Confusion reigns over AFL’s crackdown on dissent over umpire decisions
Posted On April 19, 2022
Debate continues to rage in the AFL over umpires taking a stronger stance against dissent.
Over the weekend, players were penalised for visibly expressing frustration over umpires’ decisions.
In Brisbane’s nailbiting win over Collingwood on Thursday, Harris Andrews conceded a 50-metre penalty for opening his arms after a holding decision went against his side.
“Arms out is 50, mate,” the umpire told Andrews by way of explanation.
That hardline stance appeared to go missing over the course of the rest of the weekend, only to resurface on Easter Monday during the MCG thriller between Geelong and Hawthorn.
Hawks players Tom Mitchell and Jack Gunston pointed to the big screen after Cats forward Tom Hawkins won a dubious free kick for blocking despite what appeared to be an outrageous dive.
The Cats were awarded a 50m penalty for the Hawks’ protestations.
Critics say the interpretation of the dissent rule needs a complete overhaul, while others point to the AFL’s claim that the game is short 6,000 umpires nationally, with one of the reasons being increased abuse.
An AFL review from late 2021 showed abuse was the eighth most common reason for umpires leaving the game, at 6 per cent.
Outgoing AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan called for a crackdown on dissent at the start of the season.
“Frankly, I take responsibility for the fact it’s got away from us,” McLachlan said.
The AFL’s crackdown has caused some consternation, with the AFL appearing to blur the line between clear dissent and frustration over a decision.
So how do other sports handle the issue?
Varying definitions of dissent
Despite dissent being a punishable offence in the rules of most — if not all sports, other codes are far more lenient when it terms to that rule’s application.
You’re unlikely to see a player penalised for raising their arms at a referee’s decision in football, for example.
Association football has had its own issues with dissent and referee abuse at the highest level all the way down to the grassroots.
In its most recent revision of the laws of the game, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) introduced the option to sin-bin players for some yellow-card indiscretions.
The law revision states: “The philosophy is that an ‘instant punishment’ can have significant and immediate positive influence on the behaviour of the offending player and, potentially, the player’s team.”
Football Australia opted to implement this rule exclusively for dissent, the same as it is being used in grassroots football in England.
Football Queensland uses the following as examples of dissent:
Shouting at the referee
Questioning the referee’s ability
Slamming the ball into the ground
Sarcastically clapping a decision
Football England says sin-binning players has been a success, with it recording a 38 per cent reduction in dissent across selected leagues, as well as a reduction in dismissals (red cards) for receiving a second caution in a game and abusive language.
The rules are not in place for the professional game and, although “dissent by word or action” is still an offence a player can be cautioned over, cards are used sparingly in professional matches.
Pinpointing an exact definition of what is dissent is not easy.
In the NRL, the rules state that a player is guilty of misconduct if they dispute a decision of the referee or touch judge — although, as is the case in football, there appears to be a far higher tariff placed on what is considered disputing a decision than would be accepted in the AFL’s crackdown.
If a player is guilty of dissent though, the rules state that they should be sin-binned — one of just six offences that automatically carry that penalty.
World Rugby’s rules state that players “must not dispute the referee’s decisions” and doing so will result in a penalty.
If any dissent occurs as a result of a penalty that has already been given, the referee will issue a second penalty and advance the ball 10 metres down the field.
Players thrown out, fined
In other sports, players are routinely ejected for egregious examples of dissent — or are at least subject to fines.
Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green was fined $25,000 for swearing at an official during an NBA game in March, a match he was also ejected from.
The typical punishment for dissent in the NBA is a personal foul.
In tennis, directing dissent at umpires is usually heavily punished.
Nick Kyrgios was recently fined $47,000 for his behaviour during a fourth-round loss to Jannik Sinner at the Miami Open.
During the match, Kyrgios railed against umpire Carlos Bernardes for failing to control the crowd, receiving a point penalty in the first set tiebreak for telling a friend in the stands he could do a better job officiating and then was penalised a game after repeatedly yelling, “What is unsportsmanlike?” to Bernardes.
The ATP said Kyrgios was fined $7,000 for audible obscenity, $13,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct and $27,000 for verbal abuse.
Serena Williams was famously penalised with a game penalty for calling umpire Carlos Ramos a “thief” during the 2018 US Open final.
At the upper end of the scale, players have been removed from tournaments due to their behaviour, most notably Alexander Zverev, who was thrown out of a tournament in Acapulco in February after smashing his racquet repeatedly against the umpire’s chair following a doubles defeat.
So where to for the AFL?
There are reports that some coaches will seek clarification over the AFL’s interpretation of the dissent rules this week, after the round-five crackdown.
Cats coach Chris Scott told reporters after Monday’s clash that everyone at Geelong was aware of the rule and its interpretation.
However, he said that did not mean that, in the heat of the moment, his players would get it right all the time.
“It’s been communicated over a long period of time really clearly and we understand it,” he said.
“Does that mean we won’t transgress? I suspect we will because it’s a highly emotional game.”
Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell, meanwhile, downplayed the controversy.
“I didn’t know it was a talking point to be fair,” Mitchell said.
“The one thing I know about umpires is they make way less mistakes than we do, so I’ll worry about the mistakes that we’re making.”