New study describes, analyses and explains abuse towards match officials

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Bo Carlsson
Department of Sport Sciences, Linnæus University


Tom Webb, Mike Rayner, Jamie Cleland & Jimmy O’Gorman
Referees, Match Officials and Abuse: Research and Implications for Policy
130 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2021 (Routledge Focus on Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-367-63359-2

In the spring of 2005, I did a study of Scanian football referees, which resulted in a couple of articles, on idrottsforum.org and in the Entertainment and Sports Law Journal. The articles mainly discuss the relationship of formalism and discretionary decision-making á la Dennis Galligan, and its balance and problems. Even Michael Lipsky’s “Street-Level Bureaucrats” were on the agenda in this study. Since then, I have not done much about the refereeing problem in the world of sports, other than having supervised a couple of bachelor’s and master’s theses that have been based on the pressure that referees in football or ice hockey are subjected to by both audiences and the mass media.

At Linnæus University we implicitly touch upon these problems in a local R&D project named Slutsnackat [enough talk!] in collaboration with Småland’s Ice Hockey Association, which studies what in the eyes of many is an increasingly hardening and vulgarized use of language in youth hockey – which obviously also affects judges. It will be interesting to see if the problem is the same or if the approach has been developed and deepened in the present book.

Interesting to note, before we get to grips with the content of the book, is the book’s form of publication. It is published in a series called “Routledge Focus on Sport, Culture and Society”, which seems to be a fairly new publishing strategy in a number of areas that has (in October 2022) resulted in twelve sports-related publications. The idea of “Routledge Focus” is to quickly produce shorter texts (20–50,000 words) within the course of three months, with a speedy review, and it is thus a middle ground between the formal requirements of a peer-reviewed article and, on the other hand, the common understanding of a monograph. With this somewhat unusual premise – neither article nor normal book – it is now time to take on the content.

First something about the four scholars who make up the future reference “(Webb, et al., 2021)” and that will, in the cumulative process of knowledge creation, with full academic authority stand up for these 130 pages. Tom Webb, first author, has a PhD and holds a position at the University of Portsmouth. The group has received support from the UEFA Research Grant Programme to put together and present this report. The question now is whether this work will be a substantial future reference.

The authors show that the problem in large parts can be traced to gambling and to players from the working class, in addition to the all-too-common phenomenon of overly inebriated spectators.

The purpose has been to investigate why judges are physically and verbally attacked and insulted, what the abuse and attacks look like, and in what contexts they occur. I think they succeed in this empirical endeavor, apart from the fact that the selection of sports/leagues is somewhat limited (see below). In addition, they have the ambition to present a program of measures that can reduce the incidences of these attacks. This part is likely to be more problematic, and the success may only be considered by looking into the crystal ball.

Webb and colleagues have structured the book so that chapters 1–6 provide material and input in different ways to launch a ten-points action program in chapter 7. Chapters 1–5 are very British in their presentation, taking as their starting point four leagues: two rugby leagues, the Premier League, and cricket. Chapter 6 draws material (specific cases) from various European football leagues, as well as from Mexico. This chapter also contains reference to an interview survey conducted in France and the Netherlands.

The first chapter gives a historical picture of referee attacks and traces events as far back as the 1700s. The authors show that the problem in large parts can be traced to gambling and to players from the working class, in addition to the all-too-common phenomenon of overly inebriated spectators. Despite Norbert Elias’ thoughts on the process of civilization, Webb et al. suggest that the incidence of these attacks has increased constantly. In this chapter there is also a meritorious discussion of the concept of “abuse” and its relationship to violence and attacks, both physically and verbally.

The second chapter deals with the importance of governing/regulating institutions within the world of sport. Via statistics and quotes, the authors demonstrate how judges experience their everyday lives and especially the lack of support both locally, regionally and nationally. Many a judge feel diminished job satisfaction and highlight the paucity of collective action. They also describe that “abuse is ingrained, that it is part of the very cultural fabric of the respective gameday routine”.

The third chapter continues in the same vein by describing how the English authorities handle the problem based on their organizational culture. Here, among other things, the authors highlight the problem of several incidents not being reported and thus being swept under the carpet, or of entertaining a preference for “solving it within the family”, to quote a well-known Swedish sport federation president. The fourth and fifth chapters deal with various attempts to create a more positive environment by introducing elasticity into the organizations and a greater mental courage to in order to support the match officials.

(Shutterstock/muzsy)

As mentioned, the sixth chapter provides a brief international outlook and presents a series of international cases in football, as they have been presented in the media. Webb and colleagues are well aware of the fact that media deals only with the worst and the most exciting cases, and that they are only the tip of the iceberg. The attacks in a referee’s everyday life can be more diffuse, but even more frequent and mentally taxing. The international outlook gives the same signals as the authors and their British examples. This gives rise to the last part which becomes their proposal for action.

The authors launch a ten-point action program, the first point of which is that policy changes need to be disseminated more effectively. They also think that the authorities must increasingly support and develop younger referees. Campaigns are required that underline the importance of referees. In addition, a review of the disciplinary systems and more developed “helplines” for match officials are needed: Microphones on the referee are another measure that is suggested. Various interest groups should develop a better dialogue. And last, but not least, the tenth point demands more research in the future. (Hm! Is there any scholar who has claimed the opposite in any context?)

What leads to sustained change is difficult to predict. However, I am a trained sociologist of law and have some experience in this regard, not least through Per Stjernquist, the subject’s Swedish founder, that negative measures usually do not lead to changed behaviors, but it is positive instruments (in the form of education and different types of rewards and positive attention) that lead to long-term changes.

One assessment of this book is that the first few chapters offer a rewarding and believable read, despite its somewhat limited selection of British leagues/sports. The last part – suggestions for action – you have to take for what it is. That said, the selection is the only thing that I find incommodius.

In this context, an exciting comparative study that could shed light on the importance of culture and its hegemonic impact on everyday life comes to mind. Let’s choose two comparably intense combative team sports, with high heart rate and aggressive play as a hallmark. I choose handball and ice hockey because I am fairly certain – despite the lack of empirical evidence – that there are major differences in terms of verbal and physical attacks between players and directed towards match officials, with the culture and language of ice hockey being much more aggressive. If it turns out that this is not the case, the research question would become even more interesting and require even more research.

Copyright © Bo Carlsson 2023

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