With the Gridiron NSW season kicking off this week, an ongoing dispute between Gridiron NSW, the sport’s governing body, and the NSW Gridiron Officials Association (NSWGOA) is lingering in the background. The dispute saw the GOA officials absent for the entire 2014 season and continued stalemates in discussions have the league poised for a repeat disassociation in 2015.
A Brief Overview of Gridiron in NSW
Gridiron NSW (GNSW) is the governing body of the fully amateur NSW Gridiron competition since 1984. The league has three divisions – Division 1 (Men >18 years old); Colts (Boys 15-18 years old) and a Women’s league. The league currently has 10 teams spanning from Newcastle to Wollongong and has had a total of 26 teams partake in the competition during its history.
Gridiron in Australia has developed a passionate tribe of individuals who volunteer their time to keep the league running and available to those with an interest in Gridiron in NSW.
The NSW league is represented by the state representative side the NSW Wolfpack competing in the Gridiron Nationals competition every other year.
Gridiron players can seem far from amateur at times thanks to the many intricacies of the game taking many hours to learn and develop. Although an amateur sport, much investment is made both financially and in devoted time into perfecting their craft.
The Contract Dispute Timeline
- NSWGOA approached GNSW with a proposed contract offer
- GNSW Responded with a counter offer revising their expectations for number of referees provided
- NSWGOA agreed to fees but had to re-negotiate based on the number of available officials
- NSWGOA prepared to participate in the 2014 GNSW season and participated in “good faith” as revised contract was prepared
- GNSW added a clause “without prior discussion” requiring NSWGOA to sign the GNSW code of conduct to which NSWGOA refused
- 2014 season was played entirely without NSWGOA and teams were responsible for providing their own officials for their duty games
- Election of new GNSW President – negotiations re-opened
- Agreement reached then reneged
- NSWGOA unable to provide officials for Women’s and Colt’s but agreed to provide 1 “white hat” (lead official) + 1 mentor for each Div 1 game.
- GNSW 2015 draw released involving travel and long waiting time between games for NSWGOA officials
- Refusal to sign GNSW code of conduct by NSWGOA still an issue
- Commencement of 2015 season without NSWGOA
The Disagreeable Issues
Code of Conduct
The primary point of contention in negotiations is the signing of the GNSW Code of Conduct. According to both parties, NSWGOA has repeatedly refused to sign on to the GNSW Code of Conduct. According to the NSWGOA, signing the GNSW code of conduct would jeopardise their independence and would be contrary to the standard procedure for referees association’s all over the world. As the President of NSWGOA, John Boss, outlined as an example – the Referees should only be able to recommend a player to the league’s disciplinary tribunal but have the league decide whether or not to follow through with that recommendation. A merger of the two associations would jeopardise this process, especially in a matter which saw a dispute directly between a player/club and an official.
GNSW’s determination to have their code of conduct enacted by the NSWGOA stems from ultimately wanting to ensure that involvement with the league is regulated The GNSW board outlined their position
“After an incident involving a NSWGOA official a couple of years ago, it became apparent to GNSW that we needed to be able to have some oversight of the officials behaviour, and believe this is best done with them signing our Code of Conduct and accountable to GNSW. GNSW feel that all persons having a part in any GNSW match should be registered though GNSW, for insurance and Code of Conduct purposes.”
Both sides seem to be stern in holding their position. NSWGOA officials have enacted their own code of conduct which corresponds with the greater Australian Gridiron Officials Association (AGOA) code. Its clear that there is no issue with the contents of the code itself, its the greater symbolic surrendering of independence that’s turning the code of conduct into a sticking point between the two parties.
Volume of NSWGOA personnel
Another primary issue that seemed to have been somewhat ironed out is the volume of available referees that NSWGOA has at its disposal. Prior to the 2014 season, when the contracts were initially being discussed, GNSW had outlined its requests to have a NSWGOA official present at each of its league games. The NSWGOA indicated that they would not be able to provide officials for the Women’s or Colts league which was then acceptable to the league. In 2015, after having neared an agreement, the release of the GNSW draw meant that Division 1 games could be played at a single venue at a 10am time slot and a 7pm time slot with Women’s and Colt’s games sandwiched in between. The officials were reluctant to agree to these terms having seen the draw as they consider their officials “volunteers” who are not prepared to give up their whole day waiting between two games they are to official.
