Lucy Barker, our passionate and valued Umpire Coordinator, has been keeping busy behind the scenes and recently wrote this letter to the CDNA community in support of umpires:

The recent controversy in Suncorp Super Netball around the suspension and subsequent send off of Kristiana Manu’a has prompted much discussion in the media around netball, its rules and our umpires. Discussion is a vital part of every organisation, sporting or not, to encourage innovation and improvement. Unfortunately, mainstream media and social media coverage has been less than productive, with a barrage of negativity and many people attacking the decision of the umpires during that match.

As the Umpire Coordinator at CDNA, I felt it was important to communicate with you some thoughts on this situation. In umpiring any game of netball, our guide is the Rules of Netball issued by the International Netball Federation. We must follow the rules, even if that means we are unpopular. Manu’a was warned earlier in the game for dangerous play. Dangerous play is defined as ‘any action, either deliberate or accidental, that could affect the safety of another player’. Sue Gaudion’s statement that Manu’a ‘only had eyes for the ball’ is therefore irrelevant. The rule book states an example of dangerous play is ‘causing a player in the air to fall by moving into the path of that player’. Any act of training or discipline must be followed through and corrected every time in order for the desired behaviour to change (think teaching a child to look before crossing the road, for example), this is why the game management protocol must be escalated is the player continues the action and is binding to both umpires.

The wording of dangerous play rule, as with the contact rule, is open to the interpretation of the umpire officiating that game. Therefore, it is inappropriate to speculate on whether that umpire made the correct decision (unless you are an AA or IUA umpire!). Umpires officiate the game from the best possible position, moving as often as necessary to ensure they have clear vision of play and are best informed to make decisions. Without vision from where the umpire was standing during this match, it is impossible for us to see what they saw and therefore make any kind of judgement on this decision. ‘But this contact wasn’t that bad’, ‘but we have seen worse in SSN’, these comments are irrelevant here. In the umpire’s opinion, the safety of players on court was at risk,therefore they made their decision with the duty of care and integrity of the game in mind. This was a competitive game at a high level with a lot of contested play. It makes for great viewing, but imagine if we allowed this level of contest in a grass roots game? We would have too many
injuries for the competition to be viable and would eventually impact on the talent coming into our high-level competition. Umpires must make a decision on dangerous play for the safety of the players on court.

When a player is cautioned or warned for any action, they need to adjust. Giants coach Julie Fitzgerald took a risk allowing Manu’a to continue playing instead of removing her from a potentially inflammatory situation. The rules are publicly available online for free and have been for many years, there are no secrets. When a player is sent off, they and their team are being penalised for breaking the rules and discouraged from doing so again, therefore they may not replace the position left vacant. That is the risk taken by not adjusting to the umpire’s decision. To quote Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about at all. This incident has prompted important discussion on the rules of netball which is an incredible opportunity for our community as a whole. SSN released a statement on Friday detailing the review that was undertaken, and it was found that the umpires operated appropriately and within the rules based on their interpretation of the play. However, I have not seen them weigh in on the social media barrage against their two umpires online, and I have not seen any sort of Q&A opportunity with an expert (an umpire, not a commentator or ex-player) to really give the netball community an opportunity to understand the rules and understand why they are operated this way. This is a vital missed opportunity for our sport.

SSN is getting a lot of coverage in sports press, with the decision by the umpires being labelled and critiqued using extremely negative language which I will not repeat here. This is not OK. A young umpire who sees this reaction to game management action at the highest level will think about the words used to describe those umpires and consider whether they really want to get on the court with a whistle in their hand. We have a lot of wonderful people supporting us umpires, but we also face criticism and opposition at the grass roots level. Our national competition could be setting a stronger example of how to support officials and better understand the rules of the game. Finally, these umpires would have started at a small local association like ours. They would have been dropped off to their games by supportive parents, they would have umpired tough games that tested them and they would have had mentors and coaches along their journey who inspired them to strive to umpire at the highest level. The social media backlash against them for doing their job
within the rules of the game has been appalling and disappointing.

If players never made mistakes, we wouldn’t need umpires. Manu’a made a mistake. Let’s move on.