Courtesy: The Guardian

May 24, 2022

Ray ‘Razor’ Chamberlain Speaks Exclusively With 4Quarters

Ray Chamberlain has officiated AFL for 19 years and is as recognisable to fans as any player.

However, it now means, after the 2021 end-of-season retirements, 2022 is the first year no active player debuted before him.

Fremantle’s David Mundy is now the longest-serving AFL player, having first laced up in 2005.

“I did not know that. I umpired five games at the back end of 2004, and 2005 was my first full season. Wow, that’s actually….,” Chamberlain laughs.

“David and I received our AFL Life Membership in the same year. So, I need him to finish before me. I did not realise…that is extraordinary.

“I am old as dirt!

“Give the people what they want David, retire mate, so I can.”

Ray Chamberlain has officiated in 354 AFL matches, 31 finals, including seven preliminary finals and has been involved in six grand finals. His body has copped a hiding over time, but he remains a moth to the game day flame.

“The only reason I am back this year is to umpire with a full house again. I’m 45, my back is stuffed, I have tendon issues, and I’m probably hanging on with white knuckles, but I don’t want to end it rocking around in front of no one,” he told 4Quarters.

“That’s why I’m still here, I want to be back for another year with the fans. We love the passion, we value it with the fans there, and without fans the game isn’t even remotely the same. They’re so important.

“I have a game this week and I’ll prepare the best I can, which is different now to when I was 30 or 35. I know I’m way closer to the end than the start.”

“But I still love all of it. The physical element, the challenge of running 16km a game while doing the cognitive stuff and communicating at the same time.

“The travel, preparation, changing match and weather conditions, rule or law changes, interaction with different people, even dealing with injury. No two games are the same. It is the most unique and beautiful sport; I have loved my time and the challenge excites me and provides me with purpose.”

BLOWING THE WHISTLE ON TOXIC ABUSE

Unfortunately, in an ever-evolving sport, one thing that hasn’t changed over his career arc is the level of toxic abuse levelled at whistle-blowers over the fence.

But with time comes experience. And with experience, wisdom.

Chamberlain says the moment has arrived for rhetoric and public relations exercises to be replaced by a concerted, industry-wide campaign to rid the game of as much abuse as possible – from grassroots and community levels up to the AFL.

And, having been around long enough to know how the AFL jigsaw fits together, he said that players needed to drive campaigns to gain maximum traction across the community.

The AFL itself has admitted that off-the-charts, constant, unwelcome, and unwarranted, sometimes violent and threatening, vitriol hurled over fences was driving too many umpires from the game and making it difficult to recruit.

The circularity being that, until the abuse stops, the game will fail to attract and retain when it is already 6000 umpires short across all levels.

Chamberlain is simply starting a conversation that must be had.

There have been awareness campaigns in the past, but a growing umpire shortage can only indicate that the situation is worsening.

“I personally believe the narrative must be shifted away from it being an umpiring issue to it being an Australian Rules football issue,” Chamberlain said.

“What I am saying isn’t about sticking up for the poor umps, it is about how it is impacting the fabric and viability of the game.

“Whether we are cognisant of it or not, directly, or indirectly, we are bringing down a game we profess to love when we behave poorly. If there is no umpire to officiate, the game cannot go on and we cannot barrack and cheer. I don’t think the penny is dropping for some.”

“Overwhelmingly, I believe people are inherently good. It is just how I view the world. Any time you go to a sporting event around the world it is all the same: overwhelming the masses don’t cross any lines because they are good people.

But, also, in all parts of the world, we have different pockets who are in a different head space”.

“We are forfeiting games because we don’t have an umpire”

Chamberlain said games are now being forfeited at community level due to a lack of umpires.

“This is where it has gotten to at different levels in the game. This is the outcome. We are forfeiting games because we don’t have an umpire to officiate, that’s what is now happening. I heard that yesterday,” he said.

“There is no problem with light-hearted banter, the oohs and aahs and barracking, it’s the crossing of the line.

