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For The Greater Good

  • Friday, September 03 2021 @ 12:47 pm ACST
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General News

Toby Greene just has to go down for six weeks (at the very least) after his deliberate bump on umpire Matt Stevic in last weekend’s Elimination Final between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Sydney Swans in Launceston. There is no doubt that Greene is a terrific footballer in terms of physical skills and a game play footballing brain. But in terms of his thought processes outside of that, such as his irrational reactions, he is in danger of derailing his career.

However, in that respect he is no different really to a legion of players across the years such as Carl Ditterich, Phil Carmen, Robert Muir, “Mopsy” Fraser, Bob Chitty, David Rhys-Jones and others. Across the past century, these names are described as amongst the “toughest” yet often the most undisciplined players the game has seen. It’s fine to walk the edge of “tough” and “rough”, but constantly crossing the line harms the game.

Funny thing is, regardless of what has happened to those players over the years, there is another audience present, watching on with great interest as their role models or club heroes slug it out, so to speak.

For the greater good, kids and the game’s future, Toby Greene just has to go down with the severest penalty possible.
To move away from the biggest stage for a moment, consider the grass roots. Clubs across Australia and the world want nothing more than to play. Metropolitan clubs, country clubs, remote clubs, overseas clubs. They love the game and want to play each week. This is almost truer of kids than adults. Leagues and clubs are developed to make this happen. The fabric of footy across Australia and the world is complex, expensive and difficult to maintain. Especially having volunteers to run the aspects of the game needed to keep those kids on the field. Including umpires.

In no way are runners, water carriers, scorers, trainers or any amount of other volunteers disrespected here, but at the end of the day our game does not happen without umpires. Without those keen to referee a game, there isn’t a true game.

But umpires need job satisfaction the same as any other career or pursuit enjoyed by others. They need to walk onto a ground feeling it is all worth it, and leave the ground the same way. When they don’t they will leave the game. If enough umpires leave the game, then the game is at risk.

This is where the decision to suspend Toby Greene is so important to the grass roots future of the game. If the suspension appears weak, it will empower players from grass roots to the highest level to believe the umpire is no longer sacrosanct. Anyone can vent their frustration and call on the “Toby Greene” decision as the precedent, getting suspensions reduced and de-valuing umpires in the process.

This would be disastrous for grass roots. Whether it is a kid’s team in Horsham, a reserve grade team in Canberra or a senior team in Manchester, UK, a lack of umpires will disrupt the game to varying degrees, and potentially to the cessation of the sport in some instances.

Talking recently to AFL goal umpire and former Tiger, Power and Demon player David Rodan, he was developing projects to bring young people into the game as umpires by giving the kids money, a job and a social pursuit as well as developing fitness. It is a wonderful scheme and to my knowledge still producing young umpires. However, that incentive is also at risk if umpiring becomes an unprotected domain and a less and less attractive option. No-one wants to be yelled at, abused or (in the Greene case) bumped into or physically abused. There are better jobs out there.

Volunteers do not grow on trees. Back in my own junior days at Clayton, in the old Dandenong & District Junior Football League, my dad was coach, my mum was goal umpire as well as other things and when my brother and I weren’t playing we ran the boundaries. There were other families – the Jewells, the Whites and others – but after a while the pool does run dry, especially in 2021 where most parents work, jobs are very often on weekends and other demands take people’s time away from an afternoon at the local footy. It is a far cry from the 1970’s when weekends were largely for leisure and dads were still the primary breadwinner. It means that volunteers are fewer and as a result, the conditions to volunteer have to be attractive.

A career as an umpire who could be verbally, physically or emotionally abused will simply not be as attractive.

So Gillon McLachlan’s reaction to the initial three-week Greene ban – calling it perplexing – is right. It certainly is “hard to reconcile” a three week suspension for something so potentially damaging for the game. That three-week decision would not make any meaningful difference to the mindset of other players anywhere in the world. It invites the angry, disenfranchised or merely frustrated player to act out against umpires with relative safety. Three weeks for bumping an umpire is chicken feed. It is a message that says “you’ve been very naughty. Don’t do it again!” rather than the message that should be sent – “there is no place in football for umpire abuse and your career in now in jeopardy as a result of your disrespectful, demonstrative and aggressive actions.”

I think all football fans love to watch Greene’s brilliance and dare on the field. He is a once in a generation talent who clicks turnstiles. However, he cannot be above the laws of the game. He must receive the greatest consequence possible to ensure that the game values all umpires across the whole football community.

His consequences need to be meaningful and be for the greater good of the game.