Foul play! The abuse of referees in Ireland

Colm Flood

“Ah come on Ref, are you blind? That was clearly in!”, yelled the coach while attending an under 9’s game of soccer.

A format of the game where there is no offside, no red cards, and most importantly, no score. Frequently while refereeing and facilitating underage games, I was subject to shouting coaches and disgruntled parents. Unfortunately, my experience is only a small fraction of the common attitude toward referees in Ireland.

An attitude where both verbal and physical abuse is accepted.

A little over a month ago, Roscommon GAA referee Kevin Naughton was hospitalised following an underage championship game between St. Aidan’s and St. Dominic’s after an incident involving a St. Aidan’s mentor. Fortunately, the individual in question received a 96-week ban following the incident.

Still, instances such as this stir us to look closer at what we deem acceptable in Ireland. Do we allow this to become the standard? How are referees currently protected? Are 96 weeks enough of a ban for abuse?

A recent study by Ulster University attempted to answer these questions, revealing the prevalence of referee abuse in Gaelic games. The study reports that 94% of referees surveyed had experienced verbal abuse while a shocking 23% had experienced physical abuse.

What’s more, nearly 10% of referees said they received verbal abuse in every game they participated in while 31.48% of referees said that they received verbal abuse every couple of games. The referees in this study commonly reported distress during the week (5% following verbal abuse, 12.87% following physical abuse).

The study boasts a high sample of 438 complete survey responses, yet around 1,500 invitations were issued to registered officials to complete the survey.

With less than a third of invitations being complete and usable responses, it is not unfair to wonder whether the study accurately reflects the experience of match officials overall. Perhaps only those who had experienced abuse engaged with the study to share their experiences and the sample does not truly represent the population as a result. However, even if that is true, 438 out of 1500 is still not an acceptable level of abuse.

Moving forward, how can we take measures to stop this abuse?

The decision to ban the St. Aidan’s mentor for 96 weeks was undoubtedly the right call, but unfortunately, the abuse is still rampant and often without consequence. For example, match officials at a junior A group game in Wexford were allegedly subjected to violent behaviour on Sunday the 28th of September. While the matter is being investigated, it is paramount that severe penalties are enforced in this and similar instances to deter the abuse of referees in Ireland.

So next time you see a game – be it soccer, Gaelic, or anything else – instead of shouting “Pay attention Ref!”, give the benefit of the doubt, and offer a simple “That’s alright Ref, we all miss things sometimes”.