Global resistance to referee abuse: Dr. Tom Webb (U.K.) | Club Respect Global resistance to referee abuse: Dr. Tom Webb (U.K.) | Club Respect

Global resistance to referee abuse: Dr. Tom Webb (U.K.)

The unchecked behaviour of players, coaches and spectators towards referees creates an unsafe environment and reduces the enjoyment of everyone involved. Advocates for the respect of referees can be found all around the world.

Dr. Tom Webb, an author and leading academic in the push to end the abuse of match officials, joins us on our Global Resistance series and provides valuable insights on what’s happening around the world and what sports clubs and associations can do to reverse this unwanted cultural phenomenon.

Thanks to Club Respect contributor Patrick Skene (who has written in-depth on the impact of referee abuse across various sports in Australia) you can watch or read along with the full transcript below.

Audio: Patrick Skene chats with Dr. Tom Webb

Video: Patrick Skene chats with Dr. Tom Webb (including transcript)

1. A life mission to combat abuse of officials (02:54 mins)


Patrick Skene: Our next guest on Club Respect’s Global Resistance is a senior lecturer in sport management at Portsmouth University. He’s a published author, leading academic and frontline social media warrior against the abuse of match officials. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Tom Webb.

Dr Tom Webb: No worries, thanks very much for the invitation.

Patrick Skene: How did you arrive at this issue (abuse of match officials) as one of your life’s missions?

Dr Tom Webb: I’ve been researching and working with sports officials for a number of years now – nearly 20 years. So as part of my master’s dissertation back in 2004-05, we looked at the training and development of referees in football.

And one of the things that struck us from that research was the issues and the challenges that sports officials face and one of those challenges was the amount of abuse that they encountered within their role. And so over time, we then looked at it again when the ‘Respect’ program came into English football in 2008. And we looked at the impact of that program, we looked at whether it had been successful at different levels of the sport and what the perception of that program was. We found a mixed reaction.

In youth football, I think people were slightly more enamored with the ‘Respect’ program, but when the program was initiated in adult football, it wasn’t as well received. But we were still seeing this level of abuse. And it wasn’t declining. And because I’ve worked with officials across sports for a number of years and researched into this body of people, I was seeing and party to a number of accounts and recollections of the severity of abuse and physical abuse. And it just struck me – why is this acceptable?

Why is it acceptable for these people to go about their job, their role, their essential role within sport, and for this to be happening to them and why is that okay? And it shouldn’t be just an accepted part of any sport. So (my passion) came from there. And the research gave me a first-hand view into what’s going on and the challenges that people are facing across sports and around the world as well.

2. Why do we abuse referees, who provide an essential service to sport? (02:57 mins)


Patrick Skene: You’re one of the leading academics worldwide in providing an evidence base in this crazy global crisis of verbal, physical and online abuse of match officials.

It’s a form of self-sabotage as the less referees in the funnel, the lower quality of referees. So what is it in the human psyche that can’t control the abuse of people providing an essential service?

Dr Tom Webb: I think you’re absolutely right. Sports officials are essential to the fabric of the majority of sports. We need sports officials for competitive sport to take place. If they’re not there, then the integrity of the game is called into question. As to why it happens, I think you can look at different sports to see how the abuse of officials has charted. And if you look at football/soccer as an example in England, it’s not a new thing. It’s been around for a considerable period of time.

Even pre codification in 1863, there were accounts of referees being abused by gamblers who were blaming them for losing money on fixtures. So it’s not a new thing.

But to my mind that makes it worse because what that means is we haven’t dealt with it effectively. We’re still seeing the problems today. We’re still seeing high profile incidents of abuse and the issues related to that.

And it means that whatever has happened previously, in terms of intervention, in terms of policy, hasn’t addressed the problem as well as it could. And looking at other sports – we published the book a couple of years ago on abuse and we looked at it from a global perspective towards officials. We looked at football within Europe, there were problems there.

