Former AFL umpire Matthew Head has said retired players in the media need to help lead a shift in the attitudes towards player contact with umpires, after GWS star Toby Greene was suspended for three weeks for bumping his shoulder against umpire Matt Stevic in the Giants' elimination final win over Sydney.
Greene will miss the rest of the year after he was found guilty of intentional umpire contact at the Tribunal on Tuesday, and speaking to ESPN, Head, a veteran of 144 AFL games who retired in 2008, said while he was "angry and disappointed" by Greene's conduct on the field, responses from some of the game's greats who have a platform in the media came as a just as big of a shock.
In the washup to the incident, Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury dismissed the contact Greene made with Stevic as similar to how Lachie Neale touched umpire Mathew Nicholls earlier in the year, calling for a fine only, while four-time premiership Hawk Luke Hodge made excuses for Greene in a post-match interview, describing the incident as 'accidental'.
Incoming Toby tax.... Neale got fine didn't he? Shouldn't touch the umpires but that contact wasn't more agressive than Neales for mine #justmyview— Scott Pendlebury (@SP_10) August 28, 2021
Former Bulldog Luke Darcy also dismissed the contact as accidental, while former Pie and Giant Heath Shaw proclaimed that Stevic "didn't feel threatened" by the contact. Both have platforms on Channel 7 - Darcy as a commentator, and Shaw as part of the 'Heater and Daisy Show'.
Head said an attitude change was required from those inside the AFL industry to take incidents like this more seriously, and that public views wouldn't shift until the game's greats -- who seemed to employ a 'player's code' -- we're on board with the notion that non-accidental contact with an umpire was wrong.
"I'm diametrically opposed to [Pendlebury's] view. I just think it lacks an understanding of what we need to do to protect the game and the fabric of the game," Head said. "In Luke's case as well, I think [attitudes need to change], I mean no one wants good players to miss games and finals, so I think that [Hodge] probably (had some) 'player code' coming out there.
"I can't speak on behalf of Luke but I would like to think that if he's had a look at [what he said], he might like to rethink what he what he asked of Greene."
On the incident itself, Head said it was hard to believe that a modern day footballer would "take the option of going at an umpire physically".
"Umpires are not trained to deal with physical confrontation. The cynic in me says that [Greene was] potentially looking to take an easy target in terms of going at an umpire. Walking at least five steps and then making a shoulder contact ... I think there's no way around it," Head told ESPN.
"I also think that he's lucky that Matt Stevic actually looked to avoid [contact]. In some ways by turning away, Greene is probably pretty lucky that it didn't look a lot worse."
Head said while it wasn't the sort of contact that would cause an injury, the "implications" of a player making a beeline for an umpire to make physical contact with him could be "bigger than just Toby Greene", particularly in a final with so many eyeballs on television sets.
"I was talking to a local umpires coach and he was saying that that he believes that this year at a local level, abuse and aggressive behavior towards umpires has gone through the roof. That it's really concerning and they're having to look really closely at that. On what I'm hearing it's [also] increased at the local level," Head said.
"I've got no issues with players letting off steam - it's a physical contest, there's high stakes. But it's directed at an umpire and it's easily visible, I think that's where the lines, going to be drawn.
"We want to let some stuff go, but then you get incidents like this, which is difficult for an umpire because they want to have rapport. It's about things that creep into the game and then filter down."
During Tuesday's tribunal hearing, Greene did claim to have a good rapport with Stevic, and that he was one of the umpires to which Greene directed a lot of questions.
Stevic said he didn't feel threatened by the contact with Greene, but did hint at it being "disrespectful", a description AFL counsel Jeff Gleeson QC later described as "diplomatic".
"Some may form the view it's demonstrative, but I would say there's an element of it being disrespectful," Stevic said when questioned.
Head said he wouldn't expect an AFL umpire to ever feel intimidated on the footy field, but it doesn't mean that acts like Greene's shouldn't be "stamped out" of the game forever.
"[Umpires are grownups] and can deal with scenarios. You go into a game knowing you'll have to deal with scenarios," Head told ESPN. "It's more about the looks of the game and protecting the fabric of umpiring ... because things creep over time about what's tolerated."
And in Head's experience, that abuse that younger and less experienced umpires do face at junior and lower leagues means there is a retention issue that hasn't gone away, even with a perceived crackdown on umpire abuse at those levels.
"Umpire retention at lower leagues is an issue and has been for some time," he said. "There are a lot of umpires that join the ranks but retaining them is a real challenge.
"Typically it's the abuse which turns them away. I'm a father of young kids. If they were out umpiring and they had someone physically approach them, walk at them, and make shoulder contact with them, that would be really worrying. You're not there for the physical contest, you're there to officiate and apply the rules."