I’m a big fan of playing ‘the sports’. In my 34 years, I have been involved in playing several of them: soccer, softball, tennis. I even tried netball for three traumatic and embarrassing games. I love playing sport even more than I dislike watching professional sport. And I really dislike watching it. I just don’t get it.
My sport of choice, the one I have loved consistently despite having no great aptitude or ability, is soccer. Football. Round ball, goals, goalkeeper, dramatic falling, you know the one. And thanks to my love for the game, I have been involved in local club level soccer for about 23 years. My husband also plays, and now my kids have decided to give it a go, too.
Local clubs require a lot of community involvement, and as a result I have been involved on many levels. I have been a player, a part-time stand-in coach. I have donned the fluoro vest, and been a ground official. I have doled out 50c bags of red frogs in the canteen, burnt sausages behind the barbecue, set up goals, and marked out chalk lines (surprisingly fantastic fun), hammered in flags. And on several occasions, over many years, I have chucked some cards in my sock, a whistle around my neck, and been a referee.
It’s not always fun, being the referee. You are one person, going up against several others, and you are guaranteed to piss at least half of them off once or twice during every game. And when there are ‘concerned parents and family’ on the sideline, you are one person going up against about fifty. I have been verbally abused, my decisions have been questioned. There have been a few times when I thought I was going to be physically assaulted. Thankfully, to date, I have remained physically unscathed.
Violent behaviour towards referees happens all the time. In all codes. At all levels. Last weekend, while I was playing in our local all-age women’s competition, a player from the opposing team angrily shoved the referee in the chest while arguing about his calling a hand ball (if you are interested, his call was correct. It was a hand ball). This player was so enraged, she was visibly shaking. About a hand ball. In division 4 women’s Sunday soccer. It is literally the bottom of the soccer food chain. We are lucky if we even get a referee. My team is lucky if we get the full eleven players. Yet in the heat of the moment, a decision this player disagreed with over whether or not her teammate’s hand and a ball connected, caused her to shove a complete stranger in the chest.
Not even ten minutes after this, I was sitting on the bench after unceremoniously spraining my ankle by tripping over nothing, and chatting with another member of my local soccer club. He was recounting a story from the day before, where a player in a different game had also disagreed with a referee, and had demonstrated this by running up behind the referee, and kicking him in the back. Hard. The player was sent off the field and the police were called. Again, over a minor disagreement about local club level soccer.
Assaults like this happen all the time. Every weekend. Less than two weeks ago, a 16 year old referee was assaulted by a 34 year old parent. This kid was punched in the face, by a grown man, over a game of sport being played in the suburbs by 11 year olds. A parent and a trainer, who was supposed to be the responsible adult in this situation. For his efforts in refereeing a junior game of weekend sport, this 16 year old kid ended up in hospital.
The NRL, in response to the growing number of physical and verbal assaults on officials, has trialed the wearing of Go-Pro cameras by referees and other officials, as part of the 2016 Respect Campaign. By their own calculations, 1 out of 9 match officials have been lost to the sport due to physical and verbal violence on and around the field. A part of me applauds their efforts with regards to this problem. Another part of me is left wondering: what the fuck is going on? How depressing is it, that we have resorted to arming referees with video cameras for their own personal safety?
I can understand how the NRL has lost that many officials. Refereeing is not a glamourous job. It’s not a particularly well-paid role, either – depending on the sporting code and level of referee, anything from $0 – $100 is paid for a single game. Back in the olden days (1994), when I was a kid playing for a large soccer club, I was paid $5 per game, as well as a can of drink and a sausage sandwich for my efforts. If I was lucky and the canteen lady was feeling generous, she would throw in a Mars Bar. If I was really lucky, my sausage would be upgraded to a steak. When I was a little older, and playing for a smaller club with my group of friends, I was paid nothing but the occasional can of drink and Killer Python.
Most referees are not doing it for the money – they are doing it to stay connected to the sports they love. They are doing it to be involved, often because they are no longer able to be involved as players – they may have retired, or been injured, or become too time poor to commit to playing every weekend and training every week. I know that I am still involved sport because I love the sense of community that being part of a team provides, and I imagine that I will stay involved in local club soccer long after my time as a player has ended. Referees are providing a service, and without them, we cannot play.
Don’t get me wrong – I have been a frustrated player before. I have been driven to despair by bad calls, and when I was 15 years old I had my chances of playing in the grand final taken away from me by a referee’s dodgy call. Believe me, I know how it feels to be angry at a referee. I have had a referee chastise me because she felt that my demeanour was “un-ladylike”, and therefore inappropriate for the soccer field. For reals. And I have walked away, bitched, ranted and raved, about shit calls and unfair penalties. I may have even penned a ranty Facebook post about it. I may have penned several. But I have never made it personal. I have never assaulted a referee, verbally or physically.
Here’s the deal. If you happen to have a referee who makes a crappy call, or costs you the game, or objects to your demeanour, deal with it. Have a ranty debrief with your team after the game. Go to the pub and complain amongst your friends. Write an angry text to a loved one. If you feel the situation calls for it and the referee was negligent, or you think they were involved in some form of cheating, deal with it through official channels. Your referees association. Your local club. It’s fine to get frustrated. It’s OK to be angry.
What’s not OK is vigilante justice. It’s not OK to assault or harass the very person who facilitates the playing of the sport you love. Assaulting the referee, in front of your kids? So not OK, I cannot emphasise that enough.
There is a term in soccer, for when you don’t agree with the call (or lack of call) that a referee has made: ‘play the whistle’. Regardless of what you think of the referee, or their call, or the other team, you keep playing to the calls that have been made, and deal with your frustration later. I challenge every player and spectator in every code to ‘play the whistle’. Learn to love the person behind it. Without them, and the officials and volunteers that turn up every weekend, there would not be a game to play.