Since sport restarted following lockdowns and Covid-19 enforced restrictions to everyday life, the amount of abuse towards sports officials, such as referees and umpires, appears to have increased. Of course, the problem of abuse towards these officials is not new and is something that has been a problem for too long.
We can look all the way back to the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 and see that around this time referees were being abused and sometimes attacked by gamblers who blamed them for giving decisions that led to them losing their bet and also their money. So, the real questions become why have we not deal with this abuse over time and what can we do now to reduce this abuse?
There have been campaigns to reduce abuse towards sports officials. For example, in football, the FA launched the Respect Programme in 2008. However, despite recent promotion of the role of the referee in football, abuse towards referees is still a significant problem, with referees continuing to leave football. There are a growing number of matches that do not have referees because the numbers are too low. This will continue to happen unless abuse towards referees in football is dealt with. Abuse towards the officials also happens in other sports.
This abuse in sport tends to come from three different groups, players, coaches and supporters. This abuse also differs depending on the level of sport. We see abuse in elite sport competitions, such as the Premier League, and this abuse impacts upon the game at lower levels as players and coaches copy the behaviour they see on TV. We know that verbal abuse at lower levels is more likely to lead to physical abuse as there is easier access to the pitch at lower levels, less security and a referee or official who often operates on their own.
Because we know that players, coaches and supporters are the groups that are part of the problem, we also know that they can be part of the solution. Better understanding about the role and importance of the referee/sports official through education can help, but so can the idea that improving behaviour towards referees and sports officials can also improve the general sporting environment for everyone involved. We need a positive approach to referees and sports officials; we need to increase the numbers of sports officials across sport and to do this we have to improve the environment around sport.
This improvement can start with the treatment of sports officials. We can also focus on the behaviour of supporters/parents on the touchline or side-lines, the behaviour of coaches and how they operate on game day and these two groups will then help to positively influence the behaviour of players.
Officials are leaving sport, and abuse towards them is one of the main reasons. Without officials we do not have competitive sport. However, we need to improve behaviour across sport. This can start with officials but should impact upon the entire sporting environment to increase enjoyment for all participants.
As part of his research Dr Webb is currently looking at supporters and players and you can help with this research by completing the relevant survey below:
Dr Tom Webb, Senior Lecturer Sport Management, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth has been researching and working with sports officials and governing bodies of sport for over 15 years. He works to reduce abuse in sport and improve sporting environments for players, coaches, supporters and officials.
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