Deputy Sports Editor Daniel Ross discusses the treatment of referees throughout modern football.
Mike Dean, Premier League football referee, did not take part in any Premier League fixtures this past Saturday or Sunday. In his previous two matches, Dean gave a pair of red cards which have come under criticism. Yet clearly a line has been crossed in the public’s response to this, and not for the first time. Instead of simply criticism, Dean has been on the receiving end of a number of death threats. I would have thought, perhaps all too optimistically, that football and its supporters, of whom I am one, would have gained some form of perspective on life during the pandemic. No one should ever finish a football game fearing for their life, or feeling threatened.
It does go without saying that Mike Dean is paid for the work he does and holds a position of responsibility. Thus, he should rightfully be held to account for the decisions made. But, there is a clear line between rational and respectful criticism and threatening a person’s life. Furthermore, I completely grasp that the people who sent death threats to Mike Dean, and participated in previous incidents like this, are a very small minority of supporters. Yet I also know from watching and playing football for the past ten years that this narrative of “we are all innocent” and “it is a rotten few that ruin it” is farcical.
Reflecting on growing up and playing football I see a clear progression of disregard for and disrespect toward referees. It comes in different forms at different ages; at under-10 and under-11 level girls and boys playing football may be fouled or give away a foul. In disbelief that they could somehow have done wrong, they might flail their hands in the air in disgust towards the referee. This is an important step in the culture of disregarding referees. The player, whilst playing the game, subconsciously criticises and questions the decisions of the referee. At age ten this is hardly alarming; a referee will feel far from threatened by a child with an attitude.
Yet, perhaps when the kid turns into a teenager, this attitude may escalate. When they give away a foul, they might provide the referee with adolescent backchat. Something innocent and surly like “referee what game are you watching?”. This is now a less passive and more direct questioning of a referee. Perhaps by the mid-teen years, the players will have discovered that swear words when used in other walks of life can shock and emphasize problems or issues. So why should a football match be any different? Rather than openly challenge a referee with a question, a few expletives might be inserted around the statements.
By under-18 and adult level when players are the same size if not bigger than the referee, these verbal assaults come across as threatening. Having played adult football in both Scotland and England, I can also say that the expletive-laden backchat can actually escalate into overt and direct threats; I have seen a player tell a referee to “go and die” after they awarded a penalty. Clearly, a culture of disrespect towards referees is allowed to perpetuate and reach horrifying levels.
This is obviously a very simplistic progression. It also suggests that every player who dares to throw their hands in the air out of frustration could one day be threatening a referee with his life. This is far from the case, many female and male players that I have played with quietly get on with it. When the foul happens they accept it and perhaps only question it after the game. I know a great many coaches who do not tolerate any form of disrespect towards referees. A great many of us (players and supporters) are, however, bystanders to this form of abuse and should do more to take a stand.
Yet is it a top-down problem or a bottom-up issue? I have clearly presented how it can perpetuate at the grass-roots and amateur levels. Many will say the issue stems from the top down. For example, ten-year-olds will gesticulate at a referee because they see their heroes do it. On top of this, certain pundits after the matches Dean and his fellow matchday officials officiated described the referees as “a bunch of idiots”. To many, “idiot” is a playground insult and something many won’t be overly offended by. But pundits, players, and coaches at the top level operate on a platform that is viewed by the next generation of football fans and players. You do not want to be encouraging this culture of verbal assault toward a referee. The reality is it is a chicken and egg situation. The issue of treatment of referees plagues all levels of the sport. A far greater effort needs to be made by all to end this despicable culture.
Irrespective of whether it is generated at the grass-roots level or at the pinnacle of the Premier League and the Women’s Premier League, it is something that quite simply does not plague other sports in the same way. When watching rugby, cricket, golf, or tennis, the idea of a player insulting a referee or match official is not tolerated. When Kyrgios criticizes an umpire, it will lead to headlines the next day. Even more starkly though, in all these sports when a player unnecessarily criticises or offends a match official the phrase “oh it was like a football match” often is used. Whilst British fans will perhaps claim that American soccer is simply not the same standard or lacks the same atmosphere as the UK, what is clear from American players in St Andrews is that referees get treated with far greater respect. If many other sports can treat referees with a more consistent level of respect along with football associations on different continents, then why can’t football in the UK do the same? Paul Field, Chairman of the Referees’ Association, said that if harsher punishment is not introduced for the abuse of officials, then a referee’s life will be lost. Football is the most popular sport in the world and is the “beautiful game”, but aspects of the sport look far too dishevelled. Responsibility should be taken by everyone in the sport to take a stand.