Considering the difficulty NSWGOA had in supplying the requested number of officials, GNSW felt that “for fairness to Div 1 teams who have to carry out duty (and play the games) that it would be best to be an all or none scenario with regards to coverage.”
Additionally, GNSW has elected to pay all officials for their time to try and increase the volume of referees available to ensure greater coverage down the track. The league officials stated that in order “to assist with growing the numbers of officials, GNSW has undertaken to pay all officials participating in the sport, rather than just those engaged through NSWGOA, which we hope will assist in the growth in numbers and skills of officials.”
With games being played across NSW to promote the sport for member clubs in Newcastle, Central Coast and Wollongong, the NSWGOA was seeking a travel compensation for officials who had to travel the extra distance to games. Having previously been compensated for travel, the NSWGOA felt it an extra sleight to have more travel enforced by the draw with less compensation. “GNSW felt that is was not appropriate to pay some officials travel, but not to Club officials.”
The Role of Referees
Gridiron is certainly one of the most difficult games to officiate with the NFL incorporating 7 referees to oversee 22 players at any one time. Unlike Rugby or Rugby League where there is only one point of attack, in Gridiron every player on the field can be engaged in physical contact simultaneously which is a large part of the allure of the sport for the aggressive-minded men the sport attracts.
Additionally, Gridiron is a notoriously complex sport to understand. Watch an NFL or College Football game and you’ll inevitably see a long referee’s meeting following a play to discuss whether an incident warrants a penalty flag or not. Attendance at a referee’s training day will often end in more confusion than beforehand due to the depth of the rules governing the sport.
According to Mr Boss, “The primary focus of the referee is to ensure player safety.” The recent concussion controversies in the NFL and College Football have seen significant rule changes to assist the referees in reducing the amount of dangerous collisions by penalising players who make contact with a defenceless opponent. In the NFL, players are moving at lightening speed and the collisions are off the charts, however, the players have been playing Gridiron since a young age and are generally aware of the rules at their position. In amateur leagues, the role of refereeing can be exceptionally challenging as players skill level and experience vary greatly.
“The Primary Focus of the Referee is to ensure player safety” – John Boss (NSWGOA President)
Despite the disagreement there is a dedicated page on the Gridiron NSW website for the NSWGOA.
Impact on the 2015 Season
“Its the wild west out there, all the safety for players is coached at practice by competent coaches, in GNSW you cannot rely on coaching competence of other teams nor from the ability of those officiating in the 2015 season. – Pete Upham” (Sutherland Seahawks Coach/Official)
The primary concern of this ordeal is the impact of commencing the season with under-qualified referees overseeing proceedings. Many teams have experienced players who generally understand the rules but player safety, especially with collisions to the head will be difficult to manage for an inexperienced referee.
This video from week 1 action shows a very dangerous, illegal tackle which illustrates the extent of contact officials will need to monitor, punish and outlaw. The play was rightfully given a penalty but the label as a “monster hit” and the GNSW allegedly posting the video on their Facebook page before bringing it down indicates that there is still confusion between highlight plays and unsafe plays.
Jarryd Hayne trained with the UTS Gridiron club prior to his move to chase his NFL dream and with his success taking centre stage in the Australian media, Gridiron NSW is poised for an influx of talent and interest for the upcoming season. Its disappointing that the pay dispute has been dragged out to potentially affect a second full season. Surely if there is any chance of a middle ground it would have been found by now. The true victims of this ordeal are the players, who dedicate so much time to improving the quality of the game in Australia only to have their health and safety jeopardised.
As is often the case in amateur sports, the volunteers in the decision making roles bear the burden of ensuring success during the time they are in charge. Its important for them to avoid losing control and leaving the league worse off than before they came into governance. GNSW can be perceived to be providing a disservice to its members and supporters by putting aside care for the safety of its players. Blame can certainly be shared between both sides of the dispute, but a league that treasures the wellbeing of its players above all else will endeavour to do everything within its power to swiftly remedy the situation. To prevent the NSWGOA from adjudicating games with a consideration of “fairness” on a “all or none” basis is inherently unfair to the members it represents. It is also evident that discussions have become bogged down in minutia, and deferral by both parties to a third party mediator would speed up the process.
For the league to continue to grow and reach the heights it aspires to, a collective and coherent focus from the governing body, officials, member clubs and players must be a top priority. Disdain and distrust amongst the league’s constituency will preclude the league from reaching any semblance of professionalism, which will subsequently prevent the beautiful game of Gridiron from reaching critical mass in Australia.