YOU'D BE hard-pressed to find someone in the AFL community without an opinion on umpire dissent. Everyone seems to be speaking publicly about the new rule and issues it's causing, including St Kilda coach Brett Ratten, Geelong coach Chris Scott, and former player, now commentator, David King. One quick glance across Twitter proves umpires are a constant point of contention amongst the AFL fan base.
However, when it comes to the safety and treatment of umpires, a report found the biggest threat to females in the space was coming from inside the house.
The study, which was leaked earlier this month, looked into the experiences of women and girls umpiring at community levels of the sport, and found a culture of sexual harassment, assault and misogyny. This was contributing to women being driven away from officiating games - something which has an impact at every level of the sport.
The author, former AFLW umpire Dr. Victoria Rawlings said the negative experiences of many female umpires were contributing to a nationwide shortage of game-day officials across the sport. It concluded that sexual harassment and misogyny was a factor in female umpires quitting, which is particularly alarming as Australian Rules has long been facing a shortage of umpires at the community and grassroots level.
Yet barely weeks later, the report has seemingly been forgotten, usurped in the news cycle by contentious issues, such as umpire dissent, despite the issues the report uncovered threatening the safety of those within the community and the game itself.
And while umpire dissent has been a hot button issue since Round 1, the report was offered barely a day of headlines before the community moved on.
But why? A shortage of umpires is one of the biggest issues the fans don't see if they only watch the AFL. Current CEO of the AFL Gillon McLachlan acknowledged earlier this year: "We've got a dearth of umpires, we're 6,000 umpires short nationally. It's a great credit to the growth of the game but it's also the fact the supply of numbers hasn't kept up."
This threatens the wellbeing of the game, from community to the elite level. As the report stated, women represent just 10.8% of umpires in Aussie Rules and only 2.6% of umpires at AFL level. Of that small percentage, many are quitting at an alarming rate because of the unsafe environment they're working in.
Former vice-president of the Western Bulldogs, Susan Alberti told the ABC that protecting the safety of umpires is crucial to the overall health of the sport. "If we don't have umpires, we don't have sport. We don't have a game," she claimed. Similarly, the report found that improved environments around sexism and harassment towards female umpires was also needed to keep umpires around.
But even if an umpire shortage wasn't a problem, the safety of females within this sport should still get treated with urgency and as a matter of priority. Just as the crackdown on umpire dissent has had a trickle down effect to grassroots levels - - where respect for umpires has improved, according to the AFL - - the same can happen with a clampdown on misogyny from the top. "As soon as it was in place at the elite level, it immediately trickled through," claimed The AFL's general manager of game development Rob Auld.
Furthermore, as it's often quoted since its inception, football is for everyone. And sexual assault and harassment is driving a significant portion of the football-loving population away.
Dr. Rawlings noted the toxic environment was excluding half of the population, based on gender. "Overwhelmingly, this study has demonstrated that girls and women in umpiring navigate experiences where they are indirectly or directly told that they do not belong or deserve to be in umpiring," she said.
Given the Australian football community has plenty of time for anything and everything that affects the code on gameday -- be it stadium developments, what food is being served at the MCG, how Dustin Martin's personal life is affecting his game -- this issue surely deserves more of a response.
One reason for the lack of attention the report is receiving in comparison with umpire dissent is that the latter has immediate effects on the outcome of results. Over the weekend, Western Bulldogs forward Buku Khamis gave away a 50m penalty for dissent, while Richmond's Tom Lynch and North Melbourne's forward Nick Larkey all had free kicks paid against them after giving feedback to umpires, among a raft of other incidents.
While the issues highlighted in the report don't have a tangible impact on the flow of the game, the acknowledgement and actioning of the key concerns arguably have just as significant an impact on the broader community. Sexual harassment and assault should be dragged into the daylight to be dealt with accordingly.
Too often females and non-binary folk are still seen as outsiders in the AFL space, especially in the men's league. This is something women in sports media face, along with female and non-binary athletes.
After the report came out, there were many Twitter comments calling for female umpires to simply be removed from the men's games to solve the issue. In one example, a user commented: "I'm all for women umpires but umpire the women's game."
In response to the umpire harassment report, Network Seven's Georgie Parker said on the Armchair Experts: "It's a trend that is happening online, particularly as a female in the media industry, particularly as a female athlete, and now these poor female umpires are getting treated like dirt.
"Men of the game, you can share this game. It's a game for all of us and that's something we pride ourselves on in all of sport where it's such an inclusive thing for all of us to do. Our job as women isn't to sit in the tuck shop giving you your pie and a sausage roll after the game. Our job is to be inclusive of everybody and to share the game. There's plenty of room for everybody."
Respecting all umpires is important. This issue is that when male umpires are criticised or receive inappropriate comments, it's not aimed at their gender. While all umpires make mistakes or decisions people disagree with, female umpires have gendered abuse or criticism levelled against them. It's rife on social media, and disgruntled fans in the stands are only often all too happy to voice it out loud.
The report was commissioned by the AFL, which is a great first step. Now, the league needs to take action. The AFL has claimed the findings from the report will help inform a number of initiatives in the Women and Girls Game Development Action Plan, which is still in its early stages of creation. For now, footy media needs to continue to hold them accountable to this. Not leave the chat when things get a bit muddy.
We all deserve to be included in the game and feel like it's for us. No player, coach, fan or umpire should feel excluded because it's unsafe for them.