Inside story: Female and non-binary footy umpires detail their sexual and racial abuse hell
A stomach-turning report detailing sexual abuse, assault and racist slurs against female AFL umpires has been leaked. Here, the brave victims share their stories and expose the boys’ club culture.
A disturbing 62-page document detailing sexual abuse, assault and racist slurs against female umpires at all levels has been leaked. Damning revelations from 27 officials in the investigation will make anyone’s blood boil. it’s no surprise the AFL did not make it public. Sam Landsberger shines a light on the sickening reality of being a female footy umpire and the sport’s boys’ club culture.
Chelsea Roffey wore her first AFL uniform – a “ridiculously oversized” men’s tracksuit – around the house with pride.
Roffey kicked the Sherrin in the backyard until her feet were “red raw” and started waving flags behind the goals for boys’ teams in high school.
Umpiring was in her blood.
Her grandfather, Leonard Gardner, blew the whistle in South Australian country footy when he returned from World War II.
Roffey became the first female AFL Grand Final umpire in 2012 and by the end of last season she had stood behind the goals in 280 matches.
But Roffey’s pathway from local footy in Brisbane to the biggest stage was “dotted with mixed emotions”.
“I knew from the beginning that any successes, or failures, would bear the burden of the gender lens,” she told a secret AFL-funded report into female umpiring.
“Looking back, scenarios that related to my gender ranged from those I regarded as innocuous, waved away as signs of ignorance rather than ill-intent, through to those that made my blood boil.”
As Eleni Glouftsis, the AFL’s first female field umpire also told the report: “While umpiring juniors through to state league level, I’ve worn uniforms that don’t fit, used change rooms that impose segregation and have had my ability to perform questioned due to my gender by spectators, players, coaches, the media, umpiring peers and umpiring coaches”.
That oversized men’s tracksuit the AFL sent in the post almost 20 years ago could have been passed off as innocuous.
But distressing stories from 27 umpires (26 female and one non-binary) in the investigation conducted by the University of Sydney would make anyone’s blood boil.
It is not surprising the AFL has wanted to keep secret the 62-page document: “Girls and women in Australian football umpiring: Understanding registration, participation and retention”.
“I used to receive messages of nudes that other umpires would send to me,” one state-league umpire told the report, seen by the Herald Sun.
“And umpires during games would inappropriately touch me, like when we’re umpiring together and things like that.
“So, that’s what made me quit that level of umpiring because I thought it was too inappropriate and I didn’t know what to do about it at the time.
“I would have felt safer and more comfortable in reporting the behaviour if the coaches didn’t engage in the ‘boys club’ behaviour you see at training, and made me feel welcome.
“I felt like I wasn’t part of the group and they didn’t know how to deal with me, which meant I had no rapport with any coaches and if I did, there’s a chance I would have been comfortable enough to report what was happening.
“The coaches could have called out some of the inappropriate comments at training if they heard them – this would indicate to female umpires that the environment wasn’t the boys club we were used to and that those sort of inappropriate remarks weren’t tolerated.”
Another girl was subjected to constant advances from a colleague.
“I’d made ‘friends’ with a group of guys my age,” she said.
“One of them … added me on social media and was always messaging me.
“I received unsolicited nude photos from this person, as well as comments about what I was wearing at training that night, constant messages asking me out on dates after I’d said ‘no’.”
So desperate for the harassment to stop, she went on a date with him. It didn’t work.
“When we umpired games together, he would always touch me and grab at me,” she said.
“The thing that really stings about this is that there were other umpires around when this happened, but no one ever said anything.
“There were always the constant misogynistic comments I received from multiple members of the academy group, which added to my discomfort.
“I told my dad at the time and he didn’t know what to do either. I just thought quitting was probably the best way to go about it because I felt like there was nothing I really could do.”
One umpire was objectified at a state-league training session.
“I openly overheard a group of guys talking about my boobs at training one night,” she said.
“I was walking up the stairs, and I overheard them being literally like, ‘Oh my god, have you seen (name withheld) tits?’ And I turned around and I looked at them, and I was like are you serious?
“Like that’s what you’re going to say? That’s what you say at training?
“And it freaked me out a little bit to be like my god, what do you say like as a group behind my back?”
Even coaches have been accused of harassment.
“At training, there was one of the coaches that would always try to talk to me and meet up with me outside of training and stuff and it was clearly really uncomfortable for me,” one umpire said.
“So, I just stopped going to training after that so that was probably the worst experience I had when I was targeted.”
