The question of the treatment of match officials is one that has been firmly on the lips of many in recent weeks given the seemingly many and regular displays of petulance we have seen from the stars of many sports. It seems, based on the evidence before me, that respect for match officials in sport in general is at an all time low.
Pondering this issue over the last couple of days the thought that kept coming back to me was the question “what happened to the umpire is always right?”. As I recall childhood spent trundling medium pacers and standing at fine leg / second base in summer and kicking balls of various shapes in winter, the only rule that as young participants in sport that was drummed into us other than “have fun”: was that the umpire / referee was always right.
Indeed, as I, and a sampler of friends from those many moons ago, recall it the rule went something like “even when the umpire is wrong he is always right” and it had a punishment for breaking it that involved a clip over the ear from a parent and a sit on the sidelines the next game.
On the premise of what sports fans have all witnessed over the last couple of weeks across many codes either the rule that we all played by as kids in my generation was not pressed on professional sportsmen when they were kids OR something has happened that has changed the kids running around the local sports grounds into the petulant performers that grace our screens on a regular basis.
It is important to stop at this juncture and briefly examine what I am complaining about here. Obviously I watch a lot of sport and these are the things that I have seen that have concerned me in just the last month:
1. The regular habit of dummy halfs in rugby league throwing their hands up in disgust at seemingly every play of the ball that takes one second longer than they think is appropriate.
2. The regular habit of rugby league and rugby union teams who are waiting for a decision by the television match official to walk back to their own half in anticipation of a try being awarded.
3. The claiming of catches by fielders in the slips in test matches were the fielder could not possibly think they have caught the catch.
4. The captains of teams in both rugby codes regularly and vociferously questioning any call that they consider to have gone against their team. Such questioning now seems to, as par for the course, include swearing.
5. Tennis players questioning every call in an attempt to keep themselves in the game during an obvious losing cause.
Such behaviour appeared to reach its epoch in the first State of Origin game where the captain of the New South Wales team had a running battle with referees and was heard to quip “this is your first State of Origin isn’t it? You can tell” among other choice lines.
Put simply: there is not a game of sport that one watches these days in which such questioning of the match officials is not seen.
Now I acknowledge that the business of sport is big business these days and I also acknowledge that never have players whilst they are on the field been under more scrutiny with the advent of microphones on referees lapels and cameras focused on every facial expression of the players. These competing interests mean that on the one hand it might be said that a wrong decision can have a bigger effect on the team that the decision goes against and on the other hand we as fans get to hear and see more of the interactions between players and officials.
That said, I actually do not care what excuses players and codes might roll out to defend player behaviour in this regard because it is clear to me that changes need to be made. This was really sheeted home to me when my father told me anecdotally about running the line in my nephews under 7 rugby league recently. He (my dad) was shocked when one of the combatants quipped to him after one call “you aren’t doing us any favours are you”. The kid was seven.
If this is what our future stars think is appropriate conduct (and I know my sample size is small) then now is the time to do something about it.
Trying to get back to the rule that the match official is always right seems to me to be an appropriate starting point for the codes that are presently in the news on this issue and the only way that it seems to me that that “golden” rule is going to return to the games we love is for there to be strict punishments for breaching the rule.
Some sports deal with this well. In baseball, if you show dissent you are thrown out of the game; regardless of the state of the game and the position the player / coach holds. In cricket, players who dissent (and this includes the simple act of lingering after a decision is made and looking at the umpire) are punished on a sliding scale that runs from fines through to bans.
Conversely, other sports such as rugby league seem to treat the problem by resting the blame with the match officials themselves. This is simply not good enough.
Whilst I do not advocate a baseball style removal from the game for dissenters in all sport, it seems to me that that is nearly the point we have reached in order to bring the players back into line.
Sport is already playing a losing battle with video games, tablets and junk food and does not need the future generations (and their parents) to be put off by the poor conduct of the stars of the game. Sport also does not sports fans to turn off their TVs and stop watching because they simply can not stomach the whinging any more. Perhaps now is the time for serious action to be taken.
Until such action is taken (and I doubt it ever will), sports fans such as I are left with the continuing lament about the decline of the rule “the umpire is alway right” and our fingers lingering over the off buttons of our remote controls.