In this, the first of a three part series of blogs on inequality in refereeing, I will examine the effects which racism is having upon the game of football and I’ll also delve deeper to consider how referees and their careers are impacted by racism.
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 world where issues of race and gender inequality are front and centre of the news headlines, I will explore the challenges that referees of all skin colours and genders face as they look to climb the refereeing ladder and how they’re received on the pitch.
Racism in Football
Many involved in professional and grassroots football believe racism in the sport is worse now than it was, even five years ago. The statistics tend to support this theory too, with the results of research conducted by Kick It Out, an organisation working to tackle discrimination at all levels of football, showing that:
Reports of discrimination rose by 32%, from 319 to 422, in 2018/19 compared to the previous season. Racist incidents constituted 65% of those reports, the data shows. Racism continues to be the most regularly encountered form of discrimination and has increased “alarmingly,” Kick It Out says, with reports rising by 43%.
The Chair of Kick It Out, Sanjay Bhandari, was recently quoted in an interview with CNN as saying:
“Football is very different to what it was in the 1970s, racism is not the endemic thing that it was in the 1970s. Over a 40, 50 year period? We’ve definitely [made progress]. But it’s worse than it was five years ago, and it’s worse than it was seven years ago. So I’d say we used to be up there, It’s [racism] come down and now it’s bubbling up again. So our challenge is we’ve got to avoid the complacency of not going back to what it was in the 70s and 80s and thinking that: ‘Don’t worry, we never can do that’ [because] we could.”
Mr Bhandari also went on to discuss his experiences as an Asian football fan in the late 20th century:
“I’ve been at games going way back, 30-plus years, where you were hearing the kind of chants about people of my colour, ‘I’d rather be a P*** than a ‘Jock’ I remember at Euro 96 in the England-Scotland game. In a few games at Wembley, elsewhere, following my team around the country, where I’d get singled out because I was often the only Asian person in a crowd of white people — my friends go into a game and you’d be singled out. I remember coming out of the cup final many years ago and a bunch of fans throwing their coffee over me and throwing their chicken dinner over me because they were upset that we’d won and they’d lost.”
Authorities in football such as FIFA, UEFA and national associations’ have been heavily criticised for what many perceive to be apathy when evidence shows a rise in racism. “UEFA’s sanctions are among the toughest in sport for clubs and associations whose supporters are racist at our matches,” the organisation said in a statement in October 2019.
Many referees in the UK have shared with me their opinion, that the instances of racism we now see rising on the pitch, reflect the fact that society has seen a rise in hate crimes since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. My own personal experience is in accordance with this, I have just completed my 5th full season as a match official. During the most recent season, I experienced an instance of racism in one of my games for the very first time. Having spoken to a number of colleagues, I learned that I am not alone in this respect.
UK government statistics show that recorded crime figures from police forces in England and Wales show that in 2018/19 that there were 103,379 offences
“Where one or more of the central monitored hate crime strands were deemed to be a motivating factor.”
That figure was 10% higher than in 2017/18.
Impact at The Elite Level
In December 2019, in the 63rd minute of a televised top half clash between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, play was stopped. Not as a result of a foul or an injury or anything else which would cause a natural stoppage to a football match, it was instead the report of racism to the referee.
The TV cameras were pointed at Antonio Rüdiger, a black Chelsea defender, who was seen communicating towards the referee, with a gesture putting his hands under his armpits, making the players on the pitch and the officials aware that he felt he had been subjected to racist monkey chants from a section of the ground where Tottenham supporters were housed. The referee, Anthony Taylor, followed protocol designed by UEFA, to stop play. This protocol, introduced in October 2019, allows a referee to abandon a match if racist behaviour persists after two warnings are delivered over the public address system. In the Tottenham v Chelsea game there were three annoy announcements of: “Racist behaviour among supporters is interfering with the game” periodically in the remaining half hour of the game.
The alleged victim, Antonio Rüdiger, Tweeted after the game:
“It is really sad to see racism again at a football match, but I think it’s very important to talk about it in public, If not, it will be forgotten again in a couple of days (as always)… When will this nonsense stop?”
Following an enquiry involving Tottenham Hotspur and the Metropolitan Police, no evidence was found that Rüdiger had been subjected to the abuse, however a Chelsea fan was arrested for racially abusing a Tottenham player, Son-Heung-Min.
That incident came at the end of a year in which cases of racism across Europe had made a significant and concerning increase.
The wildly ill-judged “No-to-Racism” posters, officially sanctioned by Serie A in Italy, displayed images of the heads of monkeys and were on display at presentation held at Serie A headquarters in Milan. The league ultimately issued an apology but not before a public backlash. The insensitivity was highlighted as only a month earlier prior to this the Italian striker Mario Balotelli was left visibly upset on the pitch having being subjected to monkey taunts in a league match against Hellas Verona.
Christos Kassimeris, Professor of Political Science at the European University Cyprus, is author of Discrimination in Football: isms and phobias. He was quoted as saying that the incident
“Speaks volumes of the kind of ignorance that best describes many [across Europe]. Simply put, acknowledging that racism in football exists is certainly not enough to either support football players or equip them with the necessary tools that would enable them to make a difference,”.
