Sport’s ugly blind spot – abuse of officials
Every year millions of parents around Australia sign their children up to play sports in good faith that they are doing the best thing for their development.
A small sliver will make the full journey to become a professional and represent their country. For the vast majority, sport will not be their occupation but serves a role as a key pillar in developing a different set of life skills beyond those their family or school provide.
Lessons like learning to cope with losing, sportsmanship and how to celebrate the accomplishments of others, the power of teamwork, listening and submitting to a system and most importantly learning the art of respect for elders, coaches, teammates, opponents and officials.
But what happens when sport performs the reverse role – teaches children and youth bad habits that derail their development and normalise anti-social and cowardly behaviour that could negatively impact their lives down the line.
What if sport is creating the anti-social behaviour that it purports to be a cure/prevention for?
Nothing can prepare you for referee abuse and my most recent personal experience was a testament. Having played a range of sports for the best part of four decades I have most recently landed as the coach of my son’s under 8’s soccer team.
Due to the current referee shortage in soccer, no referee arrived for our first match of the season and the convention is for the home team to supply a referee, so I stepped up.
At this age, the focus is supposed to be about fun and enjoyment with players yet to be graded on ability resulting in a wide gap in skill sets. A referee is tasked with showing some discretion to not over officiate, not humiliate certain kids who continue to make mistakes and maximise enjoyment.
Our team was down by 4 or 5 goals but one parent was relentlessly urging his players on, abusing his own son and my every decision. It introduced tension into the game as parents on my team took umbrage and could have developed into something nasty. After a quiet word and eye contact, the abuse stopped but I can’t forget the mixed look of relief and embarrassment on his son’s face.
Reflecting back I was haunted by a quote from famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who observed: “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with more than ten sports in Australia and have always struggled with the mystery of match official abuse – why the white-hot hostility to a stranger and the lack of awareness of the clearly terrible role modeling?
What drives an otherwise upstanding sports fan to scream abuse at a match official? Or turn an otherwise loving parent into a seething, foaming, resentful ball of fury at an 11-year-old boy who has made a refereeing decision that did not favour their child?
For more than a century, sports have provided an extraordinary platform to improve human rights, lift millions out of poverty, teach empathy, learn about other cultures and teach values to create better people and societies. Great progress has been made in eradicating racism, promoting pioneers and creating opportunities through inclusion for under-represented groups including females, the LGBTI communities and cultural minorities.
The one area that hasn’t risen with the tide is the continued disrespect of match officials across sports by coaches, players, parents and fans.
Some call it a crisis of disrespect and for others, it’s an act of wanton self-sabotage. I agree with both and will add in destructive cowardice. There’s nothing positive about the abuse of officials (referees and umpires) and for some sports it is looming as their greatest challenge to growth.
The cricket summer of 2020/21 was a flashpoint in the ongoing war for respect to officials. Across all forms of cricket there was a marked increase in umpires being abused by batsmen who were refusing to accept the umpire’s decision. The old school cricket media, mostly ex-players, refused to attack this behaviour, instead attributing it to ‘passion’, the ‘pressure’ and in some cases saying that ‘questioning the man’ is a part of Australian foundation culture.
Until a powerful story was written by Gideon Haigh debunking these rationalisations, it seemed the behaviour was being normalised. Applauding the article, I wrote on LinkedIn:
“The open denigration & defying of umpires sets a terrible example for children, degrades the game & ultimately means less people want to both umpire and play.
Umpires are often senior men and women doing it for chump change and love and the game is poorer without them. I’ve been involved in matches where umpires haven’t shown up and you have to umpire yourselves and it was a hostile and unpleasant experience. They should be treasured & thanked for giving up their time.”
Former Test opener and renowned ‘gentleman cricketer’ Ed Cowan stated a simply articulated case for player behaviour in terms of personal legacy:
“Lots of talk about player behaviour at the moment. I had my moments no doubt (bound to if you get hit on the pads as often as I did) but I regretted them at the time and still do now. You quickly forget the runs and wickets. People remember, rightly or wrongly, how you conducted yourself.”
The standard you walk past is the standard you reflect and Gideon and Ed seemed like lone outliers in taking their stand for respect.
Many moons ago I was involved in the design and evaluation of the award-winning AFL Multicultural program which has globally done more than any other formal program to engage people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Part of the multicultural fan development journey was the ‘Welcome to the AFL’ – a trip to the MCG to watch the great Australian game at its apex: ‘A night at the ‘G’.
One night I was an observer for a group of 50 Chinese international students who had learnt about the game in tailored sessions, watched videos and were primed to watch their first professional game live.
There was a big crowd in and the shouted umpire abuse started early with one referee being continuously called: ‘a maggot’ and the vitriol continued unabated by both sets of fans.
