Up There Ca-Chelsea

19 / 09 / 2014

For many, September means footy finals time – so for this September Bonza Sheila it’s a perfect way to highlight just one of the many women who contribute to making the AFL what it is. And what a Bonza woman at that … in 2012, Chelsea Roffey made history, becoming the first woman to umpire a Grand Final. This year marks her tenth year as an umpire of the game. Casting an eye back to just some of her achievements, she speaks with Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper. Although she wouldn’t divulge any grand final 2014 predictions – as with her role on the field, she’s a law abiding interviewee!

SARAH CAPPER [SC]:  What stimulated your interest in Aussie Rules, and indeed in umpiring Aussie Rules football?

CHELSEA ROFFEY [CR]: I was basically a footy fanatic who put her hand up as a volunteer in high school to be a goal umpire for inter-school sport. I knew enough about the game to be comfortable on the field but soon discovered there was much more to goal umpiring than meets the eye. The following year when I started university, I joined the local umpires’ association and began umpiring as a part-time job. I enjoyed the fitness training, learning how to communicate well, to be decisive, read the play and have the reflexes and timing to get into the correct position to make the best decision. There’s real skill to it, and it keeps you alert, thinking and on your toes.

[SC]: How did you cope from moving from footy mad South Australia to Queensland – how did you maintain your Aussie Rules interest in the rugger-bugger-loving state (I say in all good jest as a born and bred Queenslander):

[CR]: I moved from South Australia to Queensland when I was quite young, but footy remained part of our family. My two brothers played and my parents and I continued to be involved with the game at a local level. It’s always held a special place in my heart. Apart from the excitement of the sport itself – I find it a real spectacle to watch – I’ve always connected the game to that sense of family and community we experienced in country South Australia when I was young. It was always on the tely in the background, even in Queensland, and the sound of it is one of the sounds of my childhood.

[SC]:    You were the first woman appointed to an umpiring position for an AFL Grand Final, in 2012. You’ve described the game itself as a breeze, “compared to overwhelming attention I received in the week leading up to it.” Can you describe what such scrutiny was like, and how you managed it?

[CR]: I’ve been used to added attention because of the novelty of being female. One of my first duties upon being listed as an AFL umpire was conducting a press conference, months before I’d even stepped onto a footy field. You can imagine the pressure I felt to perform during that very first match! When I was appointed to the grand final, I was honestly surprised by the level of interest in the story – again there was a press conference, media interviews, and even the New York Times wrote about it. By the time the game rolled around, I was relieved just to get onto the field (but not before meeting Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the rooms beforehand)! My main concern was not getting wrapped up in the excitement and the reporting; I had a job to do as part of the umpiring team, and that was number one. You’re only as good as your last decision, so being distracted by the media circus wasn’t an option.

[SC]:  Is it a bit like the old adage – that women don’t just need to show themselves as equal to men, but rather, work even twice as hard to prove themselves?

[CR]: Being in a male-dominated industry, there are certainly aspects that have required me to work harder than my colleagues – one example is in the area of physical fitness, being tested on things like time trials and push-up tests. But if you show you’re willing to put in the hard yards, you will get recognised for it. So I think it’s actually something that can work in your favour. I’ve felt a strong sense of having to prove myself, which has come from an internal desire to be as good as I can be, to be judged on ability, and live up to the scrutiny that comes with being different. Ultimately, though, what gets you through is recognising the strengths you do have – and they might be more mental than physical – and learning to use them while working on your weaknesses.

[SC]:  One thing that astounds me about Australian Rules Football is the needed athleticism. I’m not sure the public quite appreciates that this also extends to umpires. Can you describe what is needed to keep up at this elite level and how you prepare for the “fitness” of the game?

[CR]: Even behind the goals, umpiring at the elite level puts demands on fitness. We do a five-kilometre time trial in the pre-season, have skin-fold measurements taken about six times a year, and have two-kilometre trials and agility testing throughout the season. We do a surprising amount of running to prepare, but being fit helps with concentration, being able to make decisions under mental fatigue and move well when reacting to the play.

