Over the last two years Referees’ Association (RA) Welfare, Representation & Partnership officer Lee Markwick has continually campaigned to make football a safe and enjoyable environment for all, by writing to his local MP and various Government and Football Association (FA) officials.
His main concern is around the physical, verbal and mental abuse directed at referees of all ages, especially those U18s who are classified as children for safeguarding purposes, and youth players that witness a manager, supporter or parent committing a crime at a football match.
This can be violent behaviour resulting in a charge for an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986:
"(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he:
(a) uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening [or abusive],
-within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."
Many people are also unaware of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (YJCEA) which provides a range of ‘Special measures’ that can be used to facilitate the gathering and giving of evidence by most witnesses, including any child or vulnerable witness and any witness in fear.
Lee firmly believes in such preventative and protective measures. He says better education can eliminate the ‘toxic culture’ within football, and we need to address the ‘root cause’ of the issues.
The Journey to Date
In late 2017 MP Chris Bryant introduced into Parliament the ‘Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill,’ to make provision for offences perpetrated against emergency workers, and persons assisting such workers; to categorise certain offences as aggravated when perpetrated against such workers in the exercise of their duty and for connected purposes. Lee wrote to both Chris Bryant and his local MP Stephen Metcalfe asking them to consider including referees in this bill due to the amount of abuse they suffer.
In February 2018 – Prime Minister Theresa May called for new laws to ban the abuse of politicians on social media stating that threatening politicians was to become a criminal offence and would cover the intimidation of parliamentary candidates after the abuse suffered, notably by women, during the last general election campaign.
Lee wrote once again to his local MP asking him to consider including referees in this plan due to the amount of abuse they suffer. Stephen Metcalfe raised this at Government level with the then Sports Minister Tracey Crouch MP. In July 2018 RA members were invited to London for a meeting with Ms Crouch. She was very supportive and reassured the RA that she would raise everything we discussed with the FA.
In November 2018 Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP announced that the NHS will adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to violence against its staff, and will set out a series of measures to protect NHS workers in England as it emerged that almost one in eight experienced violence during the previous year. He said it was unacceptable that health workers had been subjected to violence and aggression as he set out the first NHS Violence Reduction Strategy.
Once again, Lee wrote to his local MP asking him to consider including referees in this ‘zero tolerance’ approach plan due to the amount of abuse they suffer. Stephen raised this at Government level again on behalf of the RA with the new Sports Minister Mims Davies MP. In March 2019 Mims Davies invited the RA to London to progress the work of Tracey Crouch.
Lee had a very productive meeting with the Sports Ministers Football Policy Advisor Sam Haylen, on referee abuse, and making football a safe environment for all.
Topics of discussion were:
- Educating clubs and their officials that abuse towards referees is no longer acceptable in the modern game, especially at youth level, as this sets the standard for children to grow up and behave in a similar way
- All incidents involving U18s treated as a Safeguarding/Criminal Act concern first, then an FA reporting matter second
- Home clubs to include the officials as part of their Safeguarding & Welfare responsibilities as per Designated Welfare Officer Role
- Conflict/De-escalation training delivered on the basic referee’s course
- Hate Crime education to be included in the basic referee’s course under IFAB Law 12 ‘using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures’
- Referee Development Officers to evolve into Referee Welfare & Development Officers
- Exit interviews for officials leaving football
- In order to create a safe environment for all, football clubs to take more responsibility for the Code of Conduct of managers and players, who they know have the potential to physically and verbally abuse referees, players and supporters
- The potential use of Body Cams as a protective measure and deterrent
- Sin Bins - if successfully trialled in grassroots football to be considered at all levels of the game to help deter unacceptable behaviour and abuse towards officials
- Elite professional managers and players to take more responsibility for their behaviour, as their actions towards officials, especially on TV affects the grassroots game
- Tougher sentencing for physical assaults on officials
During this campaign Lee has continually met with stakeholders at the FA and various concerned individuals connected with the non-league game to discuss ideas and ways to remove the ‘toxic culture’ within football. He says “football might not see a culture change for many more years yet, but I encourage everyone who has similar and serious concerns to write to their local MP. The support I’ve received from mine has been excellent.”