Refereeing abuse at grassroots: 'A disease ruining our game'

By Nesta McGregorBBC Sport
'You go from never being shouted at to being screamed at'

It has been described as a "disease ruining our game".

Research suggests more than 90% of grassroots referees have experienced abuse and - amid a culture of under-reporting - local football associations have used open letters and social media to campaign against it.

So far this season, the issue has led to referee strikes; some officials withdrawn for their own protection; teams expelled from competitions, and some leagues refusing to provide referees for games.

But there are fears the treatment of officials at grassroots level could be causing some to leave the sport for good - and even from taking up the profession in the first place.

Examples of the vile verbal and physical abuse officials endure are being shared widely on social media - and in recent months several letters and posts from county football associations have gone viral, warning coaches, players and parents about their conduct.

  • Kent FA reportedexternal-link a 25% drop in officials this season
  • Cheshire FA saidexternal-link 30% of improper conduct charges were for behaviour targeting a referee aged under 18
  • Worcestershire FA listed a string of incidents, banned two teams and called for change
  • The North Bucks and District League is not providing referees to this Saturday's fixtures in a show of solidarity

Has the impact of the coronavirus pandemic made things worse? Should the professional game do more? What action is being taken nationally? The Sports Desk podcast examines the issue...

Simon Mahomed - 20 years' experience

Amateur referee Simon Mahomed, left, promoting the 'No Ref No Game' campaign to tackle the abuse of grassroots officials
Amateur referee Simon Mahomed (left) promoting the 'No Ref No Game' campaign to tackle the abuse of grassroots officials

The English Football Association recently launched a 'Respect the Ref' campaign that aims to get "parents, players, spectators, coaches and everyone else" to see the game from an official's perspective.

Simon Mahomed, who has 20 years' experience refereeing, told BBC Sport: "I have been racially abused, sworn at, had flags thrown, players ranting and raving, you know the usual.

"A few weeks ago, I did a game and the abuse was constant. When I got home I said to myself: 'Why am I even doing this?'"

It's not the first time Simon has asked himself that question, and it's unlikely to be the last. He's convinced the majority of referees have done the same.

"I've known colleagues who've been physically assaulted," he said. "Fortunately, I've never had that happen."

On a bitterly cold Saturday in Lancashire, Simon is going through a pre-game check he's performed hundreds of times.

Cards. Whistle. Notebook. Flags. Thick skin...

"You don't give a decision, you get eight or nine players surrounding you and that shouldn't be part of the game," he says.

His dressing room this weekend is a converted storage container - a staple of Saturday and Sunday league football. The structure trembles intermittently as we speak, from the strong winds outside.

"That's not to say every game is a bad game, it's the minority," he says. "We are a valuable asset within grassroots football and without a referee there can be no game.

"Being a referee, it's amazing. It gives me a challenge. It gives me an ability to switch off from a normal 9-5 job. It gives me a freedom. And it's a chance to give something back to the community."

According to the FA's official figures, of the 850,000 grassroots fixtures in England during the 2019-2020 season there were 77 reported cases of assault on a referee.

The FA told BBC Sport: "We are clear that all forms of abuse, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable and we will continue to do everything we can to stamp out this behaviour.

"The FA works very closely with our 50 county FAs around the country to recruit, retain, support and develop the referee workforce to service the game and give them the best experience possible.

"The retention of all referees is crucial and this remains a priority as part of the FA's wider Respect campaign."

As well as the reported assaults, it is likely there will be many more that go unreported.

Simon says the impact of being verbally abused can be long-lasting. He also thinks things have worsened since the coronavirus-enforced break.

"People just seem angrier for some reason," he says. "Thankfully I have the support of the league and the local FA and that's really critical. You know they all provide a really strong network.

"I know after any game I can pick up the phone and there's numerous people I can ring. And I know they will give me the support I require."

Lucy, 17 - three years as a referee

On a 4G pitch in Greater Manchester, Lucy is overseeing a five-a-side game. The action is stop-start-stop-start with barely two passes completed in succession. No wonder - this is under-7s.

