Who’d be a referee?

With every passing week, referee’s face increased pressure and abuse – how long until enough is enough?

Sporting culture seemingly has deeply embedded within it an intense level of scrutiny when it comes to Referees. This has just always been the case – if the players can’t deliver the goods the finger usually always points in the direction of the official in the middle.

When looking at rugby league, there definitely isn’t an exception. Somewhat astounding when rugby (both codes) frequently boasts about the respect we show our officials.

So, what is the reality? Well, RFL referee boss Steve Ganson has spoken about the abuse that referee’s face in all forms of the sport. This dialogue seemingly sparked by the controversial decision made by official Andy Sweet in a game between Hunslet RLFC and North Wales Crusaders RLFC – in which a drop goal that fell beneath the crossbar was awarded, allowing Hunslet to run out 19-18 winners.

This blunder however is no excuse for the ridiculous levels of abuse referee’s across the entirety of the sport receive. Ganson spoke on the weekly discussion show ‘Backchat’ about officials having cars driven at them, homophobic abuse hurled at them and beer being thrown over them.

In his refereeing days, Ganson stated that the abuse didn’t phase him, but admitted that isn’t the case for everyone – he said “some people find it distressing and some people find it lonely”. Ganson was also critical of head coaches who often blame referees for defeats after a game.

This is something that has crept into our sport over the years. Even as far down as the community game – I remember as a teenager playing rugby, the referee’s were always being blamed after defeats. It is engrained very early on and it’s a habit that is obviously hard to shake.

The common question that comes to my mind here is – why on earth would anyone want to subject themselves to such horrible abuse? Especially since it is often stated that the quality of officiating is so poor – surely we want to encourage new referees to learn and develop their craft in order to increase the pool of officials we have to choose from.

But no, the self-destructive nature of rugby league shows its ugly head time and time again, leaving us in a situation where our officials are under intense pressure every week, putting off potential new refs from joining the ranks.

Do not misunderstand though, nobody is suggesting that referees are faultless and certainly no one is saying they shouldn’t be accountable for their actions. What is important however is that we don’t blur the lines between abuse and criticism. Criticism is good, it fuels improvement and polices mediocrity – for players and referees alike.

Abuse is cowardly, the constant death threats and personal attacks are in no way justifiable. These people are in no way true rugby league fans, or at least shouldn’t be classed as such. What many forget is the men and women who don the whistle are incredibly brave, but also very talented.

It is easy to stand in the terraces with a pint in hand, with the latest betting offers in mind, and shout how a pass hundreds of metres away is forward – but the reality is these officials often know more than we do. They also do not have the benefit of seeing every decision in slow motion as we often do.

Yes there is a video ref and yes they can lend a hand in difficult areas of the game but many even critique the number of times they are used – so there is no winning for the rugby league ref.

Especially in the age of social media, in which every detail of a performance can be debated and circulated hundreds of times over. The abuse may not have worsened because of it but it certainly is more visual with the likes of Facebook and Twitter – which is something to think about. It is also often suggested that the standard of officiating has fallen and that ‘back in the day’ mistakes never occurred to such an extent.

Two key elements to this debate are often overlooked, they are; the speed/physicality of the game increasing massively in the modern era and the development of technology now offering the previously unavailable ability to scrutinise every decision made.

As much as the memories many hold seem so vivid, it is no secret that the athleticism is light years ahead of the game we once knew. Not only because it is now a full time professional sport but also the inclusion of sports science: the days of a few pints after every game are long gone.

Add on top of that the microscope that sits firmly on the shoulders of every referee – just imagine the pressure they must feel before or after a game.

No one is defending poor standards. No one wants mistakes to happen. But what we must quickly realise is the longer we wage a war against our officials, the less appealing the profession will seem on the potential referee’s of the future – and without them, we quite simply do not have a sport.

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