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Harms, John --- "Sport: Footy, umpires and the spirit of The Law" [2003] AltLawJl 92; (2003) 28(6) Alternative Law Journal 303


Footy, umpires and the spirit of The Law

JOHN HARMS[*] puzzles over the relationship between rules and spirit.

My father has always had strong views on The Law. Not so much the law of the land, but The Law as a concept in its religious context which, for him, is far more important. He is a Lutheran minister, descended from a line of Lutheran ministers, all quite conservative in their theology; Lutheran theology. And I mean, straight-to-the-original-texts-to-see­what-the-reformer-himself-had-to-say-about-things type of theology. Hence the fifty-odd volumes of Luther s Works see plenty of action in Dad's study.

These days he is retired -inasmuch as a clergyman is ever retired. But throughout his preaching life (which continues now in phone calls and at the dinner table) he has been one to use the time-honoured phrases of the Lutheran tradition. One I remember, because I heard it so often, is that 'The Law only exists to make way for the Gospel'.[1] Dad's theological colours are shaded by this dictum - despite reverting occasionally to the Lutheran pietism of my grandmother, where The Law seems to take over. In later life especially, he has argued against legalism, and all its stultifying effects. Legalism generates fear. For my father, The Law makes us aware of our inadequacies, and hence to repent and seek redemption, thereby living in hope. He is confident that Gospel values are paramount, that they yield a sense of being alive, as his generosity of spirit would suggest.

Except for footy, where Dad knows, like all of us, that the law exists so that we can yell at umpires. A spirit of forgiveness is neither compulsory nor necessary once one enters the MCG or the Gabba or York Park, particularly where the men in white are concerned. And this puts the poor umpires in a terrible situation. It seems everyone is against them: even the AFL rules commission.

It is the ambiguous nature of the statutes of football which makes the game all the more delicious. That the rules are so open to interpretation gives the game an uncommon resemblance to real life. There seems to be little certainty, and because the interpreters are human, little consistency. And of course, little justice. There is so much symbolism in football, and surely here the game must remind us of the legal system itself.

I would prefer if this isn't mentioned beyond the leather chair you're sitting in (and please hang on tightly to your balloon of cognac), but I often feel sorry for the umpires. The Australian Football field umpire (or Umpire, with a capital U, as he is referred to in the official laws of the game) has to be an immensely strong character, fortified by the wisdom gleaned from the experience of injustice.

Umpires know that a game can only be played if there is a man in white. But they also know that no matter what they do they will be condemned by half of the crowd. Yet they love the game so much that they are willing to crucify themselves publicly-on a weekly basis. For what could be more like Golgotha than the Yarra Falls end of Victoria Park? What could be more like Gethsemane than the morning of a Carlton-Collingwood Grand Final? What could be more defeating than the vinegar-spittle of the Port fan showering you as you walk up the Footy Park race?

And do the officials make it any easier for them? The Laws of Australian Football is, like most legal documents, long and tedious. There are objectives and then an introduction to the laws and then 22 sections, some quite long, dealing with the playing of a game of football. But there is hardly any advice to umpires. In fact, in total, there are 12 words of instruction: Section 8.2.1 reads, 'The Field Umpires shall officiate and have full control of a match'. This is a decree; a demand. It is not an encouragement. It offers no practical advice. And nowhere else does the wordy document outline any principles or philosophical direction. There is no charter, no statement ofhopes and aspirations, no poetic utterance which conveys a sense that this is a game in which the ball is the essence and those making a play for the ball shall be protected. There is, in short, no Gospel, no Scripture which contains flashes of insight into the mystery that is a grand game of footy.

The Pharisees at the AFL have no concept of the fruits of the spirit. Worse, they have limited ability to grasp the concept. The spirit of the game is not mentioned until section 15-Free Kicks. And it is illuminating that this is the longest and most complex section of the rules. That it is not until the concept of penalties is introduced that we really see what the essence of the game is. Only by outlining what is to be penalised, does the rules commission give an idea of what, by contrast, is encouraged.

Largely the responsibility for this falls with the umpires. Often the term 'in the opinion of the Umpire' is used. (see 14.1 on Marks). Consider the notion of 'prior opportunity' in the most contentious of all rules, the holding the ball rule (15.2.3). 'Prior opportunity' is entirely situational. If a player has had an opportunity to kick or handball but has chosen to beat a tackler, he is given far less time by the umpire to dispose of the footy when tackled. Sometimes this is clear cut, and the entire crowd will acknowledge a decision. But often it is not. Hence the umpire is a key element in the game. When is a bump fair? When is a spoil fair? When is jostling fair? Who is the jostler? Who is the jostled? When is a player in possession of the footy?

What then makes a good umpire? Clearly: Gospel values. The legalist umpire - the pedant, the stickler, the trainspotter-will do little for the game. He will interrupt its flow. He should only interrupt where natural justice is denied. The Gospel umpire understands that this is a game of natural justice: that the footballer making the play should be protected, that the robust have every right to demonstrate appropriate aggression, that the thug should be condemned.

But it is even harder for the umpire than that. The umpire has to be like Shakespeare's Fool. Because, from his first action to get the game going, he is set up to win little respect. He must understand his own absurdity. For consider this. The umpire comes to the game carrying his Gladstone bag. He is battered. Misunderstood. He has just recovered from the abuse he's copped at last week's preliminary final, but he's going to do it again, because people cannot have footy without him. He dresses. He runs out and warms up. The two Grand Final teams take their positions. The opposing ruckmen pore at the turf in the centre. This is the culmination of a mighty season. The punters scream. He holds the ball aloft. Frenzy. The siren sounds. He thumps it into the turf­ and it skews off sideways and wobbly towards the wing, nowhere near the ruckmen.

That's why I love footy. We know we're kidding ourselves, but somehow we stick at it. There is, at the game's heart, this bizarre spirit of hope, which is far more Gospel than it is Law. Whatever that means. You better ask my father.

Humorist and commentator, John Harms' last book, Loose Men Everywhere, captures the perennial trials of being a supporter (in his case of the Geelong Football Club). Text Publishing has re-released his trilogy of books on life, sport and everything in an omnibus edition, Play On. John can even arrange signed copies: jharms@

© 2003 John Harms (text) © 2003 Stuart Roth (cartoon)

[*] Humorist and commentator, John Harms' last book, Loose Men Everywhere, captures the perennial trials of being a supporter (in his case of the Geelong Football Club). Text Publishing has re-released his trilogy of books on life, sport and everything in an omnibus edition, Play On. John can even arrange signed copies: jharms@

© 2003 John Harms (text) © 2003 Stuart Roth (cartoon)

[1] Having left the Lutheran nest and ventured far and wide into the real world, I now know that Dad hasn't quite got it right. We all know that the Law exists to make barristers very rich.

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