“We must come together to say that the game doesn’t accept it. Clubs and leagues need to walk the walk and define the environments and parameters of what is acceptable.

I would certainly look to engage the playing group, and the leadership of the playing group, in anything I was trying to amend in the game.

The players and umpires at AFL level have an incredibly mutually respectful relationship. But we cannot drive it, it is the players who have a profoundly positive influence over supporters and young people, they’re the legends.

“Anything you want to get done in the game you need the players to own it, to understand why it’s relevant and important and have them help you drive it.”

If we boil down Chamberlain’s message, he is only saying what most people already know – some sporting venues fail to meet general community behavioural standards.

But saying similarly horrendous, sexist, racist and derogatory things would clearly cross the thin blue line elsewhere. Do it at a pub and you’ll be booted. Over the back fence and your neighbour might call the cops.

If I was thrusting myself in a game in an inappropriate manner … do I get to 350 games, 30 finals, 7 prelims or be involved in 6 grand finals? Not a chance.

And Ray is right, of course. Imagine Patrick Dangerfield, Max Gawn, Nic Naitanui or Dustin Martin calling for calm and the message gains a power. Clearly, Australian Rules is not the only sport struggling with toxic abuse against officials. Abuse that ruins the game experience for other punters and angers and demoralises both players and umpires.

This year the AFL tightened rules around untoward abuse towards officials by players. It is a start and sets a standard, but in some ways it is also picking the low hanging fruit. Will it stop supporters doing the same thing? Or fuel it? The game’s challenge is to get through to those who may be ‘great people’ in all other aspects of life, but morph into something quite different watching their team or children. And how does it look in the suburbs? Chamberlain said it is not easy to isolate people and say ‘enjoy the game, but without hurling abuse’, so the situation demands strong administrative and club leadership.

And for parents, siblings, relatives, and friends of players to not be passive bystanders.

THE NEED FOR ADVOCACY

Chamberlain, a trained teacher with a curious mind and big heart, believes the solution revolves around inclusion, understanding and holistic thinking.

“I think the game can get better at advocating for the laws of the game, so fans and players know them better. And I think the game can get better at advocating for the role of umpires and what they are doing out there and why,” he said.

“Just ask yourself why the umpires are there? None of us drive a Maserati, they just love the game. It is elite level, competitive, and they are trying desperately to do the best they can.”

“People bleed black and red or navy blue. They are so passionate, I love it. But if some people leave the stadium with the kids at half time because they happen to be seated near people yelling toxic abuse, that is not an umpiring issue.

“So why do we accept this behaviour, I cannot for the life of me understand it?”

Expectedly, Ray has been exposed to negative feedback from the sidelines at all levels of footy. “People are emotionally involved. We all carry stuff, I get how that can come out. But it is hard to expect kids to come back the next week with a positive mindset, if at all,” he said.

“I used to be affected by it. You find yourself trying to shrink away, avoid the café, the Monday morning office chat.

“When you are umpiring AFL you don’t hear most of it. It’s like diving under the waves at the beach and there’s that rolling noise as it rolls over your head. That’s what you hear in the AFL. But at local grounds you hear Bob ask Steve if he wants sugar in his coffee. So, of course, you hear all the abuse.”

Some junior levels effectively curate the game by not including new AFL rules, a major reason is to shield young umpires from abusive spectators. However, while not wanting to water down positive sentiment, Ray said it is yet another example of excusing abhorrent behaviour.

The answer then for football is not to simply keep letting the driftwood go, it must be the arborist that stops the tree rotting by treating, or cutting out, the disease.

If holistic means everything and anything, there also must be a rethink around language used by stakeholders and in media. Even if remarks are meant to be off handed, the sentiment often holds.

“I cannot believe the comments from senior figures in some sports. It doesn’t matter what industry, if one element of that industry is constantly harangued, devalued, and ignored it’s hard to recruit good people,” he said.

“So, again, as a game how can we change that?

“What I am saying isn’t about sticking up for the poor umps, it is about how it is impacting the fabric and viability of the game.

