Referee abuse is a significant issue in all sports, impacting sports officials at all levels from professional referees plying their trade in front of TV cameras and thousands of spectators to those officiating games involving kids in local parks that only parents attend. No one appears to be untouched by this scourge and every sports official, including me, has experienced at least one form of abuse in their refereeing career.
Referee abuse can take various forms, ranging from verbal insults and harassment to physical aggression. The latter form garners the most attention and condemnation. Most recently, enormous media attention was garnered by an on-the-field incident involving Aleksandar Mitrovic, a Fulham striker, who physically assaulted referee Chris Kavanagh by grabbing and shoving him during Fulham’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Manchester United. Chris Kavanagh took appropriate disciplinary action on the field against Mitrovic and sent him off.
Unfortunately, Mitrovic’s misconduct – however infamously newsworthy – is just one example of misconduct out of many faced by match officials regularly. What’s more, referees face the threat of physical assault not only from players during the game but also after the game and including from team officials and spectators. And there are other forms of referee abuse. The most commonly faced by officials is verbal abuse. This includes offensive language, insults, derogatory remarks, or personal attacks directed at the referee. It involves, among other things, swearing, name-calling, or discriminatory language based on characteristics such as race, gender, or nationality.
Oftentimes, the abuse continues a long time after the game is over. Harassment, stalking, threatening messages, and invasion of their private lives are all transgressions that game officials may experience from time to time. And now, in the age of social media, referees are also increasingly facing abuse and harassment through social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
Perhaps no other work environment allows or tolerates this type of repeated and pervasive misconduct to occur. Imagine an office, warehouse, or any other working environment where you’d be subjected to daily physical threats and verbal abuse. It is, in fact, unimaginable and almost no one would tolerate it for long. Also, any employer allowing this kind of misconduct to continue without taking proper corrective action would likely face a plethora of serious legal consequences, including civil and, under extraordinary circumstances, even criminal liability.
Yet, in the world of sports, referees are often told to have thick skin, be understanding, and tolerate players’ outbursts, coaches’ insults, and fans’ abuses. Many sports leagues and organizations are professing their zero-tolerance attitudes toward referee abuse, and while I want to believe that these declarations are genuine and heartfelt, I am extremely skeptical that they are. It’s difficult for me to accept them at face value and not draw a different conclusion; that the referee abuse is tolerated, perhaps even viewed as an acceptable part of the game, given the breadth of the problem and its pervasive nature.
And perhaps because I officiated soccer games and admittedly, I continue to be an avid fan of the game, watching sometimes multiple games in a single week, soccer seems to me to be especially afflicted by this menace. Watching the over-the-top reactions of players or coaches, or their use of foul language in response to referees’ decisions (for which commentators feel compelled to apologize to their viewing audience from time to time), which is obvious to anyone watching, reinforces the view that there is precious little done to discourage this type misconduct and that these pledges are hollow. It also has a spillover effect on lower leagues and grassroots levels as kids soak up these reactions and emulate them in their games.
Referee abuse has several negative consequences. It undermines the integrity of the game, creates a hostile environment, and most acutely felt now, discourages individuals from officiating. Not surprisingly, it is the most significant obstacle state and local referee associations face in their recruitment and retention of referees. Many referee associations cannot recruit or retain enough officials to referee their games. And, unless something is done, this problem will persist and get worse.
We need immediate action and must address referee abuse head-on. Half measures and empty slogans won’t do. Sports organizations, leagues, and associations must implement stricter codes of conduct and disciplinary measures to deter abusive behavior. Education and training programs for players, coaches, and parents must highlight the evils of referee abuse, condemn it, and be emphatic about respecting officials. New legislation should be enacted to protect referees from assault or harassment and penalties, such as fines, bans, or, in egregious cases, prison terms imposed on individuals who engage in abusive behavior toward referees.
Promoting a culture of respect, supporting officials, and fostering sportsmanship among all participants, including players, coaches, and fans are essential in combating this problem. In addition to education and advocacy for change, we all must continue reporting and condemning all incidents of referee abuse. By doing so, we all contribute to creating a safer and more respectful environment for all sports officials. Ultimately, we will be able to eliminate referee abuse from sports only through a collective effort from all stakeholders involved in sports.
Following the game, the FA charged Mitrovic with misconduct and suspended him for eight games. But already, even though he apologized for the incident, Mitrovic reportedly argued that the ban was unfair when his misconduct was compared to similar misconduct of other players.
While examples of the FA’s inadequate responses in the face of equally or even more egregious misconduct abound, Mitrovic’s argument demonstrates his utter lack of understanding of how damaging his behavior was. He assaulted and disrespected the official, a behavior deserving of universal condemnation and severe punishment, potentially fostering a dangerous idea in the minds of thousands of others, especially the young, that his actions were acceptable, and generally brought the game into disrepute. And, all of this appears to have been lost on him. Perhaps, after all, he didn’t learn anything from this debacle. Appalling.