We looked at cricket, we looked at rugby union – there were growing issues in those sports. Cricket for examples had to introduce red cards a few years ago. Just because the incidence of abuse was escalating, and the umpires didn’t have enough of a deterrent or tool to deal with players on the field of play that were transgressing the rules.

Football/soccer is an easy one to look at because, there’s a lot of high-profile incidents and issues. But other sports have got problems as well and they’re growing in those sports. And that’s a real concern and means it’s a wider societal problem that we need to address – because why is it acceptable that this abuse exists towards sports officials is the question we need to need to answer. And you’re absolutely right. People will start walking away and they are walking away from sports officiating if it continues.

3. Why isn’t the global shortage of match officials considered a crisis? (03:59 mins)


Patrick Skene: There are shortages of match officials across the world – I think it’s fair to say it’s a full blown crisis.

There are Referee strikes in Germany and Spain. In the English Premier League referees are told not to have social media accounts. I looked at your social media accounts which are filled with videos and pictures of violence against referees.

It’s so important yet its such a low priority. Why is it so hard to get crisis-level urgency on this issue? It blows my mind.

Dr Tom Webb: Yeah, I completely agree. So we have to separate the elite game from the mass participation game when we’re talking about football. We’re moving towards two almost different forms of the game.

We’re talking about the elite game which has VAR, goal line technology and now automated offsides which sounds like its going to be part of the World Cup in Qatar.

We’re moving further and further away from the elite game being different from the mass participation – because the vast majority of officials, players, coaches don’t have access to those interventions, those technological developments – it doesn’t exist.

So we’re almost in a separation of the game.

At the elite level? Yes, abuse exists. The difference in the abuse – its the scale, it’s the media presence.

If a player behaves badly to an official in the Premier League for example, millions, billions of people see that around the world. And that then means that people see that behavior and think that it’s acceptable, that it’s okay to do that.

And that’s a real challenge because as professional football has become more beholden to the media relationships and the exposure on television. More people see the games, more people see how players behave. More people know the referees as well. And so that leads on to why they don’t have social media accounts, because if they did, we would probably see far more social media abuse than we already do towards those officials.

In the Premier League, referees are told explicitly not to have social media accounts. And so we still see that behavior. It’s still transgressive on social media, even if they don’t have those accounts. It goes beyond that.

For example, last season in the Premier League referee Mike Dean was subjected to severe online abuse. He hasn’t got a social media account. But then people found ways to access his family.

And then a couple of seasons before it was Michael Oliver, from the Premier League when he officiated the Champions League game and people managed to find out where he lived, where his wife worked.

So there are ways for these people to find a way to access even the most high profile officials even if they don’t have social media accounts.

And so what we have to do is think about why this behaviour is so ingrained in the game and growing in other sports? Why is it acceptable?

Why is it seen as something that’s part of the game because it shouldn’t be?

No one should be subjected to that sort of abuse when they go to work, in their workplace. These guys are professional referees, who officiate at the highest level in the Premier League and other comparable professional leagues around the world. They are in a workplace setting, we’ve got a duty of care to look after these people when they when they are in those settings. And so we need to consider how we deal with this issue.

4. What role does the media have in the disrespect of officials? (04:07 mins)


Patrick Skene: Could one of the issues be the fact that fans follow media broadcasters, pundits, commentators, and they role model the way they treat referees and they’ve got the unfair benefits of replays and hindsight?

What role does media scrutiny have in referees being respected or disrespected? And what can we do to change that? It’s like the media are beyond the reach of the FA but I see them being absolutely crucial in referees being disrespected, derided, at times.

Dr Tom Webb: Yes, they certainly have a significant role to play. And I think sometimes they don’t necessarily think about the consequences of the coverage or how some of the pundits might speak about the officiating. It’s very easy to say it’s not very good.

Within the work we do and the research we’ve done over a significant period of time, what we want to look at is – if that is a problem, why is that a problem?

