Four quarters: Why AFL’s umpires are a key ingredient

When I met Shaun Ryan he'd just been in court, working as a barrister. He looked wide-awake and explained to me how he'd imposed on himself a "media ban" that he was breaking for this interview, in part because he no longer reads football media.

"To read things only distracts me," said Ryan, "It just puts me in a place I don't want to be."

One of the common misconceptions about umpires, Ryan explained, is that they desire attention.

"Our dream would be that no-one ever talks about umpires," he said. "But umpiring is still a form of participation in elite sport. And that is how we consider it now, as a sport."

Ryan, who's umpired 266 AFL games, lives in Torquay and begins every day with a cold shower.

"It gives me this feeling of internal energy," he said. "It helps carry me through the day.

Aside from a handful of characters, AFL umpires have mostly been faceless conduits of abuse. They have occupied a place in Australian sport that is reserved for mistreatment, and the criticism of their work is often immune to common sense.

"It's not a sexy job," Ryan said. "From within (the umpiring unit) is the only place where umpires can get positive affirmation. The only time people are talking about umpires is when they make a mistake. We don't have any real complaints about it. That's how it is."

Ryan retired from umpiring at the end of 2011 after officiating in five consecutive grand finals. He was exhausted from the job, and by the tone of what he calls the footy world.

"I made a commitment as a young guy that I was going to try and live my life with the highest level of enjoyment possible," he said. "By 2011, football was getting to me a bit – the constant criticism and focus. I was doing a lot of big games that were exposed to the media."

And although he was "happily retired", Ryan was persuaded to come back by Wayne Campbell and Hayden Kennedy, who together sold him on an idea that he was valued, and that he'd left the game too soon. And Ryan had a desire to try again to live happily in a world full of negativity.

"There were so many new rules and interpretations when I came back," Ryan said. "I was really battling, and doubting myself. I felt I'd set a high-water mark in previous years that initially I wasn't getting near."

This is testament to a general complaint in football that the rules and their interpretations are in constant flux. The rules are subject to amendment, even weekly adjustments, and by no fault of their own the umpires are this year central to the theatre as they try to negotiate amendments to the deliberate out of bounds rule.

"Deliberate is the hardest rule to interpret," Ryan said, "because you have to try and get inside the player's mind. You need to establish whether there was a skill error, or if it was intentional. Was he deliberately trying to not keep the ball in play, or was he making a best effort to keep the ball in play?

"Changes to rules are subtle," he continued, "but when they're enforced on the ground they become very apparent. It used to be that the player's intent had to be to deliberately put the ball out of bounds – the subtle change is that the consideration now is 'Did the player do enough to keep the ball in play?' That's substantial because the benefit of the doubt is going against the player now."

The deliberate rule is just one of a number of rules that demand umpires assess the game using subjective concepts such as reasonableness, opportunity and intent. It's an incredibly complex task. Trying to consciously apply some of these ideas during play is like asking someone to explain the syntax of their speech. Ryan grappled for a long time with the hands-in-the-back rule.

Di Mare ingredients: Napoli sauce, mozzarella, basil, prawn cutlets, scallops, olives, garlic, parsley. Photo: Pat Scala

Di Mare ingredients: Napoli sauce, mozzarella, basil, prawn cutlets, scallops, olives, garlic, parsley. Photo: Pat Scala

"I come from a simple philosophy," he said, "where the rules for me really cater for the two things: fairness and the safety of the players. Every rule just has to fit into one of those two categories. So, in a marking contest, I watch and think: did someone do something that unfairly put another person out of the contest? Yes, free kick. No, let it go.

"With the hands in the back rule, however, there's often no impact on the contest and I've rewarded a free kick. The player doesn't even know it's his free kick. And you think, 'Is this really impacting the contest?' Is it really unfair or unsafe?' No it's not, so I've struggled to find a place for that."

It's popular to say of Australian football that it's one of the hardest sports to play, and equally it has to be one of the hardest to officiate. The retro American vision of the AFL as a sport "without rules" is an inverse observation of a game full of rules being averted for the sake of "reasonableness and intent". This year, imposing the rules has brought the umpires into focus.