At half time I spoke to one of the student leaders who said his group were not enjoying the experience because of the referee abuse. The leader told me: “A lot of us are sad for the parents of the referee and why they let their sons do this. What have their sons done wrong to deserve this?”
The running joke at the time was that the ability to ‘get things off your chest’ and vent by yelling at the umpire was saving the Victorian government millions in keeping people away from psychiatrists – but at whose expense?
The mental health of the umpires.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
The old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is particularly applicable in creating a culture that discourages abuse of sporting officials. Coaches and parents are role models for all players and fans and a uniform and watertight good example needs to be set unilaterally – one abusive fan, parent or coach can ruin it for everyone.
For parents, coaches, fans and players that feel that an injustice has been perpetrated by an official, it’s worth considering that the endgame is tragedy when unchecked emotions and a crisis of disrespect eventually embolden groups into violence.
A simple Google search of ‘referee death’ uncovers a terrifying global roll call of deadly violence including videos of deaths of match officials who left their houses to officiate a game between strangers and never returned.
A sample of these deaths make sobering reading. In 2007 a Dutch referee was kicked to death for making a contentious decision at his own son’s game.
In 2013, horrifying scenes were broadcast around the world as a Brazilian amateur referee was lynched and beheaded in ugly escalated violence. In the same year in Utah in the USA, a father of three was killed by a 17-year-old goalkeeper.
In 2016, an Argentinian referee was shot by a player he had sent off and in Mexico in the same year, a referee died after being head-butted by a player prompting the extraordinary discussion of arming officials.
In 2017, in a tragic story that reverberated around America, Michigan soccer referee John Bieniewicz died after being sucker-punched by a player. His son Kyle, also a referee, told a Senate Judiciary Committee: “We screw up sometimes. We shouldn’t have to worry about the fear of being attacked when we screw up.”
His grieving widow Kristen spoke of the loneliness and helplessness of her husband’s plight: “Referees are out on an island; there’s nobody there to protect them. It’s not like they’re packing a gun. They’ve got a whistle. That’s it.”
In February 2021 English EPL Referee Mike Dean stood down from officiating at a Premier League game after he and his family received death threats over social media.
The unprecedented situation prompted Referees Association Chairman Paul Field to tell Sky Sports: “One day in this country a referee will be killed and I have warned the football authorities about this. Football is a reflection of society but it can’t cure all the ills and what is needed is significantly stronger deterrents to make people stop and pause before they act.”
For Fields, the lack of respect is found at all levels and confirmed by a report published in 2017 titled ‘Respect? An Investigation into the Experience of Referees in Association Football.’
The report detailed the responses of 2056 football referees across all 51 County Football Associations in England and found that 19% have been physically abused. It’s difficult to imagine a more dangerous ‘workplace’ than volunteering your time as a match official.
The outbreaks of violence against referees often sit at the tip of a pyramid of a dehumanisation process, in which an official is tarred with unchallenged labels that erode their authority. Once their integrity is undermined, it triggers an environment that encourages verbal or physical abuse.
Seemingly light-hearted jibes about physical defects: ‘Are you blind, you need glasses’ can lead to questioning of integrity and neutrality: ‘He is on the take’. Once a match official’s impartiality is in question, empathy is gone and it can escalate to fully rationalised scapegoating and demonization.
What sits at the heart of the crisis is the question – where do match officials sit in the hierarchy of importance? For Dave Trodden, CEO of the NSW Rugby League, they are an essential service:
“Support for referees and encouragement of them is central to the operation of any sport. I have been heartened by the strength of referees associations across our state and their contribution to the success of our sport should never be underestimated.”
Trodden oversees a number of dedicated campaigns aimed at supporting referees: “We have a whole campaign around respect for everyone in our game, particularly referees and other administrators & volunteers.”
One solution to the abuse virus that plagues sport is a root and branch reset on how referees are perceived. Maybe its time for a philosophy channeling the spirit of the late writer and author Steven Wells who wrote an article in the Guardian in 2008 titled: “Never Mind Respect – We Should be Treating Our Referees Like Gods”
Wells compared referees to traffic wardens: “Valuable public servants who are soft targets of a dumb, unthinking sheep-like consensus.”
He also uniquely laid out his case for the importance of referees: “That’s why I cringe whenever I hear some triple-chinned has-been former red-card magnet deride a ref for “thinking he’s the most important person on the pitch”. The ref is the most important person on the pitch — the most important person in the entire sport.”
Rather than being an adjunct to the game, Wells believed that referees are the centre of the ecosystem: “Undermine the authority of the ref and the entire structure of the sport collapses. And what rushes to fill the vacuum? The Corinthian values of the millionaire brats who play the game? The free-market amorality of the owners? The bumbling blazered bureaucracy? Only the referee remains pure of motive and entirely dedicated to the fundamentals of the game.”
