Searching for solutions to the global problem of referee abuse

Book Review: Referees, Match Officials and Abuse: Research and Implications for Policy, by Tom Webb, Mike Rayner, Jamie Cleland and Jimmy O'Gorman (Routledge)
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When I began refereeing youth games in the United States 12 years ago, I was surprised at the number of players who complained about decisions during the course of the game. When I played both youth and amateur soccer in England during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, dissent was almost unheard of. Referees were respected, and their decisions were accepted. Quite simply, if you could not conform with that simple demand for sporting behavior, you didn't belong on the field.

When I moved to Germany six years ago, I was in for a culture shock. U.S. youth soccer was a mild and gentle breeze compared with the hurricane of anger, intimidation and profanity that came with officiating Frankfurt's youth and amateur leagues. I coped by developing a thick skin and pouring my heart out in a game-by-game blog every Monday morning Was it just me? Not at all -- meeting other referees and hearing their tales of war and woe helped me to stop taking things personally. That's just how the game is here, and you can take it or leave it.

The problem is that many match officials are choosing to leave it. And when you read the thorough academic research carried out by the University of Portsmouth's Tom Webb and his colleagues, who surveyed more than 8,000 referees worldwide in a variety of sports, you begin to understand why. Be it in Australian field hockey, English rugby or Dutch soccer, verbal and physical violence against referees continues to rise, with a correspondingly drastic fall in recruitment and retention.

The decline in referee numbers, however, stems not just from a change in attitude among spectators, coaches and players in an era when winning at all levels seems to have assumed a disproportionate importance in public life. It also lies within weak sporting institutions and administrations that provide poor training and support, and to some extent among referees themselves, who do not report enough instances of abuse. Many referees feel that their complaints and reports either go nowhere, or that miscreants are not properly punished. Some referees believe they have to be of "strong character" and must man up to abuse, so there's no need to report or punish it. Too often, solidarity and support networks among referees are lacking or completely absent.

Webb and his colleagues identify the importance of training and mentoring, especially to keep young referees from quitting at the first sign of trouble. Disciplinary hearings need to be held, and miscreants held to account, with follow-up mental support for referees who have been abused. Fines must be harsh enough to be effective, and referees should be updated on the disciplinary process so they feel that it's working. (In Frankfurt, after years of campaigning, the referees' association last month finally persuaded the Hessen soccer association to let them know what disciplinary action has been taken against transgressors -- previously, our reports were written, filed and received without so much as an acknowledgment, let alone a thank you.)

The research also pinpoints the need for cultural change to foster more appreciation and empathy for game officials, and that this change should be driven from the top. "The drive for excellence in elite level sport has meant that individuals who play, coach or watch local sport expect the match official to be at the equivalent level [to] those [...] seen on televised sport," the authors write. "Hence, there are unrealistic expectations on match officials at lower levels of sport, and there are also consequences of any televised negative behaviour towards match officials." That is, the high stakes that prompt Jürgen Klopp to explode at the fourth official has a knock-on effect for referees all the way down the sporting chain that the Liverpool coach will never have to deal with, or even know about.

What can be done? Sin bins for dissent in English amateur soccer leagues yielded a 38% drop in bad behaviour in 25 of the 31 leagues trialed, and found favor with players, coaches and referees alike. Another county FA introduced yellow armbands for U18 referees, making coaches and spectators "subject to child safeguarding measures." The report concludes with a 10-point plan that suggests a two-year coaching and mentoring plan for under-age officials; vastly improved disciplinary procedures; better mental health support from governing bodies; campaigns to promote the importance of game officials to increase understanding of their role; microphones on officials (at the elite level); and a 'whole game' approach that introduces all the above measures from the top downward, and across all sports.

Otherwise, as I occasionally remark to rowdy teams of serial moaners, there'll be no one left to referee your games at all. Except that I'm not quite as polite as Webb and his colleagues, who state that their short, accessible and very important work "is an invaluable resource for all students, scholars and national governing bodies of sport with an interest in match officials, sports governance, sport policy, sport management and the sociology of sport." Not to mention, the very future of sport itself.

4 comments about "Searching for solutions to the global problem of referee abuse".
  1. Kevin Sims, December 22, 2020 at 2:50 p.m.

    Coaches can and must exert their incredible influence to lead the necessity of respect for the officials. Governing bodies must hold coaches strictly accountable. Coaches have the greatest opportunity to influence behavior by players, parents, and spectators.  

  2. Wooden Ships replied, December 23, 2020 at 4:13 p.m.

    Absolutely agree Kevin. The Coach models the standard. Not sure how to reverse what use to be understood when so many feel afringed at every turn. It's moved beyond sport. 

  3. R2 Dad, December 22, 2020 at 3:19 p.m.

    I think it is just occuring to local organizations that the covid break forced by the state of CA on all outdoor sports is going to be highly disruptive to officiating associations and the leagues under which they operate. I just received a survey request from my local and in it they specifically asked if I was NOT going back to officiating in 2021--I've never been asked that before. Out here, we are reliant on a couple dozen grown-ups to officiate a huge number of matches, as it's a tidy amount of income and almost yearround for some of us. There are also alot of over-50 referees out there who may have found something else to do with their time.

  4. Jack Smith, December 22, 2020 at 11:33 p.m.

    I have commented on this on my website, as referee abuse is a major issue.  The following are some excerpts from my page:

    "At the start of every season, thousands of players & their families look forward to having fun at the fields. Youth referees also look forward to the beginning of the season, and what it holds, but many have a degree of anxiety already forming. Coaches are focused on the ‘challenge’ for what the season may have in store for their team.

    All of these perceptions are intertwined and will have an impact on how the season goes for all parties.

    The main culprit that affects all is the atmosphere that exists at the fields, when the games are being played. Is the atmosphere conducive to having fun, and encouraging to both players and referees, or is it corrosive, affecting both the play of the players and the performance of the referees?  Parents provide a vital framework for a youth player and they internalize commentary heard from their parents, in their field demeanor. 

    History has shown that the corrosive atmosphere of coaches & parents at games, badgering the referees/opposing players/coaches/other parents, is detrimental to the game. It can cause depression in players/negative actions on the field towards opponents/referees, and affect their ‘fun’ aspect of the game. Both referees and players have elected to stop being involved, due to the increasingly negative ‘vibes’ that have existed at some games. For referees who do stay, their performance may be negatively affected, as they may effectively feel ‘cornered’. Players may play lacklusterly, as the game is beginning to not be ‘fun’ anymore."

    I have further commentary, with videos, and I give a suggestion as to what might be done.  

    My page is at:     Dissent At Fields - Jack's Soccer Page (


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