Get rid of the video umpire or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Post

Today’s high-definition slo-mo replays put umpires under significant pressure to make the correct call. In earlier times, players and barrackers might get upset about a perceived bad call but had no proof to point to, and having a tough decision go against you was acknowledged as the luck of the game.

Now that proof is readily available for any incorrect call, the AFL has responded by introducing video umpiring for some decisions. This takes some of the pressure off umpires, but it introduces unsatisfying delays and still doesn’t provide certainty.

A VFL goal umpire in white coat and hat

The goal umpire will see you now

One solution would be for everyone to change their philosophy – to come to grips with the idea that what an umpire sees is all that counts. That if a goal umpire determines the ball had touched the post (but the video shows it didn’t) we shrug and put the blame on the player for not kicking more accurately, for not doing enough for the umpire to be satisfied.

Of course, that will never happen. We’ve always blamed the umpires and we always will. The simplest palatable solution, then, is to remove some of the difficult decisions entirely.

Hit the post

“I think it was a goal but I want to check it didn’t brush the post.”

So what if it did brush the post? Did it go through the goalposts? That’s enough for me, give them six points and go back to the centre.

If the ball hits the post and bounces back into play things get a bit trickier. We could play on, as was trialled in pre-season games, but the smallest change would be to award a behind in those cases only.

Touched

“I think it was a goal but I want to see if it was touched.”

Do we really need to deny someone a goal if their opponent brushed the tip of their pinky finger against it? Why do we reward defenders who couldn’t stop the ball from going through? If the primary driving force behind the goal was an attackers foot, and there was no non-foot assistance from a teammate (headers or hands-of-God), let’s call it a goal.

Similarly, why does it matter if a kick was touched off the boot when awarding a mark? The defender didn’t smother it enough to prevent it going the required fifteen metres. Let’s get rid of the touched-off-the-boot restriction.

An AFL defender who may or may not be touching the ball as it crosses the line.

The excitement of a Friday night score review!

KISS

I won’t have considered all the ramifications of my suggestions, and I’m not wedded to them. It also wouldn’t solve line-ball problems – that’d remain the issue it is in so many other sports, and only billions of dollars or my suggestion for a philosophy change can fix that.

The idea I want to promote is that it’s better to remove or simplify the existing laws to achieve an objective than to add more technology and processes to do the same. My suggestions may raise the hackles of traditionalists, but Aussie rules is already a very different sport to the one they watched and played as kids. Is a slight change to the definition of a goal as bad as requiring video validation for every scoring decision?

What the Brownlow Medal isn’t

So, Chris Judd has won the 2010 Chas Brownlow Trophy, and some people aren’t very happy about it. I reckon this is because they misunderstand what the award is.

The Brownlow Medal

  • is an award given to an AFL player in recognition of a good season. It’s considered to be the highest individual award in the competition, which is more due to its history and status (not to mention how much the media loves to pump it up) than any other consideration.
  • isn’t an accurate indication of the “best” player of the year. The winner is always among the best players and in some years we might agree that the winner was the very best, but that’s not too often.

Chris Judd is a champion and his great year has been recognised. Good, he deserves it. I’ve always been a critic of the Brownlow, though – not of the medal itself, but of what it’s held up to be. Footy followers think that it should always be awarded to the best player of the year (and they always claim know who that player is!) but there are two big problems that hinder it from happening.

Problem 1: The umpires cast the votes

The umpires have a lot to do during a match, and they spend most of it chasing after the ball. Consequently they see a lot of action from the midfielders, and may miss some of the more subtle parts of the game. They also have a different interest in the game than the average viewer, and they’re charged with finding the “fairest and best” player of the match, so they probably take things other than sheer brilliance into account. Finally, the Brownlow is an individual medal in a team game, which is always problematic. Individual skill needs to be recognised, but I think the way they execute their team plan should also be considered, and the umpire can’t possibly judge that.

Problem 2: It has a poor voting system

At the end of a game, the umpires allocate their 3-2-1 votes to three separate players. This is the case regardless of whether a match is marked by a big team effort, or whether a few players did all the work. There aren’t enough votes to go around – some good players miss out entirely, and sometimes three votes aren’t enough to measure the influence a player had on the game.

The Solution

We already have an award that does a pretty good job of finding the best player of the year, and it’s the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of the Year. What makes this award so good is that it addresses both of the above problems. It’s voted by the coaches, who have the perfect understanding of how well each player filled their given role. They also know which opposition players caused them the most problems. Although the flashier players will usually still get more votes, this opens it up a little more to the less glamorous roles, like defenders.

It also has a reasonable scoring system. Each coach picks five players to award votes on a 5-4-3-2-1 scale. That’s a total of thirty votes between the two coaches. Sometimes the two coaches’ choices overlap, sometimes not. The high scoring system separates the best from the rest in a more definite way than the lower-scored Brownlow. It’s still not ideal, but it’s an improvement. It did a good job at ranking the best players this year:

2010 AFLCA Champion Player of the Year
114 – Dane Swan (Collingwood)
88 – Luke Hodge (Hawthorn)
80 – Joel Selwood (Geelong)
75 – Aaron Sandilands (Fremantle)
71 – Chris Judd (Carlton)
70 – Gary Ablett (Geelong)

But even the AFLCA put Judd in the top five for 2010, so those who claimed that Judd didn’t even deserve to make the All-Australian team can get stuffed.

Sad face

The stature of the Brownlow drowns out the other awards, and so everyone – the public, the media, the players – puts their faith in the Brownlow and demands that it be awarded to the clear player of the year. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on who that player is, but in 2010 everyone seems to agree that it was Dane Swan, so the knockers have been more vocal than usual. Swan did have a great year, and Brownlow night must have been a terrible let-down given that the media had already awarded it to him. But that doesn’t make Judd any less a champion: he had a great year, and he deserves his award. It’s a shame to see people attacking him with their disappointment.

The Brownlow simply isn’t the award that the public wants it to be. It awards something unique – something you can’t quite put your finger on – and it would be great if people recognised and appreciated that. It would also be great if the coaches award was elevated to a higher importance to fill the “best player” void. The TV networks wouldn’t go much on it – the count would probably be decided earlier in the evening and the winner would rarely be a surprise – but the public would get the result they want. And maybe they’d stop knocking champions for their success.

But that probably won’t happen as long as there are Collingwood supporters.