In my time as a coach in junior sport over a number of years in Canberra, I have encountered many uncomfortable moments when you hear a comment from the crowd or playing group directed at the referee or umpire.
The comment is rarely if ever, complimenting the match official on his or her performance. Instead, it is often personal and at times downright vile as seemingly perfectly normal people take it upon themselves to offer a 15-year-old in charge of the game a free character reference.
My focus here is just on grassroots sport, not on the elite level, although you can imagine kids watching and learning from the football World Cup with players chasing the referee across the field when a decision goes against them.
It’s not as if sport in Canberra is not trying to eradicate the problem of abuse of match officials with signs at grounds telling players, coaches and parents that respect must be shown to match officials.
Some junior sports in Canberra have also introduced field marshals who move quickly to stamp out any bad behaviour before it gets out of hand, while many junior referees and umpires have their parents on the sidelines for support and somebody to confide in during games.
Many have suggested that abuse of match officials is confined to junior football; let me tell you that is far from the truth. I have witnessed dissension in junior rugby union, league, AFL, basketball and cricket. There have been plenty of times when I have seen spectators abusing officials, who are then chastised by fellow parents who curb the spectator’s behaviour. When kids show dissension they are replaced.
Sports such as hockey and netball don’t seem to have the same level of dissension towards match officials. That’s not to say there are not issues from time to time. Hockey has ground supervisors who look after the crowd while umpire mentors are on hand to provide guidance and support. Hockey has moved to ensure people involved in the sport are aware of the penalties that could be imposed if there are breaches.
At times, I must admit, I have wondered if there is a difference in the level of dissension between men’s and women’s sports.
From my experience, there appears to be significantly fewer problems with player, coach and spectator behaviour in women’s sports. Although I have witnessed several ugly incidents in junior girls’ sports over the years, in the majority of cases, it has related to the behaviour of parents and coaches more than anything else. Often, it’s an overly aggressive parent or coach yelling loudly in less than complimentary language from the sidelines.
Capital Football CEO Phil Brown put the issue of abuse of match officials in the spotlight a couple of weeks ago when he said that 45 per cent of referees aged between 18 and 30 had walked away from the sport in 2017-18 with abuse of referees one of the main reasons.
So what is the solution?
How do we stop people thinking that it’s okay to abuse match officials?
Ryan Grogan is the coach of the Canberra United Academy women’s football team. Having watched a few of their games, his side rarely shows dissent and there is next to no problems from the parent group watching from the sidelines.
Ryan says part of the Academy program includes educating players, parents and coaching staff on the need to respect the referee’s decision.
This was an eye-opener for me.
In my coaching days, I can’t remember ever calling meetings with the parents to ensure they understood the rules as well as ensuring they were respectful towards the referees and umpires. Not that I recall having any problems with parents in my teams but I would imagine that it would take a fair degree of courage to pull the parents into line given your kids are also in the team and it often takes in your social group.
I have spoken to many in Canberra sport over the past two weeks as the spotlight was shone on the issue.
Some have suggested more education of players, coaches and spectators, while another school of thought calls for greater penalties imposed on transgressors while others have told me the problems are not as bad as is being portrayed.
I strongly disagree that there is not a problem. When you have as many young referees walking away from football as we have had in the past 12 months, it’s obvious that there is a major issue.
The Canberra United Academy program is worth looking at, with parents being educated on the rules and respect for the referees. And this is clearly part of the problem; many supporters just don’t know the rules.
I also believe it is important for sports to lay down the law to ensure that if penalties for abuse are in place, that they are enforced. Sometimes the best cure is fellow spectators, players or coaches publicly bringing the troublemakers into line, but that is not always possible with a particularly aggressive parent or player.
We need to protect our match officials as we all know. If we didn’t have people willing to put their hands up to officiate, we wouldn’t have sport.