If we think that there’s a problem at the top level, what is happening in the development pathway?

Where is the Talent ID taking place? What is the coaching like for referees? Where does that coaching take place? Who is providing it? What is the structure around these officials like? Is it best fit? Is it best value to get the best out of that workforce?

The easy way out is just to say, at the top level, oh, well, they’re not good enough. Okay, but that person has gone through a system to be at that point, officiating that fixture at that time on that television platform. So we need to think about it in much more detail, much more depth than that and the argument is far more nuanced than a: ‘they’re either they’re good or they’re not’ approach.

I don’t think sometimes pundits and media platforms think about what impact their words and their opinions might have. I know they’re paid to have an opinion. I completely understand that. But we have to think about the good of the game as well.

Now, some broadcasting platforms have in the last two or three years, started having former referees on the broadcast panel and when there is a decision to debate, they will give an officiating perspective of why the decision was given.

That’s a step in the right direction. But more often than not, other pundits on the panel might disagree, but do they fully understand the laws of the game? That might be a problem. And, of course many of the decisions we give in football/soccer are subjective.

Yes, there are some laws that tech helps – for example, goal-line technology works particularly well because if the technology is good enough to measure whether a ball is over the line or not over the line, that is a yes/no question. It’s a simple binary choice, but the majority of the decisions that referees make during the course of the football match are not yes/no answers.

They are subjective, and they are open to interpretation. The Laws of the Game are there to be interpreted. So I think that’s where many of the problems come in. And I think, a lack of understanding of that simple fact is a problem. But also the fact that, if you listen to many of the pundits, some of them are really good, and some of them are very balanced. But some clearly don’t understand the laws of the game or haven’t researched before they’ve made a comment.

That can have detrimental effects on the refereeing workforce, the guys at the top level and of course, that can filter down to the low levels as well.

5. Coach abuse of officials is an issue. How can the levels of abuse from coaches be reduced? (04:52 mins)


Patrick Skene: I find coaches often get off lightly as a cause of the breakdown of the culture of respect for referees. And if a coach abuses an official it gives permission for the players to do the same. And coaches are often seen as the gods at clubs from grassroots level to elite level. So how do you see the current levels of coaches abuse of officials reducing? because if they do it, it kind of gives everyone permission to do it.

Dr Tom Webb: Yes, it’s the same principle as players, isn’t it? If there’s a precedent, on the side of the pitch, and in the co-manager role, if there’s someone’s behaving in a certain way, people see that as acceptable. I think you only have to look at junior football, youth football around the globe to see that coaches are part of the problem, players are part of the problem and spectators are part of the problem.

When we’re talking about this abuse, there’s different stakeholder groups involved in sport – one of which is players, one of which is coaches, managers, another is spectators and the other group is officials, referees, umpires. They’re all part of that fabric of sport, and we have to find a way of them better coexisting than happens at the moment.

For example, can we include more about the role of the official in coaching awards & certifications? I don’t see why we can’t do that. At the moment I’ve taken coaching awards – I coach my son’s football team.

There’s very little about the role of the referee within that training. There’s certainly not very much about the fact that quite often in youth football, the referee you might have for your game is a young person who’s under the age of 18. And there are safeguarding and wellbeing issues associated to that. That’s not covered enough.

What about all the preparation and administration that referees do, the training they do, before they get to the point where they’re standing in front of you on a match day, talking to you about boot checks and stud checks and how they want the game to go and then talking to your players about what they’re going to expect of them during the game. What happens before that part of the process and also afterwards?

I don’t think there’s enough understanding about the role of officials generally in sport, and I think that could be something that’s brought into coaching awards to really help with that understanding. When we’re talking about the highest level, then absolutely people’s behavior has consequences, and that’s players and coaches as well as officials.