Piara Power, Executive Director of Football Against Racism in Europe, which is an anti-racism group comprised of supporters’ groups and charities, stated that what happened in the case of the Italian Serie A was high profile but issues of this nature are commonplace in the majority of European nations.
“There’s no question that mimicry is part of this, people see it happening in one part of Europe and think that’s a good thing to do. That reflects the demographic of individuals involved, [it is] often young men who will follow and copy each other.”
BAME Football players are publicly expressing their feelings of being targeted by the media. Black Manchester City & England player Raheem Sterling, made his feelings known in an Instagram post. Sterling, who has been on the end of a considerable amount of unjust criticism from the media, called out the tabloid press for their coverage of two young teammates of his buying houses for their mothers, a black teammate, and a white teammate. His black teammate, Tosin Adarabioyo, was criticised by the Daily Mail for buying a house for his mother, whilst his white teammate, Phil Foden also bought a luxury property for his mother and that story was more of a footnote as opposed to the headlines Adarabioyo had garnered. Sterling himself had been the subject of criticism for buying a his mother a home in 2017, with the Daily Mail headline “£180,000-a-week England flop Raheem shows off blinging house he bought for his mum – complete with jewel-encrusted bathroom – hours after flying home in disgrace from Euro 2016.”
“This young black kid is looked at in a bad light, which helps fuel racism an[d] aggressive behaviour, so for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity an[d] give all players an equal chance” said Sterling’s statement. The reporter who wrote the piece denied that it was about race and tweeted that “it didn’t even cross my mind.”
Daniel Burdsey, a Sociologist at the University of Brighton who researches racism in sport and society said:
“We are now seeing a cohort of players who feel like they have the agency and capability to challenge racism in ways that haven’t been done before.”
The roles BAME people have in football have been described as a ‘Huge disconnect’. In November 2019, there were only six BAME, managers out of the 92 teams in the top four divisions of English football. A report released last year by the FA, showed that people from BAME backgrounds make up only 6% of “leadership roles” in the sport in England and Wales.
How Racism Affects Refereeing
In English football, a black referee has not taken charge of a professional match in the football league since Uriah Rennie blew the final whistle in the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool on 11th May 2008. That is a period of over 12 years and appears to be a damning indictment on the state of inequality within refereeing.
Once again, the statistics support the theory that there is a distinct lack of opportunities for BAME officials to progress to the elite level in English football.
Of the 79 referees on the 2019/20 season national list, comprising of all Premier League and EFL officials not one referee was BAME. Of the 176 assistant referees on the list, only 5 are from a BAME background even though around 25% of players in those divisions that the national list of referees and assistant referees officiate on, are non-white. In 2019, 9.4% of refs at all levels were BAME.
Recently, Rennie and his colleague, fellow black referee Phil Prosser, who officiated in the football league from 2001 to 2005, came together to implore the FA and EFL to increase diversity of refs. Both said that they felt there were no BAME role models in the professional game for BAME referees at grassroots and non-league level to look up to, additionally they felt that there had been a lot of talk about increasing diversity amongst referees of the last few years but pointed to an overwhelming amount of inaction.
During the 2018/19 season, in grassroots and non-league football in England, 60% of referees reported severe verbal abuse.
With a noted change in societal attitudes in over recent years, it is clear that now, for the first time in a long time, the threat of abuse for BAME referees is at a much more severe level. All referees of every level operate in a vicious blame culture in which they are victimised and exposed to unacceptable threats to their person and personality. Taking into account the Kick It Out report which was touched upon at the top of this article (which showed that reports of discrimination had risen during the 2018/19 season by 32%, from 319 to 422), it wouldn’t be absurd to suggest that those figures would be higher if there was a greater proportion of BAME officials in the national pool of referees at all levels.
Reuben Simon, a BAME official in London, gave an interview last year where he stated that the refereeing assessment system holds systemic, if unconscious, bias which prevents talented young referees with potential from being promoted up the ladder. Simon said:
“These observers will almost always be white chaps of a particular age, nothing wrong with that and most try to be as fair as possible. But there is also no question there is a lot of unconscious bias in the ratings. Some will say that it does not matter; a referee is a referee is a referee. We hear this argument a lot when initiatives are implemented to assist historically mistreated communities, inside and outside sport: All we want is the best person for the job.”
The low representation of BAME referees is extremely important because English football is presented the epitome of diversity, where talent is all that anyone is judged upon and anyone can reach the top if they have the desire. It is also crucially important because until BAME referees are represented proportionally as BAME players are, there is no real equality. The absence of BAME referees in professional football is evidence that, for those attempting to climb the ladder it is an incredibly difficult journey, there are many assessments and many cold mornings, afternoons and evenings. We are discussing a journey that has been virtually impossible for some.
It is hard to feel anything other than how much of a shame it is that Uriah Rennie wasn’t the trailblazer for young BAME officials. Over 12 years post Rennie’s retirement, we can reflect that his standing is now viewed as a sad representation of those who were unable to follow him in climbing the ladder, and those who didn’t even attempt to because they realised that it wasn’t worth the hassle.
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