It’s 4:53 pm on a Saturday afternoon. I’m walking the long stretch out of Purtell Park to the bus stop when a car flashes by. Then, the call comes from inside the passenger window. “Hey ref! You’re fucking useless!”
The game today was a sloppy one sided affair between Carina and Normanby in the Premier Grade. Lots of dropped ball. Plenty of handling errors. Too many wrong decisions made by the play makers in both sides but of course, it’s the referees fault that the game was a dire affair. Blaming other people for your mistakes is part of our society as to is abusing the referee’s on a Saturday afternoon. It’s become part of rugby league’s culture. It’s soul destroying for some. Demoralising for others yet, for match officials each and every weekend, it’s the life of a referee.
I often wonder when I see grown adults cornering young referees after junior matches with threats and abuse, how would they react should a customer come into their child’s place of work and grab them by the collar, abuse them, spit on them or hit them? Would you stand by and allow it to happen? If you answered correctly, then why would you simply stand by and let your family and friends intimidate sporting officials? So why do you do it then? If you do know it all, why not sign up and have a go yourself next season?
My first encounter as a referee came in May 1994. I was approaching the age of 17 and very much green behind the ears. Looking back, my efforts at becoming a referee that cold winters night were pretty average. So much so that a middle aged man full of rum tried to punch me after the full time whistle because his sons team lost. Does anyone remember who won the Brisbane junior rugby league under 13 division 4 south side competition in 1994? Thought so. Yet still, in 2017 we see parents acting like sheep stations are at stake in kids footy. Personally, I would prefer to see all parents and the consumption of alcohol banned from all junior sporting events across Australia. But that’s another story all together.
As the years rolled on, I grew older and made my way up through the grades. Today was my 340th senior grade match. I have refereed and touch judged over 1,000 games since that cold May night in 1994 and I still enjoy it today as much as I did then. This season has been great! A number of young referees have made their debuts in senior footy and, by all accounts gone very well which is always good to hear regardless of the sport you officiate in. My fingers are crossed that some of them make it all the way to NRL level. There are indeed a couple who should. They have time on their side and, if they learn some patience, they have bright futures in the game.
One myth that perpetuates sport is that referees favour some teams over others. It’s a load of tosh. We don’t care too much who wins and somebody has to lose. I’ve made many near and dear friends from refereeing. Some will last a lifetime. In all the years I have run around fields, not once have I heard a referee say he wants a particular team to win. If you put 500 people in a room and showed them a replay of a contentious decision, 250 would go one way and, you guessed it, the other 250 would think differently. And this is after seeing multiple replays. In the middle, a referee has a split second to make that same decision, often at pace and, if later in the game, under fatigue.
The time now edges towards 5:30 pm. I’ll be on a train soon and home in around 40 minutes. I left home at 12:45 pm so all up, I’ll have invested 5 hours and 30 minutes of my day for the princely match fee of $75. That equates to $13 an hour for giving up half my Saturday. Lucky for me, I enjoy refereeing and love the game, not the money. In years gone by I’d surrender my Friday night, Saturday and Sunday to the game as well as Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights for video review and training sessions. That was back in the day when I held ambition to go places as a referee. Now days, it’s just a hobby. For many now, successful match officiating involves a lot of hard work. I guess what I am getting at is that referees at grassroots level in particular deserve more respect than they get. They give up personal and family time to make sure you have a game. Abusing and threatening referees only drives them away from the game. Without them, you won’t have a game. Think about that next time you want to corner a young boy or girl for abuse simply because they are trying to find their feet as a referee.