Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tears, Trauma and Tantrums: Referees & Umpires Deserve Better. New Zealand Should Be Ashamed of Ourselves

Sport fanatic and netball umpire Kelly Bertrand weighs in on Aotearoa’s disgusting treatment of our referees and umpires, and warns NZ’s attitude towards officials will spell the end of grassroots sport.


I remember the first time I was abused as a netball umpire.

I was 13 years old, fresh off my certification, when I was given a fairly high-level junior game to officiate. And when I say junior, I’m talking 10-year-olds.

“Are you fucking kidding me!? There’s no way that was a step! Are you fucking blind, girl? USELESS.”

I turned around to see one of the kids’ dads blustering towards me, shouting at the top of his voice as he gestured to the court where his poor daughter was looking on in horror.

He was an absolute unit – about six foot three and, as my mother would say, built like a brick shit house. He towered over me and continued to yell as the rest of the sideline stood stunned.

I remember the tears prickling at the side of my eyes and the creeping blush on my face as I tried my best to weigh up my options. Do I cry? No, then he’d win. Do I run away? That’s worse. Do I yell back? Nooo, you’re not supposed to yell at grown-ups.

Just as the other umpire, an older and experienced woman, bustled over to help I simply outstretched my hand with my whistle in it.

“You do it then,” I said, looking up at him with as much defiance as a people-pleasing 13-year-old could muster.

“Hmph, I mean, I’m not… I’M not doing it!” he replied indignantly, nervously looking down at the whistle.

It was then the other umpire took charge and sent him from the court, not allowing the game to resume until he’d gone. I went back to umpiring the match, tears still very close to falling, as I battled on.

It was only after the final whistle went that the floodgates open and I ran to the other umpire, buried my head in her chest and bawled my eyes out.

32-Year-Old Kelly

It took me a long time to recover from that episode and I seriously questioned if I wanted to keep umpiring. Netball is my greatest love – I’ve played since I was nine (well, I play when my knees allow it – ageing, amirite?!) and I’ve umpired for almost as long. I was a decent player but I was never going to make the big leagues. But I’ve always been a better umpire than a player, and it’s something I now absolutely love.

Now I’m not saying that umpiring Senior A grade at the Howick Pakuranga Netball Centre is in any way comparable to a Super Rugby final (trust me, some of the players think it is) but when I saw the torrent of abuse directed at referee Ben O’Keeffe following the game on Saturday, my heart broke.

But instead of just having to deal with one asshole dad, Ben – who’ve I’ve met and hung out with a couple of times socially and is an absolutely LOVELY person – had to deal with actual death threats. In an Instagram post, Ben published screenshots of the FLOODS of horrific comments he received in the wake of the match.

“I’ll smash your fucking face in if I ever see you walking around town.”

“I wish someone ran on the field and hooked you in the mouth fuck wit.”

“I hope you get cancer f****t.”

Ben wrote, “Unfortunately, as a union referee at the highest level, I have had to accept and grow accustomed to the post-match vitriol that fans normalise post game.

“It’s a sad reality that it doesn’t affect me anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok.”

A small selection of abuse referee Ben O’Keeffe received following the Super Rugby final (Image/ Instagram)

It’s also a sad reality that in every single sporting match, the ref is the only person that can never win.

New Zealand has a HUGE problem with sideline behaviour – so much so that most major codes have had to dedicate special resources to help deal with the issues, from little kids’ matches where you’re lucky if they remember which direction to run in, through to the highest pinnacles of professional sport.

But the attitude starts in heartland sport and not enough is being done to eradicate it. Kids see their parents yelling at umpires, so they naturally think it’s ok for them to do it too. Not that it’s just kids – I went to a grown men’s soccer match the other day and I was horrified at the abuse the refs were receiving from both the players and the coaching teams.

Here’s the reality. This keeps up, and you’ll have no ref for your kid’s next game. Sport simply won’t happen.

If we’ve cultivated a sporting culture where a 40-year-old man thinks he can not only get away with, but is entitled to yell at a little girl who’s doing her absolute best, then we have a huge, HUGE problem in our grassroots sport.

Referees and umpires are human. They make mistakes. Shit happens. Get over it. If you can’t win a game based on your performance and you’re at the mercy of one bad call, then you didn’t do enough to win the game. End of story.

At kid level referees and umpires are often older kids who are helping out their club or school for no money – they’re doing it simply because there is no one else to pick up a whistle. If they don’t, the game can’t go ahead.

Or else it’s a parent who’s in a similar situation – if they don’t then there’s no sport. They might not be the most qualified or the best, but they’re doing it so YOUR kid can have a game. They’re not getting paid or recognised, they’re volunteering their time, and apparently their sanity, to do their bit for the kids.

Think about that the next time you’re on a side line, rugged up warm clutching a coffee or a punnet of hot chips on a freezing Saturday morning, and you feel the need to yell abuse at an umpire who’s just trying to do their best.

As 13-year-old me said, ‘YOU do it’.

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