Attacks on referees increase; but who is to blame?


So proclaims the Guardian in a piece that reports on “Calls for tougher sanctions against those who abuse or attack match officials as the number of incidents continues to rise.”

And some of the reporting is appalling and shocking, with players assaulting referees because they don’t like the decisions made.  They also note in what is a long and detailed report that “Last season 380 players were banned by the FA for attacking or threatening match officials.”

Indeed they also report that, “The Merseyside Youth League cancelled a round of fixtures last weekend in response to ‘multiple incidents of inappropriate and threatening behaviour’ on the part not of players but those watching from the sidelines.”

Apparently, the number of incidents is rising all the time, and there are campaigns afoot to make people aware that this level of assault (in fact one could say any level of assault) means that football is in danger of losing its referees.

But as ever with such reports, the commentary tends to ignore one question: “Why?”   In this case, why are the attacks on referees increasing?

The issue is of course incredibly serious, for “Referees have been killed after players took issue with their decisions in Canada and El Salvador this year, and Dr Jamie Cleland (an academic who conducts research into socio-cultural issues in sport) has argued that “the tribal nature of football – amongst players, supporters and even parents – means officials are considered legitimate targets.”

And maybe that is the explanation – the tribalism. Cleland also argues that punishment should be greater for those who attack referees with “some form of sanction for the player, coach or club,”

Thus as is so often the case with crimes, the focus is on more and more punishment, rather than any understanding of why the crimes are committed.  And yet when the “why?” question is tackled it is often the case that we can understand what response will actually stop the violence.

Of course, many people decry any attempt to look at the “why?” question arguing that looking for a reason is akin to excusing the perpetrator of the crime.   But such a view is generally merely part of the everyday attack on anyone that seeks to understand reasons for human behaviour and has now become part of the media’s daily routine.

Understanding why, however, does help us learn and can lead to much quicker solutions to problems.

In the case of refereeing it is quite possible to put forward a case that the secrecy that is at the heart of refereeing in England is a part of the cause.

Generally speaking, people don’t like being excluded and disempowered, and secret societies most certainly do generate a feeling of exclusion and disempowerment.

And it cannot be denied that in terms of the most visible referees in the country – those running Premier League matches – they are part of a fanatically secret society, the PGMO.  They have no website, they don’t explain what they do, and their activities result in the most extraordinary statistics that one can imagine.

Indeed it was only yesterday that we ran the piece, How today’s referee, Mr Jones, constantly rules in favour of the home team.

The favouritism of the home team by Mr Jones, we pointed out, is in contrast to the favouritism of the away team by someone like Craig Pawson who really doesn’t seem to like home teams very much at all.

Now the fact that some referees oversee home victories so very, very much more than others, may well be simply a result of the matches that they get given.   Or maybe there is some other reason.

But the fact is that the extraordinary levels that the PGMO go to to keep themselves secret mean that the issue is not being recognised as an issue, let alone be discussed.

And at this point some of the blame has to be shared with the media in England – a media that either will not or (because of some unknown PGMO diktat) cannot, comment on these extraordinary facts and figures.

And this is not just an Arsenal thing.  We really do need to have the PGMO come out and explain how it can possibly be that the players of Crystal Palace are fouled twice as much as the players of Manchester United.

Or how Arsenal players will be fouled 42% more than Tottenham players in Premier League games.



11 Replies to “Attacks on referees increase; but who is to blame?”

  1. Every sunday morning, on a german TV show called ‘Doppelpass’ that is broadcast live between 11:00 and 13:00, they now have an interview with a referee who comments, explains or fails to explain a decision taken by a colleague during the saturday games.

    Yep, they do that. And he explains patiently the whys and wrongs or whatever, dialogues with the moderator or the hosts.

    Yes it exists, tune-in to Sport-1 and you have it each and every sunday morning.

  2. Ah cmon guys… Issues at the very top of the game, amongst the PGMO, and analysis of the stats of refs like Jones has precisely nothing to do with parents attacking refs at a kids league game.

    The blame for increased attacks on refs in the grassroots game lies with those doing the assaulting, and no-one else.

    A bad decision, even a series of them, at a kids football game is not a valid reason for assault. Not even close. And I say this as a FA affiliated Veterans League player who sees incorrect decisions being made by refs (who are trying their best but make mistakes) week in, week out.

