In this, the second of a three part series of blogs on inequality in refereeing, I will examine the effects which gender inequality is having upon the game of football. I’ll also delve deeper to consider how referees and their careers are impacted by sexism.
As I mentioned in the first of this three part series, if you look at The Third Team Logo at the top of this article you will see an officiating team consisting of a black male, mixed race female & a white male. As a mixed race man, who was made very much aware of my difference to the other children around me as a young boy, at the beginning of my education, I have been passionate from the moment I conceived The Third Team that this business would be inclusive and compassionate to all referees. Much as I believe all opportunities in all walks of life should be open to anyone who has the talent for those positions and prejudging on the basis of skin tone, gender, sexuality or whether that person is wearing cultural dress should be a thing of the past.
In a season where a team of female officials have refereed a major men’s final for the first time, I will explore the challenges that, all referees who identify themselves in a number of different ways, face as they look to climb the refereeing ladder and how they’re received on the pitch.
Gender Inequality in Football
While there’s no doubt of its existence, putting your finger on the reasons for gender inequality in football is extremely complex.
In the UK, the BBC broadcast the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France and increased the spotlight on female football at a time when no men’s football was being played. For the first time ever all games were available to watch live, with key fixtures given a prime time slot in the schedules. The BBC recorded a reach of 28.1m viewers which was more than double that for the previous World Cup in Canada which reached 12.4m viewers. In March 2019, a crowd of over 60,000 attended a match between Atlético Femenino and Barcelona Femenino which made history. These, amongst other recent events, appear to display signs that respect of the women’s game is growing. But are they small steps or the beginning of a revolution for the sport?
The Global Sports Salary Survey in 2017 showed that, not only do far fewer opportunities for women to make their living from professional sport exist, however those that do earn only about one hundredth of the sums their male counterparts earn.
Germany international defender, Johanna Elsig recently commented in an interview, about how fortunate she feels she is able to make a living from doing something she loves so much.
“You can earn money with football. It can be your job. That wouldn’t have been possible in the 70’s or 80’s, [however] I think it’s hard to have a double career. When you end your football career, you have to do something else. You have to go to university to have a job after. If you’re a man and you get injured at 25 and have already played in the first league, you have more money that you can live from, [but as a woman] you better make sure you put away some savings, in case something happens.”
The reasoning behind the wage void in football is, more often than not, put down to the fact that male football experiences a higher level of attendances, which in turn generate a greater amount of commercial revenue and sponsorship money. While this makes sense, the scale of the disparity often does not.
According to a 2017 statistic used at the beginning of character-driven Swedish documentary “Football, for Better or Worse”, UEFA disseminates 99.8% of the Champions League prize fund to the male competition while the females only see 0.2%.
The sporting director of the club featured in the film states in the opening scene, “Men’s football generates more money and its right they get more. But the gap as it stands now, is not reasonable.”
While gender equality in football still seems a dim and distant concept to some, many are increasingly pushing for it to be the future. To achieve this, it’s widely agreed that more financial investment and female-created structures must be formed to promote change. The progress we have seen in the last 12 months, may just be the beginning.
How Gender Inequality Affects Referees
In November 2019, Alexandra García was refereeing a youth match in a rainy La Herrería, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, around 30 miles northwest of Madrid. The game involved a local team from San Lorenzo de El Escorial with their opponents coming from Collado Villalba.
After the game Alexandra recounted the verbal volley of abuse she had received. “Retard!” they shouted. “You piece of shit!”, “You’re an asshole!”, ”Go home, bitch!”, “Go wash the dishes, bitch!”
All she said that she heard was noise. “I had my head in the game. I was concentrating. The players were talking to me, I realised in the first 20 minutes that something was happening in the stands, but I didn’t know what they were saying. If I did, it would definitely have affected me.”
Alexandra’s mother, Mercedes Nuño commented on Twitter that she could hear the insults “perfectly”. “I was filled with rage and dismay; nobody did or said anything.
I spent 90 minutes listening to my daughter being insulted; it was a total lack of respect, which is intolerable.”
When Nuño approached those who were shouting and asked them to stop, explaining that she was the mother of the referee, the abuse only worsened.
Nuño said they told her “if I didn’t like what I was hearing, I should leave.” They even said “what a whore you are, bitch”.
She said that the only blessing was noticing that her daughter was oblivious to the insults. “She was focused on the match, not paying attention”.
García reflected that had she noticed what was being said, she would have felt worse for her mother than for herself. “I know what she’s like, I know how much she hates these things in matches. I would have felt awful for her.”
After the game, some players and club officials of the visiting team approached García and said to her that she shouldn’t worry about what had been said and assured her that she had done well. García however, felt that the players weren’t aware any more than she was about specifically what was being shouted. “I think they only said that because, like me, they saw that the public was acting up from the start, not because they had heard the horrible things they were saying.” Once she returned home, her mother played her the recording of the insults. She was shocked.
“Sometimes members of the public don’t agree with your decision but neither this year, nor last did I hear these kinds of insults, which are clearly sexist.
