport from which there’d be no return. It would be a green light to abuse. It is hard enough to recruit and retain referees as it is. To remove the framework of rules and sanctions that prohibits criticism of them would make it impossible.
We are left with an imperfect balance. Protect the figure prepared to do a difficult job and accept there will be occasions they make mistakes. Big mistakes, sometimes, which cost games and sometimes even premierships.
These problems don’t start in elite or professional sport, though, do they? They don’t even start in the Bankstown District Premier League, although the young man arrested over Khodr Yaghi’s vicious assault allegedly tried to finish them there.
They start on the sidelines of school sport or junior club footy, and often subtly.
A video shows referee Khodr Yaghi being punched by a spectator in south-west Sydney.
Parents sign their children up for team sport because they see value in what it offers. Mateship, freedom, the thrill of competition, respecting your opposition, and the lessons in winning and losing well.
Many of us have probably also seen, heard or felt a moment when those noble ideals of sport rub up against the competitor within us, our protective instincts towards our children or our sense of justice.
We’ve all stood sideline and watched a refereeing oversight in the under-11s netball, or an atrocity in the under-8s soccer. In those age grades we’ll often know the umpires by name. Their children are our children’s friends or teammates.
We’re grateful they’re willing to give up their time to step in to that vulnerable space in the middle of the pitch, even if they didn’t spot the blatant offside that denied our daughter’s team a goal. We laugh – maybe we wince – and move on.
Arbiter: Umpires and referees have a difficult job. Attitudes towards them are often shaped in grassroots sport.Credit: Getty Images
We also know that community and school sport is where poor attitudes towards officials start to take root. We’ve watched a parent go too far on the sidelines of a schoolboy rugby match, or heard about the nine-year-old who has changed clubs because their parents want them playing with a better team. There’s nothing wrong with parents wanting their child to maximise his or her potential but it does point to the moment the disconnect can start.
Few parents wouldn’t have recoiled in horror at the scenes in Bankstown last Friday, or counselled their child against taking a leaf out of Josh Reynolds’ book. Hopefully they also took that firm grip on right and wrong, and a healthy dose of perspective, to the local fields with their children the next morning.
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