For Wells, current programs relating to respect need a further positioning adjustment: “Which is why the Respect campaign doesn’t go far enough. Even when the ref is wrong — totally wrong, magnificently wrong, egregiously, almost-certainly-been-bribed catastrophically wrong — the ref is right. We need to instill a culture where to challenge a ref’s authority is considered the sporting equivalent of picking one’s nose in front the Queen.”
The solution lies off the field as well: “Respect needs to start in the commentary box and the backpages of the tabloids. The damage you do to the very fabric of the sport every time you undermine the ref is incalculable.”
On a practical level, what can sports do to arrest the high churn rates and attract people to the thankless job of match officiating with the difficulty compounded by ridicule, condemnation and criticism?
One simple way is treating respect for umpires and referees as an important value that needs to be taught alongside sportsmanship, skills and teamwork.
Consistently reminding players and parents that they can’t play the game they love without officials and without respect for them, the game lacks the integrity to instill the life skills of empathy, punctuality, compassion and respect for elders that will help athletes to be more successful later on in life.
Making refereeing junior games mandatory for abusive players to develop empathy, is an initiative that has been successful in achieving behavioural change at some clubs.
Team Coaches and Managers need to be constantly and vigilantly monitored for abusive behaviour because they have a crucial top-down role in setting the tone and have unique influence levels over players, parents and fans.
For coaches, combatting the ‘ugly parent syndrome’ is important by constantly reminding parents that their kids emulate everything they see from ball skills to verbal and physical abuse of authority figures. And that disrespect of one authority figure can bleed into the habitual disrespect of others including teachers and parents.
Another idea floated regularly is getting fans and parents to sign up to behavioural pledges bringing in some base accountability through clear understanding of expectations.
The one program I’ve seen working in the St George District is for each team to provide a volunteer parent to wear a fluoro vest during matches and whose role is to manage their fellow parent’s behaviour including referee abuse. It doesn’t stop every piece of verbal abuse but it brings some accountability from a fellow parent – quite a powerful deterrent in a team environment.
One interesting outlier in respect for match officials is rugby union and some lessons can be learned from their success in generating respect for referees. Their model starts from strict adherence for their codified Laws which state: ‘Players must respect the authority of the referee and must not dispute the referee’s decisions.”
Their Playing Charter has a clear and important stakeholder role mapped out for their match officials: “Rugby owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is played both to the letter and within the spirit of the laws. The responsibility for ensuring that this happens lies not with one individual – it involves coaches, captains, players and referees.”
On a visible level, rugby players generally show great respect for referees and officials with decisions rarely questioned and respectful exchanges captured on live television. It is a game that has decided to literally interpret their laws on respecting referees and match officials who not only receive a high level of respect but are often widely celebrated.
One simple component of rugby union’s success in respecting match officials is the tradition of referring to referees as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, which establishes a platform of respect at the outset of each interaction and is a simple model all sports should look at adopting.
Looking forward, if the problem is not addressed and improved, the risk insurance industry will become involved in demanding greater protection for match officials, as physical abuse of officials becomes an OH&S workplace safety issue with all of the compliance and attendant ramifications.
Sports will be forced to enforce a safe environment, pay for police presence and take legal responsibility for enforcement of real consequences for player, coach, parent and fan abuse of match officials.
And if all else fails and that’s what it takes to remove this toxic behaviour from our magical green spaces then I’m all in.
At the time of filing this article, a teen umpire and his father were assaulted during a brawl at a junior girls Australian Rules Football game in Edwardstown in Adelaide.
It was sobering and timely footage and made me ponder if perhaps expecting too much cultural change was unreasonable. That somehow Australians have an embedded loud and confrontational cultural trait of challenging authority and that is our ‘secret sauce’ in competitive sport.
And that match officials are part of the theatre and should ‘harden up’.
What does a world without neutral match officials look like? Parents and coaches navigating weekly storms of confirmation bias – a recipe for chaos and conflict.
And for those who feel that a world of sporting harmony is a utopian dream, you may well be right. It’s a complicated world plagued by history, caste, creed and race divisions and sport is not the panacea for all of society’s challenges.
But it’s not harmony that matters most, it’s a diversity of opinions, having difficult conversations and building all engagement on a platform of respect.
In her book ‘Respect Trumps Harmony’ author Rachael Robertson lays out a practical path forward for the competitive and passionate: “We don’t all have to love each other, in fact we don’t even have to like each other, but we do need to treat each other with respect. Because respect trumps harmony every time.”
I’m with Rachael on this one.
Three cheers for Ref!
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.