  3. I have a question is referee decision deferent from some teams who have the same offense committed to deferent teams some where awarded some not please we need explanation and I believe that is why VAR was introduced but when a referee made a mistake and VAR made the same mistake who is to blame, or is it not a conspiracy from both the referee and the man in charge of VAR now let ask MAN city vs Brighton and Aston villa vs Brentford we all saw that players holding there opponent in the eighteen yard box were awarded penalty but in the case of Arsenal vs Southampton the referee and VAR kept a blind eye my question is some club exempted from what is applicable to other clubs if not I myself will like to hear from English FA. Otherwise I believe that English football are fixed because of the promotion of there Pool business otherwise the referee and var can’t tell the whole world that are watching on the screen that none of them did not see it very sad hearing after the match that should have been awarded as penalty because it is a penalty little wonder English referees don’t officiate in the world cup because of there insufficiency even if the referee and var are punished the did has been done we are all human beings they have already agreed with their friends that for sure that match must be a stalemate it’s long time these referees will be checked though it didn’t start today it has been there all years but now that var are introduced why is it still happening may be they are going to introduce another body to be checking both the referees and cars and that one also fail they will introduce another one thank you all but what ever they do the world are watching

  4. @SammyNelsonsPants,

    I politely disagree. The way PGMOL manages its referees is the rot at the top. Why can rugby, even during a World Cup have referees whose decisions are never contested on the field when the importance of the games is huge ? Why are they respected ? Why are they not mobbed by the players like we see it every game ?

    For one, if you watch a game, you see the referees ‘explaining’ their decisions. And I guess they would not tolerate any ‘mobbing’.

    The rule should be simple : any attempt to mob (more then one player coming close and arguing) should result it an immediate send-off of the captain. Only the captains may he authorised to talk to the referee. Be it in the PL or any lower league. This simple rule would put to bed all that drama and tentative influencing of referees as we are seeing it each game.

    Yet PGMOL does not want to act. I guess if they would do this, the subject would not be the unruly or aggressive behaviour of some players, but the incompetence of the referees. What is called : wag the dog.

  5. @Chris

    You make a fair point, and I’d agree that firmer rules around players complaining to the ref would be a good thing ( Which is so dumb. Has anyone ever seen a ref reverse a decision due to players complaining? I cant remember one, ever.)

    I’m not really talking about that though – more the stories we constantly see of refs being verbally ( or even physically) assaulted, especially by parents ( players too in extreme circumstances) at grassroots level.

    Your idea has a lot of merit – but I don’t think it stops a hyper reactive parent invading a U9’s game in some juniors league somewhere.

    As far as the rugby comparison, again, fair point, and maybe the explaining has something to do with it, but it’s the old saying isn’t it – the game for barbarians, played by gentlemen, and vice versa thing. ( Having played and watched both, its largely true IMO)

  6. (……Which is so dumb. Has anyone ever seen a ref reverse a decision due to players complaining?)

    It’s actually not about THAT decision, it’s about the following decision, and the next decision and so on. It’s putting subliminal pressure on the officials. To put doubt in their mind that ‘maybe I did get that wrong’?

    It works in a similar way to the pressure the home crowd puts on a referee. Getting booed (abused?) every time you make a decision against the home team, can and often does affect a referee’s judgement. As Tony has pointed out, experiments around the effects of crowd noise done during COVID clearly demonstrated the affect, and that was just crowd noise watching on a TV. Imagine how that affect is multiplied in the cauldron of an actual stadium. So, there is no doubt that the subliminal pressure put on a referee by a partisan crowd affects his judgement.

    Personally, I have no doubt that the pressure put on a referee by a verbally aggressive team, especially when it increases to physically intimidating behaviour (surrounding the referee), can have a massive effect on his decision making.

    As for whether this behaviour feeds into the aggressive parental, or player behaviour we see at all levels of amateur football I’m not so sure.

    Personally, I think it’s down to other much wider social issues we are currently witnessing, such as a total lack of respect for anyone in authority.

    Here are some extremely depressing statistics to get your heads around:

    Research in 2022:

    The monthly average of emergency worker assaults has increased from 203 in 2019, to 226 in 2020, to 237 in 2021, representing a year-on-year increase of 4.9 per cent.

    Research in 2022:

    More than 72,000 assaults were carried out on hospital staff in the past four years but only a small percentage were reported to police, Sky News can reveal. The number of attacks is probably much higher – perhaps double – as only half the NHS hospital trusts in England and Wales responded to Sky’s questionnaire.

