It’s Just a Game

One of the things that makes me proud to be a netball fan is that even at the very top level, the game maintains the highest level of sportsmanship with all the players greeting each other when coming on court, before adopting a “game face” during the match, only to come together again in the traditional post-match huddle to applaud each other. This is what sport should be about. One must never lose sight of the fact that it is just a game played for entertainment. When fuzzy black and white footage of pre-war football games show a smiling, crowd with whirling rattles in hand, it is hard to equate how that happy family friendly scene has now been replaced by a mob mentality, baying for blood each weekend. You have only got to look at the unattractive headlines that football has received over the years through the conduct of misguided “fans” to see that unless standards are maintained, a situation can spiral out of control. Rugby, it seems, has so far managed to keep a grip on the behaviour of both players and spectators. The fact that the referees are mic’d up during a match so exchanges between officials and players can be heard is testament to the sport being confident that it has its house in order. One could only imagine what would be heard if a football referee did the same!

The FA tried to address the situation at grassroots level by introducing the “Respect” programme fronted by Ray Winstone, asking people to be accountable for their actions. Now on a personal aside note, I would jump through hoops if that was what the gorgeous Ray wanted (!!) but for anyone who has seen some of the videos that were produced for this campaign, I am sure you can all recognise the type of behaviour on the side-line that it was depicting. I recently read a rather sad article (see link below) which told of the continued abuse faced by a young football referee at grassroots matches. What I found really shocking with this, is that the young man involved was only 18 and it wasn’t an isolated incident. He started refereeing at 14 but at 16 was moved to adult matches and the trouble started immediately. This touched a raw nerve for me as both of my nephews have recently got themselves qualified as FA umpires to boost their pocket money and currently officiate most weekends. The eldest is 18 and he is already being subjected to abuse from both players and spectators. Fortunately, he has a very laid back personality and for the moment, he lets it all just wash over him. My youngest nephew however is just about to turn 16. He loves being a referee but has a much more sensitive nature than his brother, so I fear that when he starts officiating older players, being sworn at and threatened by grown men will stop him doing it for good. And this is the problem that the FA are faced with. Grassroots play is the entry level for all sport but relies totally on volunteers who are prepared to give up their time. If you start to lose these vital people, then the infrastructure of the sport will begin to crumble and it won’t be sustainable.

I don’t mean to single football out particularly as I am sure other sport do have similar problems, but as football is so high profile and we see so much of it played, it’s difficult to avoid seeing the unpleasant side of the game. And that perhaps points to the cause of why football has such a problem. Whilst I applaud the efforts that the FA are taking to try and address these problems, I feel the changes need to come from higher up. The professional players do on occasions, conduct themselves with very little self-control on the pitch. Football matches are broadcast to millions and we witness constant dissent to the officials, swearing, spitting, stamping, kicking, diving, punching, headbutting…….do I need to go on? And for all these bad behavioural traits, they are paid a ridiculous amount of money each week. That is a rather warped message to give to impressionable young fans who put on their little football boots at the weekend and run out onto the park and start to emulate their heroes. Should we be surprised then that there are so many problems in the game at grassroots level?

I was saddened to see during one weekend of Australian Suncorp Superleague Netball recently that in two separate games, a couple of players showed complete lack of control. In a highly charged and physical match, Gretel Tippet’s temper at being closed down by her opposite GD bubbled over resulting in a violent two handed shove in the back sending the player flying to the floor. Unfortunately for Gretel, it was all caught on camera and we were treated to the replay of her launching herself at the player with a face contorted with anger. Fans were very quick to condemn her actions on social media with even Firebird fans were expressing shame at her behaviour. The fear that many a young fan might now “do a Tippet” when playing was expressed and there was also a strong feeling that the coach should have benched Gretel immediately thus giving a clear message to her players that this was not acceptable or to be tolerated, but by leaving her on for the rest of the match, the exact opposite message came across. Move on to the second match and having been called for contact on a number of occasions, Sharni Layton “flipped the bird” to the umpire. Although not quite as dramatic as Gretel’s shenanigans maybe, but still hardly the action worthy of a player who recently captained the Australian Diamonds.

I don’t have Sky TV so unfortunately, I don’t see many of our domestic Superleague matches other than those that I see live being a Wasps season ticket holder. I am sorry to say that there is a player in this league who, every time I see play, pulls a face at each decision that goes against her and back chats the umpire constantly. As one of the senior players in the league, she should be considered a leader within the team and a role model to the younger fans and it saddens me greatly to see her doing this, because if I can see it, then the youngsters can too. We all get frustrated during a match when we feel a call goes against us, and make no mistake I class myself in this too, but there is a difference between thinking it in your head and expressing it outwardly. Without umpires being prepared to pick up the whistle, our matches simply wouldn’t happen so next time you want to complain about a call, just take a breath and think:

● An umpire has a split second to make a decision and her angle of view maybe different to yours.
● Sometimes her vision may be obscured by a player so although she knows something has happened, she can only call for what she has seen.
● If you are not a qualified umpire and therefore not prepared to stand up and put yourself in the firing line, can you really complain about others that are?
● If you are a qualified umpire, you are fully aware of how difficult (and intimidating) it can be so you should know better than to say anything!!!!!!!!

Whilst I could never envisage in a million years that netball would ever become as disrespectful as football has, with the rules now allowing the game to become more contested, the natural knock on effect is that it is much more physical on court. Therefore, it is essential that at whatever level we play at, we as players take responsibility for our behaviour and actions and continue to maintain the positive image and integrity of our sport.

Telegraph article: FA relaunches Respect campaign amid referee strike threat over increasing abuse at grassroots