Referees are high-profile figures, and so every performance, every interaction, if it’s on camera is going to have some sort of consequence and if it’s a negative interaction, that’s something that’s focused upon in post-match analysis.

And I think too often, we seek to excuse behavior and comments about officiating.

Of course, referees will make mistakes. Of course, sports officials will make errors but so do players and so do coaches, that’s part of sport.

We seem to have moved towards this dichotomy where it’s acceptable for players and coaches and managers to make errors during the course of the game, but it’s not acceptable for officials. Why is that?

Because the reality is that either what happens in a game is either an amazing piece of skill, which leads to a goal, or generally some sort of error has occurred, and the goals have been scored as a result or missed as a result. That happens every single match and coaches get tactics wrong; they get formations wrong, they might select the wrong player, that happens, but it seems to be acceptable.

Yet when the referee has made what’s deemed to be an error, it’s not acceptable.

Well, people make mistakes, that happens. Referees are actually exceptionally good. They’re making decisions and making good decisions as well. If you look at the accuracy of decision-making in football, at the top level, it’s exceptionally high.

So I think going back to your point, we need to reset the relationships between the stakeholders in sport, when I’m talking about officials, coaches, players and spectators, we need to think about those relationships and those interactions a lot more.

6. Is there a tech solution like referees wearing body cameras that will work? (04:01 mins)


Patrick Skene: I think the fundamental is if you are being abused, you can’t be at your best because you’re worried about other things and perceptions that are coming at you. There’s an old saying ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant’.

What are your thoughts on getting body cameras onto referees just to reduce the verbal abuse and actual assaults – just the fact that you won’t have to drag the referee through a tribunal where it’s, “he said”, and you go back and forth, you’ve actually got some hard evidence? Is it too far?

Dr Tom Webb: I saw the outcome of the IFAB (International Football Association Board) meeting yesterday where it was agreed or raised in principle that there might be some sort of body cam trial which I think, it’s probably been a long time coming.

I don’t see why we can’t trial it. I do think there are still significant legal and ethical issues that need to be considered. For example, we’re talking about tribunals within football. I can see how that would be really useful because it would get rid of the ‘he said, she said, they said’ argument – it would be more factual.

But then if there’s a serious physical assault, can that footage be used to prosecute someone? Do people have to give their consent, then does it have to be done on each individual basis? Or does it have to be done on a team basis or a league basis or a County FA basis or a national FA basis? How would that work?

We’ve got to think about GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) So how would the footage be used? How would anonymity be assured? Is that footage just being used within the game for tribunal purposes, or can it be used for training purposes for referees?

But do we then have to get consent and assent from all the participants again? What about the people that are watching on the side of the pitch? They might be in shot at some point, have they given consent? So I think, on the basis of it, I can absolutely see potential benefits of having that ability to record incidents and I could see it would be a deterrent.

But even when the police were using body cams there were issues. So I don’t think it would be something that would happen instantly and would instantly, necessarily reduce abuse. I think we would have to trial it really carefully.

We’d have to measure that. How it’s used, how it’s implemented, and probably try it in a number of different ways. How it’s used, does the referee push the record button, is it always recording? Again, the ethical issues come into play there. So I think I can see the benefit. Absolutely. And I’m all for any other deterrent, that might reduce the abuse towards officials. If it will, then I would absolutely be supportive.

I think we need to be careful about how it’s introduced and how we use it. And I think that’s something which probably the lawmakers have been wary about up to now. And I think the trials would be important in terms of how it’s implemented and how the body cams and the video footage are used. That would be really important as well.

7. What are some cultural differences in Europe when it comes to referee abuse? (05:26 mins)


Patrick Skene: I’m really interested in cultural differences in officiating. You’ve done a deep dive on referee experiences in France and the Netherlands and England and La Liga. They all look like close neighbors to us in Australia, but what sort of cultural differences did you come across in referee experiences?

