The final whistle: Why grassroots referees are calling it quits

Lee, a grassroots official for more than 10 years, has had enough. From disgruntled strikers, coaches and parents, the abuse has become too much. 

“I just thought, ‘why on earth am I doing this’?” he tells The Set Pieces. “It was so bad, people saying they were going to ‘see me in the car park afterwards’ and stuff. I just burst into tears.”

Lee spoke of incidents of close assaults on other officials this season, although his experiences aren’t particularly groundbreaking; right now, grassroots referees report verbal and physical abuse at record levels.

One former official says he stopped officiating at university because of threats. Another recalls an incident of racist abuse. A fourth speaks of never wanting to referee again. “I was called a c**t by a dad,” one adds. “It was an under-nines match.” 

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Over the past two years, the Referees’ Association (RA) has seen a growing demand for their services. The organisation has a welfare team of around 20 people, all of whom are volunteers. The abuse aimed at officials has become more frequent in recent seasons and something has to change.

“You only have to look at crowd behaviour around the country,” says Paul Field, President of the RA. “Society has become less forgiving of others and if we’re seeing an increase in poor behaviour nationally, then you’ll see it in football too. Coaches think a club badge gives them the divine right to say whatever they want to a referee. Kids football is probably the worst; it’s absolutely shocking.”

Rather uncomfortably, Paul admits that “some officials do leave because of the abuse”, adding: “that there will never be an issue recruiting referees; the problem is retaining them.”

One of those calling it a day is Tex, who has officiated for 20 years in at Sunday League level. He, like many, is adamant this year will be his last, citing a “lack of respect” that has “gradually got worse”. 

“The problem is with the players and coaches,” Tex says. “It’s always your fault that they’ve lost, not that their striker can’t put the ball in the net. A lot of young referees are as disillusioned as me, they’re leaving because it’s not worth the hassle.”

Another official echoes his thoughts: “People are thinking, what’s the point? We’ve got to go to work the next day.”

This isn’t a new problem, though, but an issue that has been left to spiral out of control. Ref Support, an organisation “dedicated to independent training, support & development of referees” has campaigned for the introduction of body cameras over the past few years, something they hope will “address all forms of abuse” and be “a significant tool in evidencing this huge problem in our game.”

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The proposed trial, which is expected to take place in amateur football next season, has been labelled by Ref Support as “the most significant development in the protection and support of match officials for decades”.

You can see why the innovation is needed, but would referees welcome their introduction? The short answer is yes. One non-league referee even described body cams as a “necessity”.

“It’s very sad,” he adds. “When I started refereeing at 14, if someone said it could be so bad I needed to wear a camera, I think there would be a fear factor for sure. I wouldn’t have bothered putting myself through that.”

Away from the support body cameras would provide officials, it’s clear their introduction paints a rather bleak picture. Not least, how have we got to a stage where officials need to tape a camera to their chest out of fear for their safety?

We don’t see this in cricket, rugby or tennis; it’s an almost solely football problem, and one that rightly raises questions. After all, football is supposed to be fun, right? 

“We are seen as an authoritative figure when we’re just trying to enjoy the football,” says Tex, firmly. “I started as a referee because like the players I love being part of the game.”

Body camera or not, people need to remember that; even the disgruntled strikers.

The final whistle: Why grassroots referees are calling it quits
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