Ryan was recently at the centre of umpire focus after officiating in a GWS match against the Bulldogs. He was overheard on TV having a conversation with Toby Greene after another umpire reported Greene for striking.

"I haven't really followed the media on this," said Ryan, "but as I understand it the words were distorted so that I said something like 'We've been watching you'. In that discussion I was referring to a conversation I'd had with Toby the previous week, and the words I used were the words I used the previous week.

"What is surprising to me is the talk of umpires having preconceived ideas," he said. "Toby and I were discussing a factual matter that occurred the week before. There was never anything preconceived about it."

The umpires' role in non-events like this one is essentially as a mythical force, always being suspected of spoiling the story with bias or personal involvement. The idea of personal involvement, perpetuated sometimes by commentary, is a recurring problem for umpires.

"It's absolute nonsense," said Ryan. "It's true that sometimes you feel at the forefront of the game. They (the rules committee) never really delete rules. They only add them, so, over the course of time, you naturally have more involvement in the game."

Generally Ryan tries to contextualise abuse so that he can sit comfortably with it. Most of it he describes as people venting about the ambiguity of the rules.

"People in the crowd can argue about tough decisions like holding the ball, and that's why I reckon the sport is so popular. Everyone can have an opinion, can form an argument and it creates this constant discussion about what's right and fair. I think of it as passion.

"But of course umpires are affected by criticisms. Put aside opinions about rules; the umpire has instructions and pays free kicks in accordance with those instructions. Suddenly there's an extreme outcome, and commentary about how ridiculous a certain decision was. It's naive to think that an umpire is not going to have some sort of negative reaction."

At the end of 2015, the year of Ryan's return to football, he travelled to India to partake in the notoriously difficult practice of Vipassana. 10 days of silence, each of them with a scheduled 16 hours of meditation. Although Ryan practices meditation daily, he wanted to see if he if the extreme might dissolve some lingering negativity.

"Not speaking is bliss," Ryan explained. "The hardest thing is the physicality of sitting for 16 hours. Seated in a cross-legged position for that long, you're in a lot of pain. You learn to sit 'equanimously' with pain. As it arises in the brain, you're taught not to label the sensation, but to observe it."

Jodi Ettenberg, who wrote of the same experience for The Guardian last year, said the practice "Defrags the brain … it dictates a blanket command of non-reaction." It's a skill one imagines might be useful to an umpire.

Ryan said he came to see umpiring as an opportunity to be in an environment full of criticism, and be essentially immune to it at the same time.

"I thought if I want to live in this 'space of joy', I need to live in the world, and the world is full of criticism and negative belief systems. Why not throw myself back into it and try to be not affected by it?"

Ryan took me to an umpire's meeting and training session this week. It was a world apart from umpire experience one imagines from the stands, surrounded by the expletives and discontent directed their way.

We sat with the other umpires in a small theatre at Princess Park before training, where they were earnestly discussing footage from last weekend in which some of them awarded free kicks for deliberate out of bounds.

Assistant coach Michael Jennings was rolling a tape back and forth. "What do we think?" he asked. "Skill error?"

The theatre was filled with people Ryan described as "all sorts", but there was a prevailing air of intelligence and candour, an atmosphere of professionalism that reflected the style of modern football.

"Turn to the person next to you and discuss the next decision," Jennings instructed. The mood in the meeting was remarkably similar to a football team's – a series of earnest protocols being interrupted by the kind of boy's club humour designed to release pressure and boredom. The experienced umpires made jokes. The fresh faces took notes.

At length the umpiring team debated the process of handing over control from one umpire to another, and which of the two in the handover was responsible for certain decisions. Who has best position to get judge intent? Was their sufficient effort to keep the ball in play? Was there a teammate down the line? How can you know if that was a skill error or not?

The answers to these questions rolled around the room, not with the fury you hear from fans debating the same decisions but with an eye for "what is reasonable". Nobody was critical. There were only some gentle suggestions about how it could have been done better.

"There was a time when umpiring was more of an individual sport," Ryan said. "You wanted to do well for yourself. But it's evolved into a team, where we want to get the best result for the game. There's a genuine care within this group, I feel, where everyone wants everyone else to do well."

It was hard not to come away feeling that in the near future good umpiring will be revered, whether they like it or not.