    Research in 2019:

    Assaults in schools (On Teachers) soar 72% in four years.

    Research in 2022:

    Attacks on firefighters are on the rise, say government figures.

    More than 1,440 assaults were committed in the six-month period 01 July 2021 to 31 December 2021, new figures have revealed.

    Research in 2020:

    In 2019/20 there were over 30,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales

    You can hardly blame footballers for what I see as a total breakdown in respect for anyone who has the temerity to wear a uniform, which of course includes referees, can you?

  7. Secrecy by the PGMOL having some kind of effect on Junior football behaviour is a bit of a stretch, I kinda lean more towards the lack of consequences on those abusing referees at the bottom of the pyramid than what Mike Riley gets up to, in fact it’s like two totally different games. Abusing verbally a referee at Junior level should see a club heavily fined, physically abusing a referee and the club should be thrown out of all organised football.

  8. @SammyNelsonPants,

    we agree. My point being just that, as the saying in Africa goes : the fish rots from the head.
    Were the players and referees better role models, it would definitely trickle down.

    As for the irate parent invading the pitch, I’ve lived through that in a past life as coach for a kid’s team. The issue is always that the kid does not merit being punished because of the parent. And I’ve seen kids being ashamed of their parents’ behaviour as well and apologizing for it. My take would be that such a parent ought to be sentenced to refereeing for a season….

  9. In his headline Tony asked ‘Who is to blame’

    As I showed with a raft of statistical evidence, society is to blame. It is undeniable that throughout British society, and I believe society in general, there is a total lack of respect for authority.

    I can see the point that being made that standards are set at the top, and that sets the tone, but I’m sorry I’m not having it that a secretive PGMOL or a poor referee in the Southampton Arsenal game, lies behind how a parent behaves on a Sunday morning. It is a much much bigger problem than that.

    The parent behaves as he/she does because society has led him/her to believe that his/her behaviour is: a) Acceptable b) Justified

    I think too many people today are bought up believing rules don’t apply to them. Laws are for other people. Whether you are Left wing, Right wing, Pro Brexit or Remain, I don’t think there is any doubt that part of the reason this country is in the shit hole it’s in is because we had a government and a leader that thought he could break every rule in the book as and when it suited. And what’s more anyone who was a Johnson supporter saw absolutely nothing wrong with that. And worse, if you do think it’s wrong. If you do expect higher standards from your leaders, somehow it is YOU that are the problem.

    And that is the epitome of where we are as a society. If you don’t like a rule, break it. If you don’t like what’s happening, change it, by force if you must. We live in a society of instant gratification. A society of entitlement. I want it. I want it NOW. No, I DESERVE it, I WILL have it.

    That is a mindset that society as an entity, and many people as individuals align to.

    We had a president in America who didn’t like the result of a democratic election. He refused to accept defeat and actively encourage, or at the very least refused to criticise, physical, violent protests.

    This utter contempt for the rule of law, for authority, runs throughout our society, from the home and the classroom to the Whitehouse and the Houses of Parliament.

    And to compound the issue it seems there are very few consequences for those that choose to behave in such a way.

    From Trump and Johnson to the guy who spits at a nurse, to the guy who punches a copper, to the Dad who abuses a referee, the consequences are minimal, if there are any at all.

    This is not a political rant; it is just my take on society. Left Right. In Out, Black White. Young Old. I believe they all have a similarly, significant minority that treat authority with utter contempt.

    That is why Mr Smith thinks his son was fouled and that the referee was a pr**k not giving him a penalty. That is why Mr Smith felt he was entitled to tell the referee what a pr**k he was. That is why, when the referee refused to change his mind, Mr smith thought he was perfectly entitled to punch him on the nose to get him to do so.

    That is why I can’t subscribe to the notion that Mr Riley refusing to talk to the media is to blame in any way for parents’ behaviour on a Sunday morning.

    That behaviour reflects society. That is why society is to blame for that behaviour.

  10. It seems pretty obvious to me that wrestling a player to the ground in the box is a punishable offense. When the ref and VAR don’t see a problem with that one can only surmise that hey have deliberately ignored it. There are only two solutions to the problem if you suspect that refs are bent. One is to make sure that no ref does more than two matches per team per season as Tony suggests. The other is to train artificial intelligence to run VAR. The problem with that is how do you ensure AI is not being trained on matches run by bent refs?

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