Unlike many other codes of football, where the official is called a referee, in Australian rules football the officials are called umpires. Tom Wills, one of the founders of the Australian game, was the earliest known umpire of a football match in Australia.
At first the captains of both teams shared the duty of officiating games, however as the game became more professional in the 1880s, umpires became an important aspect of the game.
There are four different types of umpires and one type of steward in a typical game of Australian Football:
Since 1994, professional level Australian Football League matches are policed by three field umpires. Amateur, suburban and semi-professional matches can be policed by any number from one to three field umpires.
There are generally two goal umpires in each game at all levels, one at each end of the ground; occasionally, the use of two goal umpires at each end of the ground has been trialled. Goal umpires traditionally wore a white jacket, black trousers and a broad-brimmed hat, however caps and shirts have replaced the hats and jackets. The caps they wear are generally lime green or grey. They are the only umpires to wear a cap.
In the professional level Australian Football League, there are four boundary umpires in each match with two umpires sharing control of each side of the ground. At lower levels, there are typically only two or three boundary umpires.
At the professional level, and at other high levels of the game, all umpires and officials are provided by the league's umpiring department. At lower levels, it is common for the competing clubs to each provide one goal umpire and one boundary umpire to the match, but field umpires are still almost always provided by the league.
The game of Australian rules contains some "grey areas" where application of the laws is subject to interpretation, of degree or timing, making the job of field umpires extremely difficult. The instigation of new laws by the AFL in recent years, also contributes to the amount of work needed for umpires to maintain their skills and knowledge of the game. The umpires' director for the AFL is Jeff Gieschen, responsible for setting precedents for other affiliated leagues around the world.
Australian rules football umpires of all disciplines traditionally wore all-white uniforms. Goal umpires in particular wore a more formal attire of white jacket, white hat, tie and black slacks, as they were not required to actively run.
More recently, umpires have begun wearing uniforms of a distinctive colour to avoid a jersey clash with any of the competing teams. As of 2013, all AFL umpires wore lime green uniforms with grey shorts or trousers, which avoids a clash with any of the league's teams. Additionally, field umpires in the AFL are identifiable by a jersey number.
The most common historical pejorative term for an umpire, particularly a field umpire, was "white maggot", in reference to their historical white uniforms.