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Respect? Verbal abuse towards football referees still rife, survey finds

An online survey of more than 2,000 football referees has found verbal abuse towards match officials is still rife.

The survey, compiled by Loughborough, Portsmouth and Edge Hill universities, targeted football referees from across England, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.

Its main aim was to uncover the real life experiences of referees officiating in matches at all levels. 

Respondents were asked about the success of the Football Association’s (FA) Respect Campaign, which was launched in 2008 to try and get managers, players and supporters to show more respect to match officials. Other topics covered included the support referees get from national and county level FAs and if they have been verbally and/or physically abused at matches.

Just over half of all respondents felt the Respect Campaign had been a success, with one commenting ‘I referee adult football and there has been a marked improvement in behaviour.  There are fewer incidents of irrational behaviour. For me, this applies to players and coaches but the occasional incident occurs with spectators in local football. However, this too is improving’.

However others felt there had been no change in behaviour. One respondent said ‘Behaviour of players and coaches has not improved in the slightest and all this shaking of hands pre-match is meaningless, totally meaningless. As soon as a referee makes a mistake or makes a decision the players perceive to be wrong, all hell breaks loose’.

A more worrying finding from the survey was that 60% of respondents reported being verbally abused at least every couple of games, with one in five suffering physical abuse. Some respondents said they felt intimidated by managers and players, which impacted on the decisions they made at games. One respondent commented ‘A manager threatened to kill me and had to be physically restrained from assaulting me’, and another said ‘I got attacked from behind and kicked repeatedly while unconscious. I was not supported at all well by the County or National FA, I felt like I was the one on trial and had absolutely no aid or direct support’.

Dr Jamie Cleland from the Department of Social Sciences led Loughborough’s involvement in the survey.  He said:

“This is the first independent study to examine the experience of referees on a national scale since the Respect Campaign was launched in 2008. It highlights some success, but with nearly half of referees who completed the survey (42%) refereeing for less than five years, the results indicate how far the FA still needs to go to implement respect across the game, particularly at the grassroots level where the significant majority officiate. Without referees, the game would not exist.”

Dr Tom Webb from the University of Portsmouth added: “The Football Association has been trying to effect cultural change across many levels of the game and there have been some positive signs, however, there is clearly still work to be done. Referees are being subjected to verbal abuse and some are being physically abused. The Respect Campaign evidently requires further engagement, support and focus at a national and local level.”

Senior Lecturer Jimmy O’Gorman from Edge Hill University said: The results of the study indicate that much more needs to be done to eradicate poor behaviour towards officials, and enhance the experience of refereeing at all levels of football.  While there are some noted improvements since the Football Association’s Respect Campaign, the divide between respect for officials at an elite sporting level compared to those at grassroots is significant.”