During the recent Reece Walsh hearing at League Central on Wednesday night, even the most seasoned NRL judiciary participants were taken aback by the profanities being dropped. Witnesses Patrick Carrigan and David Fifita initially struggled to utter explicit language in front of a room full of sophisticated individuals, excluding the journalists present. However, they were encouraged to speak freely, and soon enough, foul language was flying freely as if they were in a Martin Scorsese film. This kind of behavior is expected in judiciaries, where swearing with impunity is the norm. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to use such language in newsrooms, public spaces, and even on football fields due to constant surveillance by open microphones.
Using explicit language towards a referee has always been considered unacceptable. When Reece Walsh continuously barked at match officials during the game against the Gold Coast last Sunday, and subsequently yelled, “What the f— do you mean, c—?” at referee Chris Butler after an unfavorable decision, it was expected that he would face severe consequences. The judiciary issued him a three-match ban, but it could have been much harsher. The incident highlighted the need to address the issue of player abuse towards match officials at all levels of sport, as demonstrated by the overwhelming support Walsh received from his teammates, coaches, the Broncos, and Queensland.
Cameron Smith, one of the top three referees of all time, acknowledged Walsh’s poor behavior but questioned the specific evidence that the comment was directed at Butler. Butler confirmed in his referee’s report that he didn’t hear exactly what was said. Smith raised the question, “So what’s he being punished for? Poor body language? Aggressive body language?” However, Walsh was indeed sanctioned for calling the referee a “c—“. Based on the available vision, audio, and considering his behavior not only in this match but in others as well, it is evident that Walsh has repeatedly shown disrespect towards match officials.
In his judgement summary, Judiciary Chair Geoff Bellew, a Supreme Court judge with a notable legal background, dismantled the evidence provided by Carrigan and Fifita. Both players claimed that Walsh’s remark was directed at Carrigan, but Bellew cast doubt on their reliability due to their close relationship with Walsh and the separate discussions they had with him prior to giving evidence. Walsh’s own evidence was considered unreliable as well when he argued that he was responding to Carrigan’s comment to “slow [his] f—ing brain.” Bellew wrote that Walsh’s response was unacceptable and non-responsive to Carrigan’s alleged remark. Ultimately, Walsh’s argument lacked substance and was not taken into consideration during the judgment.
Despite Walsh receiving widespread support from Broncos officials and teammates, who claim he will learn from this incident, it is important to question the support and care given to referees. Referees face immense pressure in their roles and deserve respect and consideration. While Walsh receives support, the touch judge who was subjected to derogatory language remains overlooked. Furthermore, referees endure similar pressure as Walsh but receive far less compensation. It is essential to recognize their contribution to the game and address the escalating abuse they face from players, coaches, and fans.
Instances of referee abuse have become increasingly prevalent. In 2018, leading referee Matt Cecchin spoke out about the abuse he experienced, revealing that it was driving him out of the game. After making a controversial but correct call during the World Cup semi-final between Tonga and England, Cecchin received death threats on social media, leading to police escorts. His story was intended to be a turning point in how match officials were treated, prompting a change in the way journalists wrote and spoke about them. However, the abuse has only worsened over time.
Ben Cummins still feels the emotional impact of the fallout from his controversial decision in the 2019 NRL Grand Final. When Jason Paris, the CEO of Warriors‘ sponsor One NZ, accused the referees of cheating earlier this year, it was alarming to witness the support he received for his comments. Other sports also face similar issues, as seen when Super Rugby referee Ben O’Keeffe exposed the extent of abuse he received after officiating a match. The threats he received, including messages referencing violence and death, shed light on the disturbing abuse match officials endure. The plight of English football referee Anthony Taylor, who was attacked by angry Roma supporters after a Europa League final, further emphasizes the severity of the issue.
The NRL is considering tougher sanctions for referee abuse, including longer suspensions. Reece Walsh, for instance, could face a lengthier ban of six weeks or even ten. The aim is to ensure players think twice before disrespecting a referee or touch judge. Additionally, referees should be granted greater authority to send players off the field, even without hearing the explicit language used. The NRL Bunker currently regulates various aspects of on-field incidents, so it is conceivable to broaden its jurisdiction to include player comments towards match officials. This would give referees the power to clamp down on any dissent. Referee Bill Harrigan, considered one of the best of all time, would likely have taken a stern stance against Walsh’s remark.
Ultimately, the responsibility to address this issue falls on all stakeholders, including players, officials, coaches, and the governing bodies. It is crucial that respect for match officials is prioritised and encouraged. The NRL needs to actively protect referees from abuse and take decisive action against those who cross the line. Only through such measures can match officials focus on their duties without fear of mistreatment.