“Nah mate, ya ducked ya head” was a sentence I heard many times as a young footballer. It wasn't always directed to me or my team, often it was an opponent receiving this explanation. It was an example of an umpire using his discretion not to award a free kick even though he had seen a high tackle that under the rules should have been penalised. If the player with the ball made a considerable contribution to the tackle going high, then an umpire might say “tough luck champ that was your doing”. Of course the umpire could choose to ignore this aspect and just give the free kick. It was his discretion after all. The best bit about it though, was that it seemed most of us knew exactly what was happening when a player ducked his head, was hit high, and was not given a free kick for a high tackle. It made sense.
Another classic of the era was “You took 'em on!” when a player would clearly challenge the tackler before getting caught with the ball. If you had the ball and were tackled the umpire would give you a chance, and sometime you only needed to try and get rid of it to be safe from giving away a free kick, but if you tried to beat a tackle or tackler and it didn't work, goneski.
As the game changed from semi professional to completely professional, the governing body of the top league in the sport, the AFL, seems to have found itself under pressure to explain why some were free kicks and why some were not. Greater media concentration (more games on TV, more replays, more footy talk shows etc) meant that each inconsistency that arose, which is natural when umpires are using their discretion, would be put under ever increasing scrutiny. “We'll be asking for clarification” was a popular way of saying “I think we have been ripped off and I want answers” without saying it publicly but the pressure mounts regardless.
As each clarification came, more clarification was sort. The increased definitions and the loss of discretion were supposed to help make the umpire's job become easier. But some of the definitions seem to be in combat with each other. We will protect the man with his head over the ball. The head is sacrosanct...unless you go low and make forceful contact below the knees, and then the head isn't sacrosanct any more. Some of the rule interpretations have been altered so many times that it's hard to recall what is and what was.
I hate the holding the ball rule when a guy grabs the ball while on the ground, then has two or three guys sit all over him holding the ball in. It's unfair and counter to the spirit of the game. We want our players to try and get the ball and do something with it, rather than have an opportunity to get the ball but decline because you sure to be tackled and have no chance to dispose of the ball. I don't blame the umpires here, they are only judging to the standards and rules to which they have been advised. The definitions, so clear, leave no wriggle room for umpires and just about none for the guy at the bottom of the pack.
In wet weather, umpires seem to “relax” on the interpretations of the rules, or at least they relax on the enforcement of them. Is that a directive from the chief? Or is that natural leeway given by the umpires using discretion? A very human reaction to difficult conditions is to give the players more of a chance, and once again most people are fine when this happens. It becomes a case of waiting for the really blatant transgressions before awarding the free kicks.
Last quarters in Grand Finals are umpired differently too. Is that a directive, or again is it because they are the best umpires and they have a better understanding of the spirit behind the rules, and not just the letters of them?
Let’s take a look at the case of Joel Selwood. First let me say I like the way Selwood plays. I think he is a terrific player and mentally he's as tough as they come. There can be no doubt that the tackles from which he gets a free kick have gone too high. In some of the offending tackles Selwood makes a significant contribution to the tackle going high. Under the rules, he should be given a free kick. Under the spirit of the game perhaps he shouldn't, but the umpires simply don't have the discretion to call it that way. They simply must make a call when they see a rule has been broken. To ignore such an occurrence would mean scrutiny for the umpire by the media, while if he awards the free kick according to the rules any scrutiny avoids the umpire and goes to the rules themselves and the player concerned.
As for me, I think a common sense approach to the situation is required. Most supporters, I would hope, would feel pretty comfortable if the game was umpired today as it had been in 1996 and if the umpires had a little discretion at their disposal. The issue with a common sense approach is that it requires umpires with a great deal of common sense and thick enough skin to cop criticism when they get it wrong. It would also require an administration to be strong enough to back in umpires who understand the spirit of the game, and not just the letters of the law.