NRL Rd 5 - Sharks v Wests Tigers
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10: Referee Adam Gee gestures during the round five NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Wests Tigers at PointsBet Stadium, on April 10, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In the wildly popular Harry Potter fables, characters were remiss to utter the word 'Voldemort', as it would surely alert the Dark Lord to their location for capture. Not saying his name did not therefore make it true that he did not exist.

The same can be said of criticising a referee's performance. Withholding such criticism does not imply that referees don't make mistakes. The general consensus across NRL fan forums is that referees will make a handful of mistakes in a game full of hundreds of decisions.

In the case of Brandon Smith vs Referee Adam Gee, there is something more in play, however, and that is the integrity of a referee.

By calling him a 'cheating b*****d', it has gone further than identifying poor judgement in officiating: the implication is now elevated to claim that Gee intentionally barracks for one side over another. That is unacceptable, whatever expletive comes after "cheating".

Tony Squires on Triple M said "...The fact that he has been sent directly to the judiciary would mean it would take it beyond the three weeks, so we are looking at perhaps a four-week penalty."

The NRL is quite frankly desperate to portray the sport as clean, polite, respectful and most-importantly, family-friendly. It is almost in a constant state of damage-control as it puts out fires of player scandal and misbehaviour, all in the interests of increased viewership, match attendance and young player participation.

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But the one thing it gets wrong, time and time again, is telling us that NRL referees are above criticism. They're trying their best, get off their back. Our kids are watching.

This is where it gets a bit murky, because Brandon Smith attacked a referee's integrity, but when players or coaches critique specific important decisions that a referee has made with integrity, in full belief that it is the correct call, they open themselves up to extraordinary penalties.

Despite the perceived influx of technology into the game in the interests of a zero-incorrect-decisions oasis, rugby league remains one of the most human-officiated sports, with a rule book that is rife with rules that are open to personal interpretation, particularly when other factors influence subjectivity on the field such as home-crowds and intimidating player personalities.

Tennis has its Hawkeye technology, cricket has its hot-spot, horse racing has its photo-finish and swimming has the World Record line - and all will confirm a decision that has only two possible outcomes.

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Punters are more invested in the sport than ever, with live betting, multis, SuperCoach and so on. And part of the fabric of the game are the fierce debates and discussions that take place after the game, from 'can you believe he missed that kick from right in front?' to 'that was a forward pass every day of the week'.

In the punters' world, where all of the junior rugby league players essentially spring from, this is the constant stream of dialogue. But should a player or coach dare to raise the same issues, the world collapses - but only if it is the referee's performance in question, not the players.

So is it really about painting the NRL as a respectful sport in order to promote greater interest and participation in the game? Because if that was so, media organisations, commentators and opinion columnists would also face fines and penalties for criticising referees and centering entire segments on discussing them, week after week.

There are no laws preventing people from questioning the performance of corporate executives, police officers, judges or politicians, but there are laws against defamation of character, and that usually includes attacks on character or integrity.

What Brandon Smith was utterly wrong. The irony is that he plays for The Melbourne Storm, a wildly successful club that many hold tall-poppy syndrome for and genuinely believe receives the rub of the green more often than not.

What Smith did was call into question the integrity of the man in the middle, doing his best.

My question to Brandon Smith would be whether he really believes that a professional NRL referee would put his supposed support or disdain for certain teams ahead of his own performance and career progression: to be the subject of extreme media (and fans) scrutiny (and in some cases in the past, death threats).

Would an NRL referee try to 'cheat' when it came to a particular team, just out of personal interest, or his own SuperCoach scores?

Professional sport is full of people who have done questionable things in their lives, particularly footballers. But on the field, they are professionals. They must be, or they will be dropped. Players who switch teams don't 'go easy' on their former teams because they have mates there. They go out and do their best.

Coaches publicly criticise their own teams all the time, and the punters breathe easier, knowing that they weren't the only ones noticing poor performance.

Referees should be criticised as well.

But questioning the integrity of our match officials should carry the heaviest penalties, and four weeks for Brandon Smith is fine with me.

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