Do we care about the health and wellbeing of our referees?

This article was first written for and published for The Roar.

It was two Fridays ago that a decision was made during the Canberra Raiders-Cronulla Sharks game that stirred up refereeing controversy the likes of which rugby league has not seen since, well, a little earlier this year.

But while we were all debating just how wrong that decision was and what the game needed to do to fix its apparent refereeing problem, touch judge Rickey McFarlane was inconsolable in the dressing room after the game and was so distressed following the game that he was too shaken to drive home.

Finding that out was deeply troubling.

I want to know what we as a game are doing to ensure the health and wellbeing of our referees. After what we’ve seen over the last week, I would hazard a guess that the answer to this question is ‘not enough’.

Often, we as fans forget that referees are human. These men and women are making upwards of 400 critical decisions per game. You do the maths on how many that is a minute.

The referees have plenty to focus on during play. They have plenty of noise in their ears while that’s happening too – communication from the other referees, a direct line to the bunker and the sound of the crowd. Along with focusing on play and the noise in their ears, there is also a level of physical fitness that referees need to have to do their job. Add all this together and you are looking at a role which is not for the faint-hearted.

The problem with those 400 critical decisions that a referee makes during a game is that not all errors are created equal. For example, a decision in relation to a poor play-the-ball is, in most circumstances, far less costly than a decision about a forward pass which leads to a try. If only all the errors could be in relation to inconsequential moments.

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Our officials are not perfect and they are never going to be. This is something that we need to accept, no matter the levels of technology available to us. Imagine if players received the same type of scrutiny every time they made an error. Imagine if the internet went into meltdown every time a player dropped a ball or threw a forward pass.

To be fair, this culture of ‘refs fault’-ing has always been around the game and, despite what the sport’s crisis merchants would have you believe, general footy fans have been even more vocal about supporting the referees in the face of criticism this year, particularly at the start of the season during the infamous crackdown.

No matter how much support from the general public the referees have, there will always be a segment of the fan-base who are content to blame referees for losses and to hammer them in a way which is neither fair nor appropriate.

I expect this type of behaviour from fans, but what I don’t expect is the perceived lack of support that the officials have received this week from the upper echelons of the game.

Let’s talk about the refereeing appointments this week. McFarlane made an error last week. Instead of backing him in, supporting him and giving him an opportunity to learn and to grow, this week he was given a game in the InTrust Super Premiership. He was sent to Cessnock Sports Ground to be a touchie for the game between the Newcastle Knights and the Wentworthville Magpies.

Perhaps a decision has been made by those in charge to send a strong message and to punish errors in that way – a sink or swim approach, if you will. That might work for some, but may be demoralising for others.

It’s also of interest to me that the ‘sink or swim’ approach wasn’t taken in relation to Gerard Sutton, brother of referees boss Bernie Sutton, who was still ‘demoted’ but to the NRL game between the Gold Coast Titans and the New Zealand Warriors.

Gerard Sutton

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Leaving aside how disrespectful to those two teams the word ‘demoted’ is, the fact is that both these referees were responsible for the decision last weekend – one has remained in first grade and the other was sent to Cessnock.

I wonder what message this sends to the other referees. I wonder if this approach is encouraging them to be brave and to back their own decisions, or if it is only creating additional stress around a job which is already by its very nature stressful.

It may not be time to make fundamental changes to who is looking after our referees right now given how late it is in the season. Further change may lead to further disruption when we are heading into a crucial part of the year.

But how our referees are looked after and supported is something which should be at the top of the list in the off-season.

As fans, I know we love our game. We love our clubs and we love our players. But we need to love our referees as well. Because without them there is no rugby league. Let’s make their health and wellbeing a priority.