The AFL’s crackdown on respect for umpires this year was pinned on a shortage of 6000 at grassroots level.
Frustrated AFL players who hold their arms out after decisions are now being penalised 50m for showing dissent.
But beneath the surface lies the real national umpiring crisis, chillingly exposed by a report the AFL paid for but has not released.
The researchers interviewed 27 umpires from varied backgrounds: rural, regional and urban areas, different ages and abilities, racially and religiously diverse, as well as those just starting out and veterans.
They covered Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and NSW/ACT, and also interviewed their state umpire managers – with the exception of Queensland, whose state manager declined to participate.
As one of those male managers said: “Any umpiring club over the last 20 years have been white male, that’s the common thread between them, and similar kinds of mindsets.”
“A lot of people used to be like, ‘Run n----r (name withheld) run!’” one boundary umpire said.
“When I had big hair and I was umpiring, people used to scream like, ‘Oh, you’d run so much faster if you’d cut that off!’
“Footy is a very white culture background and I’m very well aware of that… my parents… they’re like, ‘Yeah! Go join footy!’
“And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ And then you hear these really ugly words and you’re even like, ‘What’s going on? Mum, Dad, you told me this was a good sport.’ It has an ugly side.”
The report concluded that several females had lost faith in the governing body that purported to support them.
One umpire felt “humiliated” when she registered for the season.
“The only box I was able to tick was ‘Mr.’ on this fillable form,” she said.
“It wouldn’t let me advance through the rest of the contract. It’s like, ‘You haven’t completed’.
“So it’s just those little things that I feel like are actually easy fixes, if they got a consultant to actually just go through systems and processes that have literally just been set up for men. So those things don’t help.”
That same umpire considered discussing gender equality within her competition with the league’s male psychologist.
But when he addressed a group email to “Gents”, she no longer wanted an appointment.
“I’m like, ‘That’s not a safe person for me to talk to about some of the gender-related stuff that I was thinking about, why I might not come back next season’,” she said.
According to the report, these moments accumulate over time and diminish confidence and enjoyment. They introduce and increase the idea that women and girls are not welcome or acknowledged in their leagues.
CULTURE OF EXCLUSION
Some umpires struggled to find partners for drills at training or were excluded from meaningful roles in games.
“All I want is that when we have to partner up, or get into groups for something, I don’t want to have to wait until everyone else is partnered up and I have to go with the last person,” one umpire told the report.
“I want someone to come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, I’ll be your partner.’ Or, when I rock up to training, I want a couple of people to come over to me and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ Have a conversation.”
It was often assumed they weren’t up for the physical challenges simply because they were girls.
“None of the boys would want to pair up with me or they go, ‘She can’t run’,” another umpire said.
“There was some point where they say, ‘You don’t have to run the full thing because you’re a girl,’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ and he was like, ‘You don’t have to do the full lap of the oval, you can just do half a lap because you’re a girl,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I can run the full lap. That’s fine,’ or they don’t want to pair up with me.”
This umpire decided to just suck it up.
“Why I maybe fit in really quickly was I just accepted the boys’ club mentality, and I put my head down and went okay, this is how it’s going to be; survival,” she said.
“You’re going to maybe feel a whole lot of pain, or maybe not be as happy, it’s just deal with it.”
One of the state’s umpire managers said sexism remained embedded in community football.
“When girls are still copping … ‘back to the kitchen’ or ‘what would you know?’ … that type of inflammatory language just hasn’t been eradicated completely,” he said.
An old-school coach made umpires sweat through a gruelling beep-test after a state-league training session.
One by one they dropped out, with many vomiting on the sidelines.
But when a female was among the final few still running the coach stopped the drill.
“He was just like, ‘You should be working harder. You should be beating (her)’,” that umpire said.
“And he was very confused as to why I was beating the rest of the guys.”
Another umpire was told: “Oh, thanks sweetheart” after officiating a Schools Cup in Queensland.
“I’m like yeah, OK, that’s not really necessary mate, I’m just, like, another person…” she said.
“It’s just like, well first of all it’s really awkward, it’s like, ‘Why? Why did you say that?’
“But I guess it makes you feel like – because when you’re out there you’re an umpire, you’re part of the game you’re officiating and whatever. When they make comments like that it kind of puts you out of what – like it puts you out of being an umpire, like they’re treating you differently and I’m like, it’s just so odd.”
Another “swore off umpiring” after a crowd incident.