Courtesy: AAP

RAY CHAMBERLAIN & SLIDING DOOR MOMENTS

Ray admits he may have walked from the game himself without the positive support he received as a young umpire in Canberra.

“It was important in terms of my ability to cope with some of the stuff that comes when you are a sports official. I think that’s important for people to know, especially when we have such shortages in officiating,” he said. “Umpires now lack the organised support structures we once had. And we haven’t historically handled the exit well for our people and lose them from the game.” He said retention rates of young umpires may improve if retired umpires were kept in the system to coach, mentor and support at junior and local levels.

It may surprise some that, before Chamberlain was Razor, he was ‘Chambo’ to his mates and a solid sporting all-rounder.

Ray is the son of a public servant mother and blue-collar father raised in Tuggeranong, a so-called ‘nappy valley’ on the outskirts of Canberra, with two younger brothers.

He was a cheeky goal sneak who racked up over 200 games for the Tuggeranong Lions in the ACT local competition, playing in premierships and state championship sides.

“I was nowhere near our best player, but I could run, chase and tackle. I loved the club and the fact all shapes and sizes can find their lane in this game. There is a space for everyone.”

Chamberlain was one of those kids who shine with a pigskin in hand or swinging the willow. And so as a wicketkeeper-batsman he played in premierships and at representatives level, including state and under-19 and under-21 national championships.

When Ray drove his Nissan Pulsar into Melbourne, leaving friends and support networks in Canberra, his second home became the Melbourne Cricket Club. He was swinging a Gray-Nicolls Razor bat at the time and so earned his nickname. “I was playing in the seconds. Rob Templeton was our captain and we had guys at the club like Brad Hodge and Andrew McDonald. Dean Jones played country rounds with us. It was an amazing club to play with,” Ray said. He could easily have been lost to first-grade cricket.

Courtesy: South Metro

But sliding door moments have directed Ray’s journey. His first umpiring gig came when he rocked up to watch his brother play, but asked by the club president to umpire as the real ump had not shown up. He was paid in petrol.

“At half time a local footy legend, Bob Stacey, came up and asked: ‘how long you been doing this? I said 45 minutes,” Ray laughs.

“Bob said I could make six figures umpiring part-time. I was 17 and running pizzas at Eagle Boys where the bonus structure was how many free garlic breads you could get. He had my attention”. And so Ray started umpiring.

“I was a unicorn, playing rep footy and rep cricket, when every other umpire was 60. It was a unique time in my life. “One day you’re punching on with guys in the U18s and literally the next day you’re umpiring them in the U19s. I had to decide. I wasn’t good enough for AFL and $50 a week playing for the Tugga reserves wasn’t floating my boat”.

Ray was umpiring on weekends while earning an Education Degree at the University of Canberra when a random phone call changed his life.

“A friend asked if I could umpire a couple of games. I had no idea of the context, so I arrive and it’s the State Championships. I did the games and was selected to officiate the grand final. From there I was sent to the National Championships in Darwin. I got picked for that grand final, then they sent a team to Ireland for the first time in 12 years and I was selected.

“I met (current AFL Talent Ambassador) Kevin “Shifter” Sheehan in Ireland and that’s when I realised there was a structure to umpiring. Like the players. That’s when I decided that I am into this. I was hooked.”

He then toiled for the next decade to become an AFL umpire. His pathway was, after graduating as a teacher in 1998, to accept a VFL contract while teaching physical education at Mordialloc College.

Sliding doors. He met his wife in Melbourne and they share two daughters. He does the media thing, daddy day care, runs the Chamberlain Foundation with his brothers and juggles a financial advisory firm, a career he pivoted into to fit around league umpiring.

And, although Ray has left teaching, he said some soft skills transferred well.

“We are all wired differently and respond differently. You don’t play golf with just a driver and a putter, sometimes you need different clubs in your bag. The teaching absolutely helps with the umpiring.”

