Over the decades, referees in football have endured significant abuse both from players and fans. Mainly this has been because of decisions that have been made by a referee during a game, which may have had a major effect on the outcome of the result.
Most of the incidents that have occurred over the years have mainly been verbal abuse, however, in some cases there have been cases of violence as well. While we mostly see this in the professional game, referee abuse at grassroots level goes mainly unreported. It means that it has never been more important for professionals to set an example to those lower down the football pyramid, especially at youth level.
A recent survey in England saw 900 referees at all levels respond to a Radio 5 Live questionnaire, whereby 293 stated that they had been the subject of physical abuse by either players, coaches, managers or spectators.
It raises the issue that there is still quite a long way to go to make sure that officials in the game are more protected, though in most cases, this starts at the top and it could mean that the FA (Football Association) gets heavily involved to start introducing initiatives to prevent referee abuse in the future.
Even campaigns can help to raise awareness, with so many channels now available to help spread the message, whether via social media, radio, print or television, particularly with this being such a large target market.
What is worth considering is that many referees at amateur level or grassroots often do this unpaid, while more qualified referees at this level only receive £30 per game, which considering the abuse that they receive, hardly seems worth it.
Of course, some refereeing decisions in football at this level can be frustrating and it can be hard for all those involved in the game to understand these, especially given the highly competitive nature. Despite this, the message still has to be ‘respect the decision and get on with the game’.
Not everything goes the way we want it to in life, regardless of how much you are in the right, and it is this kind of education (especially at youth level)that needs to be given to all those involved.
Even with the help of one linesman (usually the case for most grassroots football), it is still hard for referees to make the right decision. Especially at this level, when you consider the fact that they have no other aid available to them, compared to in the professional game. While VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology has had a lot of criticism in recent years, this has still helped to provide clarity on the most controversial decisions.
However, one major progression, which could certainly help with the safety of referees in football at grassroots level is introducing body cams, which is set to come into force later in 2023 and it will be interesting to see how this helps with prevention of referee abuse.
Perhaps shockingly, there were 122 referees under the age of 17 who responded to the questionnaire who had been abused by one or more, with 105 reporting that they had been verbally abused by coaches/managers, 109 by spectators and 102 by players.
What Are The Effects Of Referee Abuse In Football?
Many people don’t realise that abuse of referees can have major effects on their health. The survey revealed that 361 of these respondents said that the abuse had negatively affected their mental health, while 375 had received abuse associated with their personal appearance, gender, race or sexual orientation. Furthermore, there were 283 who reported that they received threats of violence towards themselves and/or loved ones.
Staggeringly 57 stated that they had been the subject of death threats. It is shocking to think that this would happen to a referee at this level about a football game. In the professional game, there have been a number of cases of referees that have also received death threats online and as a result, have asked for a break from officiating matches.
In February 2021, high profile referee Mike Dean asked to take a step back from taking charge of games, after being on the receiving end of death threats, which he subsequently reported to the police.
The incident that sparked this was related to the decision to send off West Ham United’s Tomas Soucek in a 2-2 draw with Fulham.
A referee receiving abuse in football is one thing (though still it is completely unacceptable), but when this escalates to death threats and starts to implicate family members, this becomes an issue that cannot and should not be ignored – immediate action would need to be taken, with severe consequences for the perpetrators.
It is clear that the law takes a dim view of this and any who are involved in such threats should be prosecuted and punishments handed out accordingly, based on the severity of the actions.
Everyone should feel safe in their place of work and employers have a responsibility towards the welfare and safety of their employees. Why there is a minority of people who think that this is different for referees is bewildering – certainly more awareness of this needs to be spread – to all those in football.
At an amateur or grassroots level, short, mandatory seminars should be given to all of those involved in the game, from players, managers/coaches, parents and spectators that are associated with a football club, highlighting the dangers of abuse and the effects that this can have on individual referees.
The investment would be worth it, as this would then hopefully have a knock-on effect as teams potentially rise through the football pyramid, though would also be applicable for those who then attend professional games.
How Does This Compare With Other Sports?
There is no doubt that football is the biggest sport in the UK, in terms of popularity and, as a result, there is an almost ‘tribal’ culture associated with the game.
However, compared to other sports, it also gets the most coverage for referee abuse, which seems almost non-existent in other sports. One that prides itself on discipline, self-control and respect is rugby (both union and league), where the referee is almost untouchable.
Even in professional games that you see televised, it is very rare to see referees on the receiving end of abuse, even something as simple as players arguing a decision. If and when this does occur, it is usually the captain of the team who approaches the referee, in a respectful manner and calmly presents his case.
However, the exchange is usually short, both parties take the dialogue into account and the player accepts the referee’s decision, regardless of whether he agrees with it and gets on with the game.
Boxing is the same; it is rare to see referees in this sport on the end of abuse, though it is perhaps easier to officiate due to their only being two parties involved and the referee is close to proceedings.
One sport that can have fiery moments is tennis; often the result of an umpire making a call that a player in the heat of the moment (and often the temperature!) makes a frustrated outburst if the umpire says a shot went out of play and they have no more challenges left. Even then, it is very rare for a player to launch into a tirade of abuse.
Cricket is similar – a game traditionally played by ‘gentlemen’, originating from public schools attended by the upper middle or upper classes of society and have, as a result, been educated in a way that has a very dim view of abuse of officials.
How Can Referee Abuse In Football Be Combatted?
Clearly, there is still so much that needs to be done in football (at every level) to help prevent the abuse of referees. While it may be hard to completely eradicate abuse of referees in football, there could be some things that can be implemented to help with this.
Formation Of Support Groups
This may be an effective idea, from a comfort perspective – especially at grassroots level. Forming small groups in certain districts of referees whereby each can lean on another for support and share their experiences or frustrations may help to prevent referees on a psychological level. It could mean that they travel to each other’s games and be there as a pillar of support. While it may not eradicate abuse, if a referee knows he has colleagues on the sideline in his corner, it may give him more confidence. They may have to be self-funded, so a nominal fee of £30/year per individual could help to set up monthly meetings and things like that.
Undoubtedly, this needs to come into force. Fans, managers/coaches and players may think twice before they commit any kind of abuse at games. At grassroots level it could result in a fine or complete ban for football games for any infringement, with the chairman having the final say. A more severe level could mean that they can inflict sanctions such as restraining orders if it begins to get out of control.
As referred to, this could help to raise the awareness about the effect that abuse has on referees on a psychological well-being level. Mandatory seminars put on at grassroots level for those involved in the football games could help, with each attendee signing a code of conduct might be one way to help prevent referee abuse in the future.
Expanding on the referee body-cam initiative at grassroots level, this could certainly help from a prevention perspective and make individuals think twice before engaging in any kind of abuse, while it could also help to identify further culprits that are involved. It could also help in the aftermath of games, to prove whether a referee did indeed make the right call about an in-play event.