“A supporter yelled out, ‘Why don’t you open your eyes instead of your legs, you stupid slut!’” she said.
“I get you can abuse the uniform, that’s fine. I don’t care if you yell at me because I’m a girl. I can cop it. But that was just too far, and then I took it to the league and they didn’t even cop a fine or anything, so I moved to (another league).”
The examples were endless.
“I’ve had a lot of people saying, ‘You can’t umpire because you’re a girl, you don’t know it as well, you’re not going to be loud enough, you’re not going to be able to dictate all these little boys,” one said.
“I had this really rude coach who ended up coming on the field and saying, ‘I don’t want you to umpire, you’re a female, you can’t umpire. I want these boys to be umpired by a proper umpire’.
“These were under-11 boys and getting so angry and he was like, ‘You can’t umpire, you’re a girl.’ My mum is standing there, going, ‘You can’t be saying this to my daughter.’
“It was horrible. He started saying really sexist things to me and so, it ended up with me having to red-card him and send him off and he couldn’t coach for the rest of the season, but it’s just rude that he thought he had the authority to do that over me just because I was a female.
“I can guarantee you, he wouldn’t have done that if it was a guy.”
Clear protocols around umpires showering and changing and improving infrastructure are desperately needed, according to the report.
One state has a policy – shirts and shorts stay on in common areas and ice baths.
Break the rule and you’ll be in the reserves next week. But it appears there is much more work to do.
“That place sucks. You’re getting undressed with grandpa. That’s not normal anywhere else,” one umpire said of one facility.
“They’re so polite …. Then you take your clothes off in front of me? That’s the worst bit.”
It’s a complex issue, and research found segregation shouldn’t occur simply for the sake of it.
“My coach was like, ‘I’ve gone through a lot of trouble to try and get this extra change room organised, and I couldn’t organise it. I’m so sorry’,” a non-binary umpire said.
“And I’m like, ‘I’ve told you five times, I don’t care. I would rather just be in the same change room, because all I’m doing is changing a shirt essentially.”
Some girls asked the men to step outside while they changed – further separating themselves from the group – but not all felt comfortable taking the initiative.
“It just seems to be particularly change rooms, the old stance of it’s a boy’s club and we’ll go and shower and walk out in a towel,” one girl said.
“That’s not acceptable under any circumstances, whether it’s young boys or young girls, it’s not okay.
“But trying to get it through to them that’s not OK and having to usher women or girls out of rooms all the time or kids out of rooms all the time because you’ve just walked out in a towel.
“Trying to change that has been a big issue and I’ve been involved for seven years and it’s still an ongoing issue now.”
Asked if changerooms were the biggest negative about being a female umpire, this was the Victorian focus group’s conversation:
Umpire one: “Yep”.
Umpire two: “Yeah, of course. Especially because like, yes, we understand that we’re trying to have diversity, men and women and everywhere, but at the end of the day people still want their privacy to get changed, it’s pretty ridiculous that you have everyone in the same room. And not even just everyone, it’s everyone, all ages, all genders, everyone.
Umpire three: “Absolutely everyone.”
Umpire two: “Just to strip, so a bit. Yeah, literally everyone. It’s just not what you want.”
Umpire one: “Yeah, it’s the only time I feel like I don’t like umpiring.”
SELECTION AND MERIT
Perpetuation and dominance of talk around women not deserving particular roles was common and extreme across all states, the report said.
Data in this research indicated they experienced significant stress and pressure about appointments and that in turn they felt disconnected from their umpiring group due to open and masked hostility from peers and coaches.
“I wasn’t imagining it. There’s backlash about me doing it, and I was happy when the season got cancelled (due to Covid),” one state-league umpire said.
“It was stressing me out… I didn’t do the game, and I was relieved. And then, I was like, ‘Maybe I just don’t come back’.”
For umpires of colour, the backlash was not only about gender, but also race.
“I’ve definitely heard that hundreds of times, ‘You only get this because you’re a girl,’ or ‘Because you’re black’,” one said.
“So, I’ve definitely heard them thousands of times, but all I can see is that there’s never been a time I got something because I was either black or a woman, it’s only because I had the opportunity, the exact same as everyone else.”
The report’s conclusion includes a damning assessment.
It reads: “While the AFL has stated that Australian Football ‘is a game for everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from’, it is clear that for many umpires, this is not the case”.
Originally published as Inside story: Female and non-binary footy umpires detail their sexual and racial abuse hell