Officials left out in the cold -

The sporting fraternity are currently in their busiest stage of the year, with some sports drawing to a close until next season, and many other sports preparing to commence for the summer. In the midst of all the commotion about how sides are going, and how sides went, spare a thought for the umpires and referees across all sports who battle hard each year for the respect they deserve. Whilst the sports themselves are more important than any one individual, one questions whether the players, spectators and governing bodies realise the seriousness of the current situation surrounding umpires and referees.

Events last year surrounding National Rugby League referee Bill Harrigan point to a bleak future for umpires and referees across all sports, as the governing bodies that are set up to assist them choose instead to leave them to face the elements.

Harrigan was the referee in charge of last year?s well-publicised rugby league match between Newcastle and Parramatta, in which four Parramatta players were sin-binned during in a controversial victory to Newcastle.

However what is most concerning is what transpired the Monday following the match in question. Harrigan, who is recognised by many to be the number one referee in the competition, was subsequently demoted to First Division, a grade that he has not refereed for since the 1980?s.

Harrigan?s relegation accentuates the dire need for adequate support to officials who at present have been left out in the cold with little or no aid from the bodies that are theoretically there to protect them. Instead, the officials are forced to brave the media storms and fearfully face icy criticism from the very same players that they are employed to officiate for.

At present we have governing bodies who prefer to remain lukewarm, partially pleasing both players and officials, without ever clamping down on the rules and laws they themselves have put together. This trend is also regularly occurring in other sports, once again to their detriment.

In 1996, Sri-Lankan cricketer Muthiah Muralitharan was no-balled for an illegal bowling action, seven times in the one over by Australian umpire Darrell Hair.

Following the match, it was inevitable that the Sri-Lankan team, and cricket followers back home in the streets of Colombo, would hold grudges against the umpire. Hair copped blows from Sri Lankan media, players, administrators and the average cricket fanatic.

Yet when Hair turned to his support team, the International Cricket Council (ICC), he quickly learned he was fighting a war on two fronts, one against a nation that clearly had politics interwoven in sport, and another against the very group that you would expect support from. Following the incident, the ICC prevented Hair from being the official in charge of any Sri Lankan cricket fixture in the future, because the Sri Lankan team refused to play if Hair was the appointed umpire. This leaves this cricket follower pondering why it is that politics in Sri Lanka overrides what should be a rational decision by the sport?s governing body.

If Hair had made a poor decision, and gone beyond his powers as an umpire, one could understand the justification for criticising him. What occurred though was well within the laws and guidelines set down by the very organisation that chose to punish Umpire Hair. An umpire?s role is to make a decision based on the laws set up for them to interpret.

It states in the laws of the game of cricket that if the umpire has any doubts about the legality of the delivery, he or she is required to call ?no-ball?.

Yet even without any knowledge of cricket, this seems nothing short of ludicrous, and many world cricket supporters agreed at the time and still agree today.

Irrespective of where individuals stand on the legality of Muralitharan?s action, surely if an internationally recognised umpire sees fit to make a decision, the best we can do is to support the decision?

The eventual outcome, that punished the official instead of the player in question, left the umpire clutching at thin air when ultimately he should have been praised for his actions.

In more recent times, a prominent netball player found herself sin-binned for back-chatting the official. The player, who was understandably surprised at the rare punishment for someone of her standing, was given support by many sections of the media. The player found herself given ample space in the media to take shots at the official in question, and with no threat of disciplinary action.

The official in this incident was criticised by the media for sending someone of the player?s calibre from the court.

This then raises the question: should a referee or umpire have to treat individuals differently based on their talent, or their connections to the hierarchy of the sport? Certainly not. Yet when, in this case, the official displayed the admirable quality of impartiality, she was gunned down for being too power-hungry. In the end, the official took the blame for not showing discretion between the average netball player, and an Australian superstar.

This is hardly the message we should be sending to potential umpires and referees in all sports around Australia. It?s interesting to note that most, if not all sports claim they are running desperately short of officials. Many sports try to encourage former players to take up the whistle, or don the black trousers, in order to keep the sport operating.

Just last weekend, Bill Harrigan found himself afforded extra security because of alleged death threats against him and Canberra's captain and coach.

What this raises is the issue of how attractive the role of sports official, particularly NRL refereeing, is to the young aspiring sports official who is looking to be involved in the game. Judging by recent events including personal threats against officials, it would take a high degree of courage to begin, and continue with what seems like a turbulent career in sports officiating.

I don?t blame sports followers for not taking up officiating of their favourite sport. Who would want to put up with the abuse to begin with? Then on top of that, there are distinct discrepancies between what officials are told to do, and the eventual action they take, largely because the very governing bodies set up, supposedly support the officials, end up shying away from providing beneficial assistance to their on-field personnel.

At present, there seems very little support afforded to officials, for very little compensation, not to mention an excessive amount of abuse. Those officiating in the vast array of sports are becoming a dying breed, and instead former players now choose to criticise officials instead of becoming one themselves.

A lack of support for sports officials is resulting in a declining number of officials willing to continue in their chosen sport. Lower quantities means a lower quality in the long term, as officials have fewer competitors for higher honours.

With competition for appointments in decline, sports followers will have every reason to criticise the referee at the higher level, because the referee is generally going to be someone who is not necessarily a great official, but instead simply just thick-skinned enough to continue in the job.

Abusive or highly negative comments or actions towards sports officials only means the standards continue to drop. Encouragement and constructive criticism towards umpires and referees however, will make the occupation more appealing, which increases numbers and therefore improves the overall standards.

At preset, we?re all guilty of getting into the habit of blaming the ref for the player?s mistakes.