Violence against referees is foul play

Upon reading the story of Richard Nieuwenhuizen, the Dutch man who died after being beaten up for being the assistant referee at his son’s football match last year, I was quite literally mortified and sick to the stomach. Reading that six teenage boys and their father were sentenced with manslaughter for the incident in the paper earlier this week was the first I’d heard of it.

Of course, the story affected me because of the fact that this man’s son watched him get beaten up and then die as a result. But it is just one of many stories where a referee or umpire is assaulted in sport. Check out these examples, for instance:

These incidents resonate with me personally because I used to be an assistant referee and know full well what it’s like to be harassed by and stressed out because of fans at soccer matches. It ultimately pushed me to quit because I didn’t think it was worth the effort.

But that’s not all; the reason I wanted to be a referee, apart from wanting to make a living whilst I was studying, was because I loved the game of football. I wanted to be a part of the game in some way, as I didn’t think I was good enough to play. Many referees come from this same background.


The memorial of Richard Nieuwenhuizen where he was beaten out as linesman of his son’s soccer match. (Image courtesy of CNN)

What infuriates and sickens me is that fans and players turn on referees even though they are like-minded people who share the same love and passion for the sport they’re all participating in. They love it so much they are even willing to do the stressful job of mediating its matches to ensure it remains safe, ordered and fair. And the same applies to referees and umpires of other sports.

But, perhaps because the game invokes such passion and love from everyone involved, I understand that frustration and anger towards referees is possibly a symptom of this passion. I, as a fan myself, become upset when a referee makes a dubious call against my team and in the heat of the moment even become vocal in my frustration. Yet I would never let this aggression turn into feelings of hatred or inclinations towards violence. I channel that frustration towards the actual decision itself and curse the conditions which paved its arrival.

Decisions are made in the moment, often with an extremely limited amount of time to engage in a decision-making process that fans and players enjoy after watching events transpire and having time to think about what happened afterwards. Take too long and fans and players will berate you for taking your time. Be too hasty with your decision, you could miss an opportunity to award an advantage if it’s available and let the offended team play on.

Referees’ decisions are also influenced by variables such as their angle to view the incident and the atmosphere of the game. If a player happens to get in front of their line of sight and blindside them from an incident, a referee can’t make a decision that perhaps a whole crowd has the luxury of seeing, having the whole match on view.

The atmosphere of the game – whether it’s a fiery encounter or played in good spirits, as one example – sometimes plays a small role when assessing the seriousness of a transgression. I can think of a host of occasions when at a game of Australian rules football (AFL) crowd members beside me complain that an umpire isn’t letting the game flow by awarding too many free kicks and stopping teams’ momentum. Contrast this with the same fans’ constant frustration when an umpire seems to continually miss free kicks for their team and you can discern an obvious hypocrisy.

There are other variables still. Referees are responsible for keeping players safe and matches sanitary. They therefore have to keep players in check for their behaviour. This is ever more difficult when players act aggressively and incredulously when decisions go against them.

What’s more, referees are arbitrators of rules that have been predetermined. In some sports, like AFL, these rules are often called into question and revised. The continuous revisions of rules generates constant confusion. While the world game has a rigid set of rules that are generally accepted everywhere, it too suffers from continuously evolving dynamics and states of play.

At the end of the day, referees have to be judges of situations and walk a fine line between all of these variables, within very short time frames, and can often be prejudiced by their own perceptions too; what I consider to be a foul may be different to you. This all renders the interpretation of decisions an extremely tough job and one that requires a lot of experience, conviction and fortitude in order to command a sense of authority which comes with mediating disputes (which sometimes causes further aggression in players and fans). People don’t understand this and judge referees too harshly accordingly.


An Indonesian player received a life ban earlier this year for throwing this punch at a referee. (Image courtesy of AFP)

But, in my view, assistant referees have it harder. This is because of two things: the lack of respect they’re shown and the controversial nature of the offside rule. The first problem is a disgrace. In many local leagues where assistant referees are hard to come by, young people take the responsibilities of being an assistant. They are treated like subhumans by ignorant fans and players, who see them as punching bags to unleash the frustrations they pick up during the game on.

The offside rule is controversial when it shouldn’t be. It’s actually quite simple. Everyone thinks they understand it, but from my experiences as an assistant referee, many fans and players simply don’t.

They don’t understand that a player can be offside if he or she receives the ball in an onside position but came from an offside position; players and fans seemingly fail to appreciate that the offside rule applies when the ball is kicked, not when it is received. They don’t understand what it means to “influence play” – you can still be offside without necessarily touching the ball if you are in a position which could impact on the attackers and defenders contesting for the ball.

They don’t understand that offside is all about angles; the assistant should always be in the best position, and in the best angle, to judge an offside – not the player in question, who is often facing anywhere but the line of defenders and, assuming he is offside, in no angle to judge whether he is offside or not.

But that is all besides the point at the end of the day. Referees are just doing their job. And they are people too, with the same passions and interests in the sport they work in. Everyone in sport says they value referees’ input but I highly doubt this is the case. The story of Richard Nieuwenhuizen goes to show that it doesn’t matter who you are, once you step into the role of referee, you’re deemed to be fair game by some (though, too many) fans and players.

Violence against referees is a foul play and it needs to get a red card.

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