The other day I was in Melbourne and snuck out to watch a friends’ nine-year-old play footy. He’s an integral part of the U/9 Bears. He ‘dominates’ the wing on the weeks he’s had an early Saturday night and a big pasta for tea. Apparently he’s a bit of a gun when he plays up with the U/10’s as well, kicking four from the forward flank two weeks ago.
It was exciting to go back to our family footy heartland. As a former junior VFL prodigy I was keen to see how things have changed in the last 30 years.
Melbourne kids are still freakishly good footballers, but you get that when every lunchtime is spent playing kick to kick. At the games, it’s what’s happening on the sidelines that’s changed.
It seems the mums and dads get to wear a colorful bib. They’re a one size fits almost all affair, and they’re netballish in style. There’s a bib for the coach and coach’s assistant, so you know who to love or hate depending on your kid's game time. The runner gets to wear a different coloured bib, as does the water carrier, trainer, boundary ump, goal ump, and ground manager. Most disturbing of all, there’s a taupish, buttery yellow bib for the 'Umpire Escort.'
I met the ‘Umpire Escort’ whilst trying to squeeze an empty cup into a locked rubbish bin. He explained it had to be locked for OH&S reasons because someone had hurt their hand when the lid had closed on them while using the bin, so now if you have rubbish, you find the rubbish bin manager. His bib was brown.
‘What do you do?’ I asked.
‘I escort the umpires from the change rooms to the ground and back again,’ he said warily.
‘Why?’ I said. ‘Don’t they know the way?’
‘It’s a security measure. It’s for their protection.’ I looked around. We were at a bog standard suburban ground in Cheltenham that appeared anything but threatening.
‘You know what it’s like, mate. Sometimes parents can get a bit stupid and say things. The umpires are just kids, they do their best. Mums and dads of future super stars don’t always see it that way.’
It does seem ridiculous, doesn’t it? That the umps in junior footy - kids themselves - need to be escorted to and from the ground? Surely it wasn’t like this when we were kids.
I rang Mum and Dad.
They remembered yelling, but it wasn’t necessarily at the umpy ‘because they were just kids ... No one gave them much of a hard time, not really. Sometimes they got yelled at for stuffing up the rules, but that was about it’.
‘The coaches on the other hand, now they did yell,’ said Mum. ‘One time we had to have a meeting with your coach, and we had to ask him to stop saying you were playing like “effing little effers with dogs bollocks for brains, playing like girls,” or something like that.’
I remember him fondly. He was the same coach who said to us at half time in the Lightning Premiership when we were a thousand points down, ‘Youse dickheads got yourselves into this, now youse dickheads can get yourselves out of it.’ He then took a long final drag on his ciggie, dropped it on the ground and walked off.
We lost, but God it still makes me laugh.
We had another coach who used to really get into us. He’d talk to us like we were men, as if we should understand the importance of our actions, or lack thereof. He cajoled and barked and inspired and we loved him for it. He’d swear, too. We loved that the most. We played our hearts out for him because he treated us with the kind of respect 11-year-olds rarely received. He didn’t discriminate between kids having good and bad skills, but effort. The best players got ripped into as much as anyone else.
It’s funny, because that’s one of the things I liked most about junior footy – that we were held accountable for our actions and behaviors. Win, lose or draw it was about effort and sportsmanship. Mistakes were tolerated, lack of effort and endeavor were not.
And we were never allowed to take on the umpire. Ever. No amount of whining or abusing has ever changed an umpire’s decision and he made sure we knew that. It was a good lesson to learn early, and one that might put an end to the buttery yellow ‘Umpire Escort’ bib if it’s taught properly now. I’ve always thought it’s okay to offer the ump a bit of help from the sideline. That’s part of being a spectator. But abusing the umpire is another matter, and it took a smart man with a lot of footy experience to make this clear to me.
He said, ‘Maybe if we turned the scenario around and the umpires started abusing the players mistakes. “You are the worst kick I’ve ever seen! How could you drop that mark! Why’d you handball it to him, that other bloke was free, you blind maggot!” How do you reckon that would go? Somehow, it’s okay for everyone to point out the errors of umpires, but it’s not okay for them to point out the errors of the players. Yes, they make mistakes, but who doesn’t? Accept and move on.’
Such a great lesson. We should start a movement to be free of umpire escorts and taupish buttery yellow bibs so the umpires can walk freely to and from the ground without fear of being attacked for being humans. It’s just footy, right? And more importantly, it’s junior footy with junior umpires – there is no game without them.
Have you witnessed some disturbing behaviour at your children's games? How do you handle it?