Just what the hell was the AFL thinking?

The AFL seemingly decided to stick up for their umpires after Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett took the stick to the attitudes of the issues surrounding the officials by saying they were “almost bigger than the game” in a radio interview on Melbourne’s SEN.

But! Trying to put any club leader, let alone a former state premier in charge of the AFL’s reigning premiers, back in his school uniform by telling him to attend the umpires department, and be briefed in all aspects of their business like watching how they review the performances of their umpires, recruit potential officials, and sit through a DVD and a presentation on the rules of the game OR face a $5000 fine was surely designed to fail.

Has this shut Jeff up? No.

Has this garnered support for umpires? No. Has this shown that the AFL won’t cop key officials criticising the umpires? No.

In addition, Hawthorn’s firm and pro-active, yet totally controlled, response via their own website will prove a template for other sporting organizations to follow in the future, whether the more traditional areas of the industry like it or not.

The irony in this whole bunfight is that umpires often get criticised for effectively making a wrong call in a split second situation during a game, yet the governing body took a week and a half to decide what response, if any, they would give Kennett’s comments. Their resultant call was far worse than any push-in-the-back or holding-the-ball decision given at the MCG on a weekend.

The subsequent back page Herald Sun article unsurprisingly featured a school blackboard theme, with an opening paragraph that was hilarious in its inadvertent ambiguity; “The AFL yesterday issued Hawthorn president with an embarrassing (my italics) ultimatum: head to umpires school or face a $5000 fine.”

Writer Jon Ralph — I assume — was intending to convey how it was embarrassing for Big Jeff. We suggest it’s embarrassing the league thought it was a good idea.

Not only did the Hawthorn website publish an “open letter to the AFL from Jeff Kennett” that allowed Kennett to further explain his beliefs, and thus fan the flames of the whole debate in the process, but the use of blogs below the article gave a forum for fans an opportunity to back him to the hilt.

And they did.

As another Liberal and AFL identity John Elliott once astutely observed; “No one barracks for the AFL”. In an era of open media forums, what other response would you expect from passionate supporters?

And as if to remind the head-office Hollowmen that he’s forgotten more than they’ll ever know about playing the media spin game, he “bought” himself a day by saying he was “consider(ing) his position” and would report back, meaning of course that he’d get another chance to go whack, whack, whack.

And he did.

Did the AFL really think this wouldn’t pour litres of petrol on the flames or did they expect the controversy to explode, and that Jeff would come out looking silly?

Either way it didn’t work.

After reading Kennett’s follow up you’d be staggered if he didn’t think it nearly the best $5000 he’s ever spent!

If the governing body at the Docklands wants the umpires to be “The Untouchables” when in comes to verbal criticism of them from club officials, it should recall Sean Connery’s attitude in the movie of the same name towards the so called “bad guys” and be fair dinkum when penalizing them.

After all, no one is impressed when you bring a knife to a gun fight.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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