Is enough being done about the abuse faced by referees?

Posted on: February 14th, 2020 | by Laura Murdoch | No Comments

What would a game of football be without a referee? They are the people who maintain a level of order and fairness throughout the game. It can be a tough job because players and fans all care so much about the game. Every decision can improve or ruin a game for someone. This is one of the reasons why match officials have to put up with a worrying level of abusive behaviour from fans and supporters alike when carrying out their duties. Last season, sin bins were introduced to the game at the grassroots level in the hope that it would make players rethink their poor treatment of club officials. But is it working or does more need to be done?

Angry football player

Levels of abuse

The abuse shown towards referees can be seen at all levels of the game. There have been countless examples of professional players insulting referees and plenty of incidents involving the parents of young players making threatening remarks. Obviously, it is not something that every player or parent is guilty of but the fact that it exists at all is worrying. You don’t see such disdain for officials in other sports but it has become something of a tradition in football. How often have we seen whole stadiums turn on a referee for a supposed bad decision?

Of all of the behaviour exhibited towards referees, verbal abuse is the most common. A study revealed that 64% of match officials experience it frequently. 36% of referees said that they had experienced threats and a worrying 15% had reported physical assault.


The abuse shown towards referees is bad for the sport’s image and can have a damaging effect on the referees themselves. Many referees have reported a loss of concertation and motivation after facing such strong criticism. Exposure to these levels of abuse will have a major knock on a person’s mental health and could increase anxiety levels. And what does this culture of abuse do to young players? Are young people in danger of emulating this type of behaviour and believing that abusive conduct is normal?

It’s no wonder that there has been a dwindling referee retention rate in recent years. More referees have quit their jobs because of the conditions they’ve been exposed to. If numbers continue to go down, there will be fewer skilled match officials. This means that there will be a decline in the quality of games at all levels. Only recently, we’ve seen the outrage from Manchester United Women after a controversial penalty led to a draw against Reading. With so many referees stepping away from the role, is this future we should come to expect?

Amateur Football

The situation for amateur referees is even more fraught. Not only can officials be as young as 14 but there is a lack of security and protection at amateur games. It’s no less stressful for professional referees but at least they have more of a safety net if things turn really sour. Referees at the grassroots level are more exposed to aggression, which is why more serious assaults take place during amateur matches.

Football referee getting yellow card

Sin Bins

There have been some steps taken towards a more respectful attitude towards referees. The 2019/2020 season saw the introduction of sin bins as part of the FA’s RESPECT programme. These temporary dismissals are given out in cases of dissent and the consequences change depending on how many times the player has been found guilty of dissent. The steps were intended to stop players questioning the referee’s decisions and highlight their authority over the game. But has it worked?

Professional Football

There is the question of whether more needs to be done in professional football. If young players are seeing their heroes shouting abuse at the referees, what kind of message are they getting? Children emulate the behaviour they see their favourite players exhibit, so is the culture of abuse being too deep-seated in the sport?

Last year, Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa was banned for 8 games after abusing a referee. The former Chelsea player was sent off during a game against Barcelona. The referee’s match report stated that Costa insulted his mother, which got him a 4-game suspension. The other 4 matched were given for grabbing his arm. If this is the kind of behaviour that is regularly being seen on pitches, is it any wonder that there is such a lack of respect for referees across the sport?

Is there more that needs to be done to prevent players from letting their frustration get the better of them? Are the punishments consistent and harsh enough?

Have your say

Do you think that more needs to be done about the treatment of referees? Have Sin Bins helped change people’s behaviour? Or do you think that there need to be more consequences at a professional level? Let us know.

Football referee whistle

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