Dr Tom Webb: Europe is quite an interesting one. Unlike Australia, Europe is relatively close together. But within that there are quite significant differences in terms of the culture. So if you look at Latin Europe, for example, Italy Spain, Portugal, compared to somewhere that’s more Anglo like the UK or Scandinavia which again, has slightly different values.

What we see is quite significant differences in terms of what’s acceptable. So when we’re talking about the Laws of the Game, and the interpretation of the Laws of the Game, what’s acceptable in terms of player behaviour? So if you look at those Latin Europe countries, it’s far more acceptable to simulate or dive.

In Italy or Spain, particularly in Italy, it’s considered part of the game – the players will do it and in fact, it is the referee’s fault if they don’t detect it. It’s not the players fault for doing it. Whereas if you look in the UK, in England in the Premier League, it’s something that’s frowned upon. You don’t see it very often.

In football in England, it’s not part of the game, which is why when you see players come to England from some of those countries, it is a bit of a culture shock because it might be acceptable in the Portuguese and Spanish league, it might be part of the game.

But in England, it’s not. And it’s not something which is considered acceptable. So even with player behavior, and therefore how you officiate, that changes.

There are also differences in the training and the development. Every system is slightly different even in Europe. The systems aren’t the same. The development pathways aren’t the same. And so what happens in one country might not be the same as what happens in another country. There are different levels in terms of promotion and relegation of even the elite officials. There are differences in terms of the fitness test they do, in terms of the technical development and testing they do as well.

So the work we did and you mentioned a few of the countries there, there’s significant differences. And we can look at abuse as well and there’s differences in terms of how that abuse manifests itself but also in terms of the levels of abuse that the people and officials in football are subjected to.

So in the Netherlands, that abuse level was lower. It’s still higher than 50% for verbal abuse. But it’s not as high as we see in England for example, but one of the reasons for that is that unfortunately about seven or eight years ago, there was a tragedy in Dutch football, where an assistant referee was attacked and killed after a youth match.

That quite understandably has led to significant policies, policy shifts and changes within the policy in the Netherlands. And so they’ve brought in a number of different policies which are focused on the abuse of officials.

They’ve put in place more support networks around officials, and what they’ve seen is a reduction in abuse towards officials. It’s still higher than other sports but it’s not as high as we see in other countries in terms of football.

So, there are reasons for the differences, but there are also similarities and trends which we can see across countries and again, that might be in terms of the abuse levels and particularly verbal abuse, but also some of the training and development.

When you start digging down there are reasonably significant differences when you go to different countries, even in Europe. And then if you go to somewhere like South America, you’ll see even further differences, so some of that comes down to funding, some of that comes down to the profile of the league.

The Premier League has a significant profile but is also the most successful football competition in terms of exporting the television rights and the sponsorship and the income that it generates. Which is why they can afford to invest like they’re doing this summer over approximately half a million pounds in elite officiating.

Bringing in more support for those referees at the top level and they can do that because of the money that’s in the game, but it’s not the same in many other countries. So when we start digging below the surface a little bit, we start to see these differences, and how they manifest themselves in performance as well.

8. Why isn’t the abuse of referees a mental health issue? (03:28 mins)


Patrick Skene: I recently saw a new paper on the mental health status of professional referees in Turkey. I found right across everything I’ve looked at across all the countries, mental health has been bubbling at the surface and it’s still a bit of a taboo topic. So why isn’t this abuse framed as an issue that provokes and triggers mental health issues in people?

Dr Tom Webb: That’s some of the work we’ve been doing more recently. We’ve been looking at the impact of abuse, the fact that it’s at such significant levels, both verbal and physical abuse, aggression towards officials, means that there will be some sort of associated consequence to individuals. Now that differs from person to person. What I might find affects my mental health negatively, someone else might not.

But the problem we’ve had up until now is that we haven’t really had this focus on good mental health in officiating or what that might look like. And what might affect the mental health of referees negatively as well. And abuse is clearly one of those problems, which needs addressing.

