Head of Referees’ Association fears match official will be assaulted or killed if abusers are not punished
Paul Field, the chairman of the Referees’ Association, has claimed a match official will eventually be killed unless more serious punishment is handed out to those who abuse them.
The organisation has written to the Sentencing Council to suggest changes to the guidelines to increase penalties for assaults on football referees, all other sports officials and those acting in the exercise of lawful authority.
Only last weekend there were two more reports of football referees being assaulted and, after being denied the opportunity to submit in 2019, the Referees’ Association put forward its submission in July.
Currently there are three categories on the Sentencing Council guidelines for assault, with offences placed into each according to their seriousness and a sliding scale of sentencing.
The Referees’ Association want the factors identified in the guideline defining higher culpability to include “where the victim is a person acting under a duty in the exercise of lawful authority” – meaning any such assault automatically falls into Category One or Two.
“I am convinced one day a match official in any sport will be assaulted and either seriously injured or killed,” Field told the PA news agency.
“The warning signs are there and we have to do something. Doing nothing is not an option.
“We would call on all match officials to write to your local MP and get that support. Young people should not have to go to a game of football and be abused and that is what you’ve got.”
Field revealed the organisation has received the support of 50 MPs, while Steve Double, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Department of Health and Social Care, is set to write to the Secretary of State for Justice.
When the Sentencing Council opened submissions in July, the Referees’ Association quickly submitted its proposal and the legally-based document can be backed by MPs until early September when it will then be reviewed.
The Sentencing Council promotes greater consistency in sentencing while maintaining the independence of the judiciary, with a decision expected on submissions early next year.
Under its current guidelines, the courts will take into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing where the offence was committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public.
Given impartial referees represent authority on the field of play and enable football to be enjoyed by its participants, the Referees’ Association believes any threat to the safety of officials is a threat to the integrity of the game.
“The piece of work we have done is around increasing the sentencing in this country for those who attack match officials,” Field added.
“If you are a park warden and assaulted to the same velocity as a referee, the person who committed the assault on the park warden would get a higher sentence.
“Likewise someone attacked a police dog recently and they got a higher sentence than someone who assaulted a referee and knocked them out.”
The Referees’ Association has worked with the external affairs team at the Football Association to ensure the submission carries its support, and with the governing bodies of rugby union, rugby league, cricket and hockey.
Field was keen to stress this proposal was about all match officials, not just football referees. He said: “There has to be an element of deterrent, deterrent being the optimum word.”
Part of the submission included research conducted by the University of Portsmouth, which found 45 per cent of match officials in England across rugby league, rugby union and cricket feel verbal abuse in general had increased.
Of the 6,500 referees in England, France and the Netherlands involved in the study between 2018 and 2020, 18.9 per cent in England had experienced physical abuse at some stage of their refereeing career.
There have been high-profile cases where referees have been assaulted in recent years, with Henry Ifesi knocked out by a punch from a player in December 2016 only for the assailant to avoid a prison sentence.
Referee Craig Ward was headbutted in October 2017 after he sent a player off, but the perpetrator was handed a four-month imprisonment which was suspended for 12 months.
“It is not acceptable to assault a match official,” Field added. “It does really impact on people’s mental health too because you don’t go out there on a Sunday morning to be assaulted.”
The Professional Games Match Officials Limited has been approached by the PA news agency for a comment.