Lack of respect for referees may usher in major changes to football

How football is played and governed in England could be on the brink of a major shift, due to an appalling lack of respect shown to referees.

New research by Dr Tom Webb at the University of Portsmouth found referees at all levels are routinely subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

The study found that referees at all levels are routinely subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

The study found that referees at all levels are routinely subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

This has resulted in a disenfranchised workforce, an uneven distribution of power and serious issues concerning the structure of the game itself within England.

The research is published in the week the Football Association has introduced a series of tough new mandatory bans for grassroots players who abuse referees.

Dr Webb said: “Referees are leaving the game and threatening to leave the game, at least in part because of the lack of respect, the violence and abuse they routinely face.

“Games take place every weekend without a referee due to shortages.

“The Football Association is now reviewing its Respect programme – the need for an overhaul is urgent if football as we know it is to survive.”

He also said there needs to be a cultural shift in football, and arguably in society more widely, so it becomes usual to be revolted by shockingly bad behaviour.

The research is published in the Journal of Global Sport Management.

Dr Webb and colleagues from the University of South Australia and Edge Hill University quizzed more than 2,000 referees at all levels of the sport in England, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

Those with the least experience were subject to the most abuse, with some abused at every game. A fifth said they had been physically abused at some point in their careers.

One told researchers: “I had to abandon a game last season because of threats made by a spectator. I am a police officer and deal with abuse on a daily basis…but I referee to enjoy football and no one has the right to put my safety at risk when I expect to go home to my children.”

Another said: “If referees clamp down more in the Premier League and apply the letter of the law, discipline would filter down. But, in my opinion, the money at the top end means games are influenced by advertisers…bookmakers also have a vested interest. Call it cynical but it’s what every referee I know is thinking.”

A third called for much more severe penalties to deter players and clubs which show match officials no respect, saying the current two-match ban for abusing a referee was not enough.

And a fourth said: “If the Respect programme is having a positive effect, I dread to think how bad respect was ten years ago.”

Dr Webb, who has recently formed the Referee and Match Officials Research Network, said the findings raise “interesting insight” into attempts by individuals and organisations, such as the Football Association, to centrally regulate abuse and control in the game and also raised the question of whether abuse of referees was representative of wider problems in English society.

“The Premier League sets the standard for the game as a whole, on field and off,” he said. “If spectators, coaches, players and others see bad behaviour in the Premiership, it filters down to lower levels of the game and becomes the norm.”

Referees became the norm on the pitch over 150 years ago when an increase in gambling on sporting fixtures sparked the need for an arbiter. Historically, early and crude forms of mob and folk football had regional rules and variations and physical and verbal abuse was routinely directed at referees, but gradually, a moral revulsion made overt violence on the pitch culturally unacceptable.

The Respect programme was launched in 2008 and aimed to improve the working conditions of referees at all levels of the game, in response to a fifth of match officials leaving the game due to the behaviour on-field and off-field of players, coaches, spectators, and parents.


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