If you look at the literature that’s out there, there’s only a handful of studies on the mental health of sports officials of which I think I’ve been involved in maybe two out of four or five of them, and that’s globally.

So I think clearly, we need to do a lot more work in terms of understanding the challenges and the barriers to good mental health. The triggers for what might impact referees and sports officials negatively, and also interventions – what can we do to really improve the mental health of sports officials?

What’s encouraging in an academic perspective is we’ve achieved some funding with researchers in the UK but also in Canada on a grant which is looking at mental health in sports officials over the next 3 years, and I think that will help our understanding certainly, and we need more of that.

We need to understand the barriers, the challenges, but also what impacts them positively.

What do we need to focus on improving so that the mental health of referees and umpires is positively affected? It should be something that they look at positively in terms of officiating, that they do it because it has a positive impact. And so we know what some of the barriers are, we know some of the challenges are.

Let’s look at some positives in that space and accentuate that. And I think that’s something which really needs to be focused on and hasn’t occurred and you can look at the mental health of players and coaches, which as you know, receives far more attention and coverage, both in academic literature and in the focus of governing bodies as well.

And we need to get back to the stakeholder groups in sport. Sports officials are part of that stakeholder group, and they haven’t had as much attention in terms of their mental health and good mental health and that’s certainly something which needs to change.

9. Insights on the challenges and growth of female referees (03:37 mins)


Patrick Skene: On a positive note – female referees. I see three female referees from France, Rwanda and Japan have been selected to officiate in the Men’s World Cup. Is there a lot of positivity for the female side of refereeing and are they being impacted by this abuse equally?

Dr Tom Webb: Yes, it’s very positive but I think we’ve still got a long way to go. Certain countries are better than others. And again, that will come down to the funding, the money the professional leagues generate.

But there’s absolutely no reason why female officials can’t officiate the men’s competitions and vice versa. I think in 2022, we should be looking at that and thinking that’s absolutely possible. So it’s very encouraging that FIFA have selected those female officials.

I’m part of an Erasmus+ funded project, which is looking at female officiating across Europe. At the moment it’s a 3-year project and I’m leading the research phase of that project. So it’s something that I’m very interested in, and I think should be actively promoted within sports, it should be inclusive. I don’t think we should be looking at it as a men’s sport or as a female sport. This is a men’s pathway, or this is a female pathway.

I think we’re at a point where we need to think about this as an inclusive pastime or profession, depending on the level you’re at. And there’s no reason why we can’t, and I think what’s interesting, certainly in terms of the research and we haven’t got the final findings yet from the project, but that will happen in the next few months.

Certainly, female officials are reporting that they think that they’re treated slightly differently to male officials. And that might be in terms of abuse, it might be in terms of how they feel treated within their sport. But if that’s true and if that’s something which comes through the analysis, that has significant knock-on effects in terms of abuse – if abuse can be reduced by having female officials and if male players in particular, are less likely to abuse a female official, then we need to look at the placement of female officials and how they’re used.

And then also look at how we’re recruiting and retaining those female officials and trying to do more of it because if it can reduce abuse, that’s something which we should be considering. I think anything which reduces abuse and aggression towards sports officials should be considered.

The project in Europe which I’m involved with is called the WINS project and it’s something which we’re really hoping works and we’ve got a number of different partners in different sports – from European Athletics to the Dutch Olympic Committee to various other partners.

We did a survey across Europe, which actually went a bit further than that and we managed to get representation from over 60 countries have over 3200 responses from female officials. So that will give us a far better understanding of the barriers, the challenges, but also some of the positive aspects of officiating from a female official perspective. And I think that can only help.

10. How much does abuse impact recruitment and retention of refs in grassroots football (03:52 mins)


Patrick Skene: At grassroots level, I’m hearing some horrifying numbers about referees. What role does verbal abuse have on impacting recruitment and retention of referees at grassroots level?