[SC]:  Beginning in 2004, you’ve been umpiring now for ten years. During this time we’ve also seen more women appointed to football club boards, and even the first female football club president in Peggy O’Neal at Richmond. Football has also suffered its fair share of being in the news for the wrong reasons, when it comes to women. How do you see it as having progressed – do you think attitudes towards women have improved over the time you’ve been umpiring and “up-close-and-personal” with the game?

[CR]:  I think football has come a long way in terms of having visible role models and women who are showing they have much to offer the game in various roles – whether it be as club president, on boards, on the AFL Commission, on the field, in footy operations, as physios and trainers or even coaching staff, such as Peta Searle taking on a role with St Kilda. These women are respected because they do a great job. I look forward to the day when we’re not talking about how wonderful it is to have women involved. No doubt, the sort of culture that is criticised as being macho, and promoting sexist and disrespectful attitudes towards women reveals a shocking aspect that can exist in sport. But I think the more this sort of behaviour is promoted as unacceptable and young men are educated around rejecting behaviours that socialise them towards disrespecting women, the better the chances of eliminating this aspect. This educational component is the responsibility of clubs, sporting organisations, the general public and media.  

[SC]:  I read that you “swelled with pride” the day a member of the Collingwood cheer squad said ‘Hello’ instead of throwing a stubby at your head. How rough does it get out there, in terms of heckling?

[CR]:  Heckling is, rightly or wrongly, an accepted part of footy culture. Some of it gets pretty ugly, but that’s why technology is so fantastic – we are all wired up with earpieces that enable us to hear what the field umpires are saying, meaning we can just turn the sound up and ignore the idiot in the cheer squad! I cop my fair share of sprays, but I also get a lot of love that is certainly a perk of being a girl – I’m pretty sure my colleagues don’t get quite so much love from the crowd. Sometimes they even stand up for me – I’ve heard arguments break out in the crowd when someone defends my decision after a spectator gives me a hard time!

[SC]:   Is there a gendered nature to the sledging you receive? And how do you deal with it?

[CR]:  One of the greatest lessons umpiring has taught me is to focus your energy so that it’s productive – that means listening to opinions that matter, and learning to let go of the unhelpful stuff. It’s amazing how many nasty comments come out when people are losing or frustrated, and when you’re in the box seat for making the tough calls – all of a sudden the comments are about how hopeless you are because you’re a woman, or how you’re lucky to get away with it, because you’re a woman. It’s lowest common denominator stuff, and I feel sorry for people who can’t express themselves in any other way. The only way to deal with it is to take the high road, trust your instincts and ability and let the replay speak for itself.

[SC]:     You can’t umpire full-time. What does Chelsea Roffey do on her “downtime” (loose phrase!) away from football?

[CR]:  I work as a journalist, both freelance and part-time for an independent media company based in Richmond. My main role is writing and editing stories for Fernwood, a health, lifestyle and fitness magazine. I also talk to various organisations about my experiences in football and being in a male-dominated industry. In the off-season I’m embarking on a Churchill fellowship, which will take me to five countries to study organisations that empower girls and promote social change. I’m excited about developing plans for the future when I return.

[SC]:   Can I cheekily ask if you have a Grand Final tip? Or would such a question be strictly off limits?!

[CR]: Sorry, no GF tips allowed!

[SC]:  Ah, fair enough – you play fair 🙂 … Somewhat related, but more general, I am guessing AFL umpires are very passionate about the game and it follows that they would barrack for particular teams. Are you allowed to umpire teams you follow?

[CR]: Umpires certainly have a passion for the game, but we are not allowed to openly follow a particular side. When your job requires you to be neutral, it really does take the buzz out of spectating! But, on the flipside, it’s nice to be able to go to the game of the round and enjoy the spectacle without being too hung up on the outcome.  

[SC]: Chelsea Roffey, congratulations on adding ‘A Bonza Sheila’ to your growing awards and accolades list – you’re a great ambassador for the Game and for umpiring itself, which I dare say is no mean feat! Thank you and best wishes. And Go DOGS! [in 2015, ahem].

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