Despite her love for umpiring at community football games, 14-year-old Ceana Moorhouse almost quit last year.
- Ceana Moorhouse, 14, says she almost stopped umpiring football because of spectator abuse
- The AFL and community sporting organisations such as GippSport are trialling a range of initiatives to improve spectator behaviour
- Umpiring organisations say abuse is turning off prospective umpires, especially juniors and women
“There were two weeks in a row where the abuse was so bad, I had a dude about 5 metres away in my face. It wasn’t fun,” she said.
“He was like 10 times taller than me as well.”
Ceana, who umpires senior games, said she had been targeted by abusive people because she was young and female.
While Ceana persisted, the abuse was driving many young umpires from the game, leaving country leagues struggling to replace them.
Latrobe Valley Umpires Association (LVUA) president Steve Esler said they had been unable to provide umpires at several recent matches.
“I can guarantee you footballers probably make 20 or 30 mistakes on the ground, but if we make one mistake we’re the ones who always seem to cop it,” Mr Esler said.
“Our panel is a very young panel and we have a lot of teenagers … [the abuse] does put the kids off and sometimes they walk away from the sport and walk away from umpiring.”
Umpire abuse is a longstanding issue that’s affecting community football across the state.
A club in Central Victoria was fined recently after reports its fans targeted an umpire, while one of Melbourne’s biggest leagues put all of its clubs on notice after a surge in abuse.
“Some cases of abuse have been targeted at our younger-aged umpires who, like junior players, are developing and require support and encouragement,” Eastern Football Netball League chief executive Jy Bond said in a letter to clubs on May 19.
“Any form of abuse cannot be tolerated by the league.”
Attempts to find solutions
The AFL recently initiated a trial “sit down round” at junior community games in Gippsland, where club officials were urged to remain seated and quiet during play.
AFL Victoria head Ben Kavanagh said the recommendation came after a successful trial in South Australia.
“The results in South Australia were comprehensive around improved behaviours … and Gippsland were eager to see if that would have an impact on behaviours in their region,” Mr Kavanagh said.
But the idea was met with resistance, with many officials standing at games during the round.
Mr Esler said some clubs were trying to combat umpire abuse, but it was not practical for coaches and other officials to be seated when their teams were playing.
“[Football clubs] are trying their hardest to be encouraging towards the players and the umpires as well,” he said.
The AFL has also launched a new umpire respect campaign across Australia.
“AFL will be sharing with community clubs and umpire associations a suite of resources to ensure our community understands the role of umpires and provide them with the respect they deserve,” Mr Kavanagh said.
Damen Francis from Gippsport, which is a regional sport assembly, said a recent campaign the organisation led helped raise awareness about the impacts of poor sideline behaviour.
The “Let Us Play” campaign documented the experiences of 23 members of Gippsland’s sports community.
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“[The campaign] resonated with a lot of people; it’s been widely shared and commented on on social media,” Mr Francis said.
“We’ve also seen a lot of local clubs, leagues, and associations posting about poor behaviour this season, and while it could indicate that behaviour is getting worse, we suspect it may be that behaviour is less tolerated now and there’s more willingness to call it out.”
Mr Francis said a range of measures could help reduce umpire abuse, such as signs about behaviour expectations, an acknowledgement of umpires before the game, respectful social media posts, and training for team coaches about how best to treat umpires.
Female umpires face added challenges
Ceana said, recently, someone wrote “not very nice names” on the walls of the female umpire change rooms after a game.
“I’ve never really seen it happen in clubs where the umpires share rooms; I’ve only seen it when it’s a female-only change room,” she said.
“There were a few females last year who quit … because of abuse.”
Earlier this year, a former AFL female umpire talent scout took the AFL to the Fair Work Commission, claiming she was sacked for uncovering systemic abuse of fellow female referees.
A 2022 study by the University of New South Wales found spectator abuse was driving people away from officiating Australian rules football.
LVUA junior umpiring director Rachel Dodd said young umpires often confided in her about the challenges they faced.
“There have been quite a few female umpires who aren’t comfortable because they have been abused,” she said.
Ms Dodds said, despite the challenges, female participation in umpiring was “slowly increasing”.
“But it’s a hard one; they generally come for about a year and then don’t hang around,” she said.
Ceana said other umpires who were experiencing abuse should reach out for support early on.
And she believed the message to those who abuse umpires was clear.
“Leave the game,” she said.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC