Following on from our recent blogs about harassment in the workplace, particularly in white collar/office environments, we consider a different form of workplace harassment and one which in many cases involves those being harassed holding a voluntary position. 

Grass roots football referees across England have claimed that they frequently fear for their safety when refereeing football matches and that they are dissatisfied with the steps being taken to address their concerns.

In a recent survey conducted by BBC Radio 5 Live with over 900 English referees, it became apparent that referees are suffering abuse at all levels from players, spectators and coaches. The survey presents a disturbing picture of threats, attacks and intimidation and the severe impact this is having on their mental wellbeing.

Of those who responded to the survey, many reported physical abuse by players, coaches, managers and spectators and 708 reported being sworn at during games. Almost all of the respondents, 908 of the 927, reported experiencing verbal abuse and over 100 of the 122 referees aged 17 and under reported being verbally abused as a result of their decisions.

Concerningly, 293 respondents reported experiencing physical abuse from spectators, players, coaches and/or managers, with a further 283 reporting threats of violence being made against them. Fifty seven of the respondents claimed that they had received death threats against themselves and their loved ones during the course of their refereeing career.

In contradiction to the Football Association’s very public comments on its desire to promote inclusivity and end discrimination, 375 of the respondents reported receiving regular personal abuse. The abuse is said to have involved comments on their appearance, gender, race or sexual orientation. Female referees reported being discriminated against and being told that they do not belong in football and having comments made about their chests during the course of a game.

Almost all of the surveys agreed that these issues had become worse in the last five years and that these experiences had impacted their mental health. When interviewed, some of these referees reported being scared and worried about attending games and the abuse they would receive. 

Many of the respondents criticised professional players and their conduct towards referees. It was suggested that much of the intimidation and abuse experienced by grass roots referees was simply a result of players, coaches and spectators emulating what they see on television. Professional players and coaches are often seen shouting at the referee, questioning their decisions and undermining their authority. It was held that many wished to see the FA be stricter with elite professionals who show aggression towards the referees in televised games with the hope that this will impact the behaviour of individuals at the grass roots level.

Paul Field, the president of the Referees’ Association, has commented on the significant impact the abuse is having on the mental health of the referees and his fears that the abuse will escalate to the point that “a referee will lose his or her life”. Former Premier League striker Chris Sutton has commented that this abuse is “totally unacceptable” and that any swearing or abuse toward referees should be stopped.

The FA have announced that they will be conducting a trial of referees wearing body camera at grass roots level games later this year. They have also stated that they intent to introduce “stronger sanctions, leading innovations and a new three-year refereeing strategy” with the hope that doing so will help to address the issues identified by the surveys. The effectiveness of these actions wait to be seen but there is no doubt that action is needed to protect referees.