Nobody shouts, ‘Go wash up!’ to a male referee. But they do to us,” says García.
In 2018, in the build-up to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, Spanish female referees collaborated to take a stand against sexism in football. They had the support of the Royal Spanish Soccer Federation (RFEF) and the collaboration of the Technical Referee Committee, with whom they launched a video detailing the insults they regularly receive during games. The video concludes with a group of female referees who blow their whistles as they would at the end of a game, in addition to them holding up a banner which read: “You decide the end.”
Of the video, García said: “It would be great if this kind of thing didn’t go viral, and that there was no news like this because it just wasn’t happening. But it happens day in and day out. I shouldn’t have to worry about being insulted.”
Amidst female involvement, the verbal abuse, common in football, takes on a sexist edge. After Nuño Tweeted the goings on of her daughter’s game, the local team, the council and Madrid’s Royal Soccer Federation (RFFM) all made public statements regarding the incident. “The visiting team’s coach sent me encouragement through my mother and told me he was sorry about what had happened,” says García.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial council announced that it was going to ask the club to take the necessary measures to prevent anything similar from happening again, and highlighted the fact that that following Monday was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a violence that, it stated, “has to be eliminated from all areas and obviously from sport.”
“Nobody shouts: ‘Go wash up!’ to a male referee. But they do to us” – Alexandra García
The RFFM announced a proposal to encourage local, regional and national football associations to “take a harder line with those who don’t know how to live in a society in which education, respect and fair play should prevail.”
[On female referees receiving a security escort from the pitch to the dressing room] “That happens, as a precautionary measure,” says García, who began refereeing when she was 17. On her referee course, taken in June, 2018, there were only two other women. “There are still many more boys than girls, but it’s starting to change. I have never felt discriminated against, neither acting as referee or playing football.”
García and the other female colleagues have a new project in the pipeline, which she describes as, “to check in with each other and assess how things went at the weekend.”
She hopes that there won’t be any repeat of such incidents as the one her mother witnessed, and for gender discrimination to be tackled in all areas. “Everyone should be invited referee if they want to, any woman should really be able to do what they want and be free to choose. I believe in equality.”
English Football’s First Transgender Referee: Lucy Clark
In February 2019, during LGBT History Month, Wembley Stadium hosted the Just A Ball Game #StrongerTogether conference. Amongst the list of guest speakers was Lucy Clark, who became English football’s first transgender referee at the start of the 2018-19 season.
Lucy gave this interview to The FA at the event: “Football has been my saviour. The game has always been my outlet throughout life. As a child, a teenager and an adult, my life always revolved around football, whether I was a player, a manager or a referee. But my plan was to give up football this season, as I didn’t think I’d be able to referee as my true self. It was only because my family and close friends told me that if I didn’t have football in my life, I’d have nothing and they really pushed me towards continuing. From there, I spoke to Funke Awoderu at the FA to get the ball rolling and now, I wish I’d told the football world years ago. It’s been my first season as the real me, Lucy, and it’s gone well. It’s been really good and positive.”
“I’ve refereed around 50 games since my news broke last summer, and considering some of the grounds that I’m going to are places I’d been going to for years as the person I actually wasn’t, everyone has been really, really good. There’s been the odd time that people have got my gender wrong and things like that, but I can understand that and I’m not someone who will be precious about it as no-one has done it maliciously. I’ve had the odd situation where when I’m standing at the front before a game waiting for the players to come out and I’ve heard a few whispers and noticed a few people wanting to have a look. But once the game is on, there have been no issues from any of the fans, managers or players apart from the normal stuff that you get as a referee which I’ve had for the last 20 years.”
“I’ve refereed the majority of my games in the Combined Counties League as well as games in the Ryman development league, the Combined Counties U18s league, the Women’s National League and the London & South East League. There’s been one standout moment which I will always remember, which came in a Combined Counties game when I was speaking to one of the players when his captain said something to him. He shouted back to the captain: ‘Well, he’s talking to me…’ The captain turned around and replied: ‘It’s not a he, it’s a she,’ which I thought was really great, as when I’m refereeing, I’m not in full make-up or anything like that. The player then replied to that with: ‘He? She? I don’t really care, it’s the ref.’ I thought that really hit the nail on the head, because at the end of the day I am just a referee and someone who loves football as much as everyone on the pitch.”
“I’ve always enjoyed refereeing though and at one point I was the referee secretary for five different leagues. I enjoyed it so much and started to progress as a referee, that I just continued along that pathway. Since my news came out last August, I’ve had a referee from up north who touched base with me and said that he’d hidden as well when refereeing, but I’d given him the inspiration to now referee as herself, which was great. There’s also been quite a lot of other people in the community that have contacted me after they heard my story, so it’s been good in that way too, that it’s inspired them to be true to themselves in their workplace or their sport.”
“I’m honoured to have spoken and told people my story at the Just A Ball Game #StrongerTogether Conference at Wembley. I’m happy to do anything that’s positive which shows transgender people in a positive light, particularly around football.”
At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help each other.
Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops and how I could help you or your officials.
Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team
Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team. A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.