‘Support and reward key for umpires’: Michelle Phippard

By International umpire Michelle Phippard

In the wake of the Toby Greene AFLM incident, some football experts have opined that suspending players who abuse umpires isn’t the way for the sport to retain its officials. 

Rather, they claim the answer is more money for those at the top.  The prospect of earning six figures as an umpire should be enough to keep community umpires in the game – not cracking down hard on inappropriate behaviour.

I’m guessing that it’s been a very long time since these men have picked up a whistle … if indeed they ever have. 

The suggestion that the mere possibility of big bucks at the elite level is going to be sufficient incentive for umpires to withstand years of disrespect through the grassroots ranks, in the hope of a reward they may never receive, is frankly delusional. 

But at the same time, it does raise a valid question – is the investment sport makes in officiating equal to the expectations it places on its officials? 

Why can’t we have both – zero tolerance for abuse and adequate support and reward for the hardest job in the game?

It’s a fact that in the “theatre” of sport, the umpire plays the role of the pantomime villain. 

Part of the price of admission, it seems, is the right to boo and hurl abuse, regardless of whether a decision is right or wrong. 

This can be significantly worse at the community level where umpires are less experienced, crowds are shoulder to shoulder and there is little security or support. 

And more often than we’d like to believe, verbal criticism spills over into physical confrontation and intimidation. 

Even at an elite level, the predilection of broadcasters to publicise “big hits” and controversial decisions exposes umpires unnecessarily to the evils of social media invective. 

The suggestion that “this is what they are paid for” misses the very real human toll that this sort of treatment takes – see, for example, the stories of recent retirees like NRL referee Matt Cecchin. 

Little wonder, then, that with these sorts of attitudes, sport is struggling to attract and retain officials at all levels.

This is not just about the money that ends up in an umpire’s pocket. 

Rather, it’s about investment in the support structures that surround umpiring in terms of giving them what they need to feel safe and secure, as well as helping them to perform at their best. 

Sending a message that sport values umpires and is committed to assuring their well-being. 

But when the answer is always that “we can’t afford it”, the standard lines about the importance of officials (“no game without them!”) are really just empty platitudes. 

Like any business, the sport has finite resources. 

It has to choose how to spend them.  And this is where we get to see where the real priorities are. 

The sad fact is, therefore, that when sport tells umpiring – as it habitually does – that “we don’t have funding for that”, the real message is “we’ve chosen not to spend the money we have on you.”

Let’s be honest – umpires are never going to be the top priority. 

In any sport, the players are the star attraction, and they deserve to be paid at a level that recognizes the excellence they work so hard to achieve. 

In a sport like netball which lacks the significant financial backing of an AFL or NRL, this consumes a pretty large piece of the pie. 

I was thrilled to see publicity for the new netball players’ pay deal in recent weeks, but I was only half-joking when asking – “what about those umpires”? 

It remains that for the players to be free to display their skills and athleticism to full potential, equally elite umpiring is required, and this requires genuine and ongoing investment in their physical, psychological and technical development. 

A real commitment to recognizing umpires as high performers in their own right demonstrates a level of respect that sets a standard and filters down to lower levels. 

Putting real money into these support structures is more important as the first step than extra zeros on the weekly paycheque. 

I hope though that the day is not too far away when it is also a question of “why can’t we have both?”

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