Confusion reigns over AFL’s crackdown on dissent over umpire decisions

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.

Harris Andrews (left) was penalised for raising his arms after Brisbane conceded a free kick.(Getty Images: Albert Perez/AFL Photos)

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?

Tom Hawkins holds out his arms and opens his mouth as he stares at an umpire who has his arms out
The AFL does not want to see players openly protest against umpire’s decisions.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

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.

Alex Lacazette bends over and Granit Xhaka appears to say something as a referee holds out his hand behind them
Football authorities want to cut down on players swearing.(Getty Images: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC)

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.

Arsenal players surround referee Andrew Madley, who has a yellow card in his hand
Players surrounding a referee is a feature of football at virtually all levels of the game.(Getty Images: Rob Newell/CameraSport)

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.

Ben Cummins looks over his shoulder and holds both hands up with his fingers spread out
NRL referees have the power to dismiss players for 10 minutes should they show dissent, an option not available in the AFL.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe)

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.

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