“Some say the game has gone soft. No, it has not. The players are huge, they hit so hard and they need protecting from themselves. “

The thing with Chamberlain is some people still don’t like umpires showing personality on- or off-field and having a voice, let alone an opinion. This goes to the heart of the issue.

Umpires are still seen by many as robots or that detestable nomenclature ‘white maggots’. Not human. But remember when umpires were seen but not heard? Ray was about the first to step around the Iron Curtain to pioneer constructive debate about the role of AFL umpires. Others are now opening the shoulders. Do we really want them to disappear again? If we listen keenly to administrators, players and coaches, we must afford the same to whistle-blowers who have earned their stripes.

Ray laughs when asked how many rules changes he has adjudicated through. “A few,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to put a number on it. But once we understand what’s trying to be achieved, the quicker we respond intuitively in a game, that is the challenge.

“We don’t have an opinion, we are given instructions, ‘implement these please’. No problem, that’s our job, that’s where we sit on the organisational flowchart.”

However, Ray does take issue with comments that AFL rules are scattergun or reactive. “I think that’s pub talk and doesn’t give enough credit to the most powerful sporting organisation in our country,” he said. “Fundamentally, the primary focus of AFL law changes in my time has been protection of players. The AFL has been great at that.

“(The players) are so brave. Some say the game has gone soft. No, it has not. The players are huge, they hit so hard and they need protecting from themselves. Because they are just fearless. “Look at things like tunnelling, sliding with contact below the knees causing horrible broken legs. It was a Rugby Union thing to clear out the ruck so the second person can come in and get the ball.

“They clearly had to get that out of the game. The rule changes that probably rile people are those that try to help the aesthetics of the game.

“But, again, truckloads of research and data goes into it, it’s not two people having a wine on Friday night. It is a huge responsibility to hold. Like the concussion issues being worked through now.”

Ray said on-field decision-making was a split-second decision about placing an incident into one of three ‘buckets’.

“We are clear on what we’re asked to do, the challenge is taking the framework and applying it to a set of circumstances that happens in a nanosecond. We need to contextualise things,” he said.

“If you look at it on a bell curve, you will confidently say 40% of incidents are not a free kick and 40% are. The other 20% is a grey area and that’s where the debate lies.

“The skill for us is deciding which bucket an incident lands in and why and the influence it had.”

The insufficient intent rule that was tightened for the purpose of keeping the ball moving by reducing throw-ins is a prime example of subjective decision-making. There is human error every week. But would we have it any other way? 

DON’T LIKE IT? GO TO THE TENNIS

Not only must officials navigate the often-controversial 20%, but also black spots within that zone. Like off-ball incidents or those obscured by non-participating players. However, who wants to stop a continuous game for video replays?

“Here’s the overarching thing about the laws of the game, that people don’t necessary embrace or see. And it’s just my view,” he said

“It is an oval field, a 360 degree game played with an oval ball that bounces unpredictably.

“And we have had a set of laws for 150 years that are predicated on reasonable time, genuine attempt and prior opportunity.

“None of this is black and white. If you want black and white go to the tennis where they have a laser that tells you if the ball is out or not.

“This game is subjective, unpredictable and interpretational by its nature. And what does that create? Debate, discussion and passionate support. It is why they sell out stadiums.

“The athletes are unbelievably skilful. We talk about Lance Franklin, Marcus Bontempelli, Kysaiah Pickett, Jason Horne Francis, I saw him play last week, he’s a goer. The young Daicos boys. We ask why players are kicking goals around the corner now. The game ebbs and flows with trends. Each generation brings different flavours, they have their own way of playing, their own music and ways of doing things in society. So it evolves. But what doesn’t change is how diverse the game is and I think we need to celebrate it more.”

Chamberlain is passionate about helping young umpires through the ranks by transforming the obstacles he faced into lessons to educate and encourage. “I love the game and the group of umpires I am part of, they’re such good people. I am privileged to have been a small part of AFL for 19years and I hope when I’m finished I can continue to contribute in some way, shape or form.”

Courtesy: News Ltd