The new initiative to stop referee abuse

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Referee abuse is baked into football like chocolate chips into cookies; or rather raisins into cookies because it leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Let’s not be unfair to chocolate chip cookies here.

Cookie jokes aside, referee abuse is a real problem in Australia. To highlight the issue at a grassroots level, just look at some statistics coming out of Central Coast Football.

During an 18-round competition, 30 offences of abuse were reported by referees. This averages out to be 1.6 incidents a week. It is important to note, though, that these figures do not include incidents that go unreported or incidents that are unproven. If we added in those figures, the number would likely be in the hundreds.

Ask any referee you know and they will likely tell you that it is very rare that they walk away from a match without at least one player, coach or spectator abusing them.

For a personal touch, I reached out to a number of referees to share their personal experiences. Firstly, a 19-year-old female referee recounts some shocking details, including a rape threat.

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“There was a guy from an all-age eights team who told me ‘If you don’t call the next offside I promise I’ll take you out to dinner’. When I didn’t call the next one, he said, ‘Well now you don’t get a choice of what happens after dinner, women have to be good for something’.

“There was also a coach who didn’t like my decisions, so he decided he’d stand there and spit at me.

“I don’t tell my mum about anything that happens or else she’d never let me take step onto a football pitch again. If she knew what kind of language was spoken at me, she wouldn’t let me referee anymore. If you had kids would you let them?”

Referee abuse is larger than just a grassroots issue, too. I managed to speak to former FIFA referee Richard Lorenc. His career highlights include refereeing in a number of World Youth Championships, World Cup Qualifiers, and officiated during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

“I’ve had threats after games, threatening phone calls, car damage, police escorts, coins and bottles being thrown at me, I’ve had it all,” said Lorenc.

“There is unquestionably an issue. There needs to be more of an effort made to help stamp out the abuse but how that’s done, no one has the perfect solution.”

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One man who believes he has that solution is the face of the VAR, Kris Griffiths-Jones. As well as being the main man in the VAR room, he is also the head of referees for Football New South Wales. His solution to help stamp out referee abuse is a ‘sin bin’ style system for dissent at a local level across NSW, and he says it’s being very well received.

“It’s reduced the number of yellow cards, it’s reduced the number of red cards and it gives the referees another avenue to try and manage it,” said Griffiths-Jones.

“It’s a cooling off period. It gives them that five or ten minutes on the sideline to calm down. Generally, by then, the player’s reaction is ‘I’ve done the wrong thing, let’s get back out there’.

“The sin bin takes a lot of pressure off a referee because you don’t have send a player off with a red card, because then you’re under pressure by the other ten players to have a consistent message.

“If we have a sin bin, I think you can deal with it more effectively, and the player can then come back, and I think that’s the best respect campaign we can have.”

His reaction comes after many failed respect campaign attempts by FFA. They can make posters and banners at games, television ads and wear badges on their sleeves that say ‘RESPECT’, but it has zero impact in reducing abuse towards referees.

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A recent survey by Football New South Wales shows that the number one reason referees are quitting is because of the abuse they receive. That has steadily inclined over the past few years, as four years ago it was listed as the number two reason referees were leaving the game.

As the old cliché goes – if you don’t have a ref, you don’t have a game, and there are many games at a grassroots level which go uncovered.

“We lose a thousand referees a year, and the biggest reason is because of the abuse they receive” said Griffiths-Jones.

“We have about five thousand referees but we’re losing about 30%. It’s unsustainable and that’s why we don’t have a lot of growth. If we were to keep those referees that we lose we can start to cover more matches, but we just don’t have the numbers at the moment and a large part of that is down to the abuse that we get.

“It’s disappointing that you seem to put a jersey on a young referee, a 14 or 15-year-old, and the expectations of players, coaches and parents is that the referee won’t make a mistake and that every decision that he or she makes will please all. That’s just not going to happen.

“No one gets paid enough to cop the abuse that they potentially get week in week out.”

Looking at the bigger picture, more referees equals a higher standard of referee in the A-League. But to achieve that, we have to first show referees more respect at a grassroots level so we can properly develop referees before they give the game away.

Seeing incidents of coaches and players tearing strips off a referee in the A-League is not uncommon. Impressionable grassroots players and coaches who watch these games then try to emulate that attitude, because that’s how the ‘professionals’ behave.

I’ve been a big believer of changing the culture around football, not the game. It’s the same reason I have my reservations for the VAR. Change the way the players behave and interact with a referee when they make an incorrect decision instead of throwing an unproven technology down their throats and forcing them to go against their basic training and instincts (such as assistant referees being told to keep their flags down if they’re unsure and let the VAR sort it out – we all know how well that worked in the Grand Final last season…).

Kris Griffiths-Jones’ idea of a sin bin for dissent has seemingly worked with great affect across local games in NSW. Perhaps it’s time the A-League adopted a similar policy to try and change the culture around football in Australia.

Feature Image Credit: Ngau Kai Yan

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Cameron Smith
Football writer and radio presenter. Loves everything football (well, except Italian's diving since '06).