"It's about them learning," Lucy says - explaining her role at this age group is a mixture of officiating and coaching.

"Getting to teach them is really rewarding."

And while Lucy may still be too young to referee an adult game, it hasn't stopped abuse from some parents watching these age groups.

"It's usually from the families or coaches and not the kids because they are only little," Lucy says.

"It's like it's a Champions League final. And I guess sometimes for them it is - but they just take it too seriously."

There are 25,500 active referees in England, and the FA has a target of trying to attract 6,000 new ones each year. About 90% of newly recruited amateur referees in England are under the age of 21.

Lucy has been refereeing for three years and says friends who started their careers at the same time as her have since quit because of their experiences.

"I had a friend who gave it up a few weeks ago," she says. "It was just too much for her.

"I think when you first start out refereeing, it's tough. You go from never being shouted at before, to being screamed at and it really is difficult."

As well as officiating, Lucy plays for a local team. She says being in charge of a match has done wonders for her confidence - enriching her with transferable skills.

"It's such a positive thing for character development," she says. "I have gained so much more confidence. I used to be really shy."

And the teenager has a few age-old words of advice for any parent or coach on the sidelines.

"If you haven't got anything nice to say, then just don't say anything at all," she says.

Ceri Travers - mum of a teenage referee

For Ceri Travers, whose 16-year-old son is a referee, the behaviour of fans and players towards officials in professional football is the root cause of the problem.

She cites amateurs mimicking everything from goal celebrations to their attitudes towards officials.

Ceri says her son has been "obsessed" with football since a young age, and started refereeing at 14.

"I was a little bit anxious because you get overexuberant parents and sometimes coaches who don't always necessarily know how to behave," she says.

Her son was sworn at by coaches in his first match, for what they deemed a wrong decision, and he was then told by a parent he was "rubbish".

Ceri adds: "We got in the car afterwards and he was in tears."

Wanting to protect her son and prevent other young referees from similar experiences, Ceri made a formal complaint to the league.

During the process she discovered her son would have to sit in the same room as the coach accused of verbally abusing him to discuss the incident.

Through her successful campaigning and dialogue with the league, that process has changed.

"Anyone who reports an incident of abuse and it goes to a personal hearing, if they are under the age of 16, it has to be done virtually," she says.

"So you don't have to go and face those people in a room any more. Or sit in an office or a hotel meeting room with them and feel intimidated."

Ceri says she has seen the positive effect that being a referee has had on her son, including improving his confidence, organisational skills and physical fitness.

She still regularly watches his games, and carries out the same routine before each game.

"My way of dealing with it is to walk along the touchline and say 'good morning' to all the parents and coaches so they know I am there. I have a big smile on my face as I greet them.

"Inside me there's this little Rottweiler going: 'Just you dare.' But the vast majority of parents and coaches are fantastic. It's a tiny minority, unfortunately, that spoil things."

'We have to protect young refs - they are the future'

University lecturer Dr Tom Webb is the founder and co-ordinator of the Referee and Match Official Research Network and has written a book on referees and abuse, speaking to 8,000 officials across different sports.

"We found, from more than 2,000 responses from football referees in England, that 93% had experienced some form of abuse," said Dr Webb. "So it's very high.

"If we lose officials, the grassroots game struggles and crumbles. And then what happens is we don't have those officials coming in through the development pathways to have good officials at the elite level."

Former Premier League referee Mark Halsey says he frequently supports young referees who have been abused or attacked, and always encourages them to report it.

Halsey says there is a shortage at grassroots level and that young referees "are children and need protecting".

He added: "The county FAs have got to get tougher with the players, the coaches and the spectators that abuse these young referees because they are our future.

"Without referees, there's no game."

  • For an in-depth look at the refereeing crisis in grassroots football, listen to The Sports Desk podcast on BBC Sounds.
Around the BBC - SoundsAround the BBC footer - Sounds

Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC