Dr Jimmy O’Gorman
As my 17-year-old son prepares to referee a local Under 15s football fixture his phone begins to incessantly ping. There is a shortage of referees to fulfil all local junior football fixtures again this weekend.
This has not come without warning, nor is it a surprise. An open letter by the referee development officer from Kent County FA cites a 25% loss of referees over the last two years. They explain: “if each of those 400 referees lost were to referee approximately 20 games a season, it results in approximately 8,000 matches being played without a referee”.
The pandemic has exposed the dark, ugly underbelly of problematic behaviour in grassroots football. Despite virtual training and development opportunities, and mental health and well-being support provided by County FA’s, it is clear many referees have declined a return to officiating because of verbal and physical abuse they received before the game was locked down.
Upon the resumption of fixtures, the Kent referee development officer reported that referees have immediately quit due to verbal abuse, physical intimidation, social media threats, and alarmingly, an adult and adolescent referee being physically assaulted, in the latter case, by an adult.
If replicated across all County FA areas in England, these losses threaten to undermine the recovery from the pandemic, given referees are facilitators of regular, structured organised physical activity for approximately 2 million children and adults every week.
Research highlights that referees perceive a lack of effective support networks and a lack of trust in the disciplinary process, resulting in abusive incidents not being reported. More worryingly is that of the approximate 28,000 registered referees, approximately 26% are aged 14-18 – a key target group in the FA’s referee strategy – are exposed to these types of abuses. These young people often officiate alone, without parental supervision or adequate support mechanisms.
Research has yet to account for the unique circumstances adolescent referees find themselves in. Here, there appears to be a ‘policy gap’. At best, adolescent referees come under the FA’s policies designed to protect junior players from abuse and safeguard their welfare. But such policies do not reflect or account for the unique safeguarding issues adolescent referees may experience or be exposed to.
As we emerge from the pandemic, if long-term retention of grassroots football referees is to be realised, future research and practical endeavours are required to more effectively safeguard adolescent referees and provide supportive mechanisms for them to develop free from abuse.
Dr Jimmy O’Gorman is Senior Lecturer in Sport Development, Management and Coaching at Edge Hill University.