Dr Tom Webb: What we’re seeing across sports and across countries is that there is a significant issue with dropout. There’s a lack of retention.

There’s a number of reasons for that. It’s not just abuse, although abuse is a significant contributing factor. But we’re also seeing issues around the support networks, whether that’s formal or informal. You talked about disciplinary processes earlier, tribunals, we’ve seen issues across the board with the disciplinary networks, with how they’re set up, with how well they support referees in that process.

Generally, it’s felt they could be supported better within those processes. But also, the coaching development networks around officials, around referees, are they fit for purpose in the modern world?

What’s the structure of refereeing like?

How are referees being recruited?

Are they still being recruited from the same places, or do we need to think outside the box a little bit more? Do we need to think we’re not getting enough numbers through the door, or we’re not retaining enough of them?

Do we need to think about where we’re recruiting from? Do we need to go to different places, as well as the traditional schools, colleges, which the staple of recruitment of young officials and referees, particularly in England?

Do we need to think a little bit differently about that, and when we’re talking about retaining them it’s not sustainable if we have the dropout rates that we’ve got at the moment? And that’s across sports, we need to retain more officials, because that also has a significant impact on the quality of the officiating right through the development pathway.

So when we go back to people talking about officiating in the Premier League could be better in England. I go back to ‘but what’s the pathway’?

How many have you got coming through that pathway? What’s the training and development of those officials like?

Is it good enough? Is it fit for purpose? How are we identifying talent? Are we doing it at an early enough age? Can we look at the processes and procedures that we’ve got around the recruitment and retention of these officials? Are there better ways that we might be able to do it? So I think we need to think about that. I think clearly, recruitment and retention at the moment is a significant challenge. And COVID has also contributed to that.

We had a lot of unnatural breaks in seasons, where, we normally have one break a season and that’s where your recruitment and retention takes place. You hope there’s a sort of equilibrium there with the number of officials that leave and the number you recruit.

Clearly, if you have more off-seasons, or enforced breaks, then there’s the possibility that more people will leave in those breaks. And you can’t recruit the numbers that you would normally recruit because of COVID-enforced social distancing.

You can’t deliver the practical aspect of the course because you can’t have people in those sort of spaces. So that’s had a knock-on effect as well, but the downward trajectory of retention was in place before COVID hit, before the pandemic became a problem. And that’s just accentuated the issues I think.

11. The 10-point plan (03:46 mins)


Patrick Skene: You co-authored a book ‘Referees, Match Officials and Abuse – Research and implications for policy’ Did you have any ‘aha’ moments or any real eureka moments from writing that book on some silver bullet things we can do?

Dr Tom Webb: What we focused on at the end of the book was a 10-point plan, which basically brought together all the research, all the work that we’ve done across different countries. And we really focused on bringing that together.

And looking at what we can do to change the situation because what really struck us when we were going through the data and doing the work around the world, was this shared trend that there’s an increase of abuse.

And we’re talking about cricket, rugby union, we had media reports of issues within American sport 80% referee dropout rates in high school sports, eports of issues in rugby league in Australia, rugby union in New Zealand.

Incidents where officials have been attacked or physically assaulted. We were seeing this wherever we looked. And that was the shocking thing for us – that I don’t think we anticipated the scale of the problem before we started really looking at the issues across sports and across countries. Certainly sports like cricket and rugby union, we didn’t expect the data to tell us that there was such an issue.

And so that was really eye-opening and so what we focused on in that final chapter is that all these are the problems for let’s look at what we can do.

Let’s look positively at some sports that are doing some good things, that are really trying to make a difference. And there are examples of good practice. If we look at hockey in Australia, for example, Hockey New South Wales. They have pledges of positivity and codes of conduct that people were signing up to and teams had to adhere to.

