In February 2023, BBC Radio 5 Live released the results of a questionnaire canvassing the experiences of 927 grassroots referees. The statistics make for grim reading, although will come as little surprise to anyone who has played Sunday league football.
Amongst the most notable figures are the following:
All the above theoretically fall to be prosecuted under current statute and common law.
Abuse on the grounds of race or religion is a criminal offence under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, as is abuse relating to nationality (viz, R v Rogers (2007) 2 WLR 280). Abuse based on someone’s gender or sexuality is not a specific offence but must be treated as an aggravating factor by a court at sentencing.
Threats of violence are dealt with by the Public Order Act 1986, with threats to kill being dealt with as a separate crime under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
Depending on the level and type of physical abuse, assailants will generally be prosecuted under the 1861 Act or the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
Whilst the author does not have exact figures to hand, it is fair to surmise that most incidents at grassroots level are never reported to the police. The FA has internal disciplinary procedures and, on a public policy basis, it does not make sense for the police to become involved with every minor altercation on a football pitch.
Law 12 of the International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game dictates that it is an offence for a player to show “dissent by word or action”. Any such dissent will be dealt with as appropriate by the FA’s Disciplinary Regulations, currently contained within Part 11 of the FA Handbook 2022-23. More often than not, this will be the proper procedure to follow.
There are clearly, however, many serious incidents that are capable of being reported to the police. It is likewise obvious that referees feel under protected and significantly at risk.
Some readers may be asking themselves at this stage, is football not treated differently to “normal life” in the eyes of the law? The proposition in that question is correct, but only to a limited extent. The case of Barnes (a firm favourite of any sporty law school student) dictates that some behaviour on a football pitch, which would otherwise warrant the intervention of the criminal justice system, may be excusable if it accords with the way in which the game is conventionally played. Contrary to the principle in Brown, a football player can consent to actual bodily harm in situations that can be reasonably expected.
The key word there is “player”. For instance, common law protects those who may injure someone in a slide tackle or going up for a header. It does not provide carte blanche to those who see abuse of referees as “part of the game”, no matter how much that behaviour may appear to have been normalised by the Premier League’s most obnoxious prima-donnas.
It is therefore important for referees to realise they are currently afforded a substantial amount of protection by law and disciplinary regulations. But what of calls for tougher protective measures? It is all well and good to have theoretical legal frameworks in place; the issue largely appears to be one of reporting and enforcement.
A much-touted change is a move to referees wearing body worn video cameras, which is due to start this calendar year. Notwithstanding the endless requests from players to use the footage as a rough-and-ready version of VAR, such a policy seems highly sensible in providing clear evidence of incidents. One may also agree that the placement of plain clothes officers on some of our grassroots’ side lines would be a sage move. In other environments where violent crime is almost guaranteed to happen, such as within the night-time economy, the use of such enforcement is uncontroversial. Moreover, the enacting of statute specifically criminalising matters surrounding sports should focus the minds of the authorities, draw further attention to the issue, and show a clear intention by Parliament that such behaviour cannot continue.
Referees will tell you these measures are proportionate, not drastic. Having reported serious incidents of headbutts, punches, and spitting, the prevailing fear is a matchday official will soon lose their life (as happened a few years ago in the Netherlands). It seems a straightforward enough proposal that law enforcement surrounding football catches up with the rest of society, where it is completely inexcusable for people to be abused or assaulted in their place of work.
Only time will tell whether wholesale changes will be made to law enforcement and governance surrounding football. This is a debate that will no doubt gain further traction in the coming months. For those wishing to see an overhaul of the system sooner rather than later, I leave you with the encouraging words of the late, great, John Motson: “the unexpected is always likely to happen”…