There were some things from county FA’s in England, some initiatives that were really good, such as, wearing different color arm bands depending on match official age and experience which was instigated a few years ago. And so there were pockets of really innovative stuff that people were doing that was trying to make a difference.

And so we tried to end the book with more of a positive look at some things working. It’s also understanding that Sports needs to talk to each other more. There needs to be more interaction within but also outside of sports – what’s been tried somewhere that has worked and hasn’t worked.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in if it’s worked somewhere, can we amend it?

And if it hasn’t worked? Why hasn’t it worked?

Let’s learn the lessons from that rather than doing the same things over and over again in different countries and different sports and getting the same results. So hopefully that final chapter and the last couple of chapters really tried to focus on the positive aspects but also what we learned over the analysis of the data, so that the work we’ve done, around the world and in different sports, we’re able bring some of this content together.

12. If budgets were not an issue, what initiatives would you invest in to increase respect for match officials (03:01 mins)


Patrick Skene: And final question, the silver bullet question. A wealthy philanthropist leaves you an enormous budget to fix this problem. To get respect back into referees. Money’s not an issue anymore. What would you invest in?

Dr Tom Webb: That’s a really good question. I think, you know, if money is no object, I’d be looking at things like we’ve talked about – the development pathways. I’d be doing a thorough analysis of the development pathways. I’d be looking at how people are recruited, how they are retained, how they’re trained at different levels of the development pyramid.

I’d be looking at how we provide coaching, how we provide support, what the dropout rates were at certain points of that pathway. Are there pain points? If there are why do they happen? What are the barriers to progression? And even at, mass participation level, what can we replace?

What can we do to help people enjoy the experience, to stay longer?

There will always be dropout, there always has been issues in retention of referees. How can we understand the challenges they face better and what can we do to improve that situation?

I’d also look at the coaching awards. I’d look at what we could do to improve the knowledge of coaches.

What we could do to increase the importance of the role of the referee or the awareness of the importance of their role and of sports officials more generally.

And the biggest thing I would do is stop officials being the final group that gets any sort of investment because that’s what has happened historically. Always players and coaches that come first, and then officials come later.

Well, let’s put them first let’s change that. If we’re saying we want more officials, and we want them to train to higher levels then let’s invest. Let’s put that money there. let’s do it.

If you had that sort of investment, I would be looking at that as a sort of a proces. And I’d look at every single level and what we could do to improve that recruitment, improve that development process and then at that level you would see those people coming through the system, you’d have more in that system, you should improve then quality at higher levels as well.

You should be pushing those people at that top level. I think that will make a difference but if you have the investment you could make a significant difference.

13. Where to find Dr. Tom Webb? (01:06 mins)


Patrick Skene: Thank you. You’re fighting the good fight and where can we find Dr. Tom Webb?

Dr Tom Webb: I’m at the University of Portsmouth in the UK at the moment. I coordinate the Referee and Match Official Research Network from there.

The majority of my research is around officiating. I’ve got a number of different publications in the pipeline. Hopefully in the next few months there should be a few more that come out. The publishing process is never straightforward. Potentially another book in the pipeline as well, so that’s something that we’re working on. Lots of work with different organizations and colleagues around the world in academia, but also within industry as well. So yeah, lots going on at the moment.

Patrick Skene: You’re doing magnificent work. Thank you so much.

Dr Tom Webb: No worries. Patrick, thank you very much.


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Articles by Patrick Skene

Global resistance to referee abuse: The Referee Forum (U.K.)




Global resistance to referee abuse: Officially Human (U.S.A.)



Patrick is a founder of Cultural Pulse, a leading micro-community marketing and engagement agency that has worked for the past 15 years on sports participation and fan engagement programs for over 100 communities. His recent book ‘The Big O, The Life & Times of Olsen Filipaina‘ has gone into reprint and his stories on the intersection of sport, history and culture have been published by The Guardian Australia, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and Inside Sport. He is currently the proud coach of the Rockdale Raiders Under 8B1’s.

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