Abuse it and lose it : amateur sport in a consumer society

I’m going to declare an interest from the outset : I am currently a football referee in local leagues (junior and senior) in Cardiff, and I have over 40 years of participation in amateur (ie unpaid) organisation of sport that has allowed me to play, coach or officiate in football, rugby, cricket, badminton, basketball, and running, in places across the UK and even into Europe. The people that I’ve met and the experiences that I have enjoyed as a result have enriched my life beyond measure. I am also the current Secretary of the Cardiff (football) Referees’ Society

Two incidents in recent weeks have caused me to reflect on a trend that has been gathering momentum for a while, but which appears to be in danger of becoming a crisis. In the first, I received a report of a referee who had allegedly been verbally abused, physically assaulted and spat at during a local league football game, leading to the abandonment of the match. What makes this much worse though, is that the match was a junior game (under 15s) and the players were apparently being ‘egged on’ by their coaches and supporters to carry out the alleged acts. The matter is currently under investigation by the local FA and a hearing will follow in due course

The second incident occurred yesterday and involved abuse directed at the volunteer organiser of a local, weekly running event in Cardiff. The event (which I have participated in on four or five occasions since August) is hugely popular (typically over 400 runners take part each week) and is wholly dependent on volunteer organisers and marshalls for its successful operation. It’s continuation may now be under threat as a result of the events of yesterday (although the groundswell of support for the organiser on social media since yesterday will hopefully act as an antidote to the understandable anger that he felt immediately afterwards)

What concerns me about these incidents (and they are unfortunately neither unique nor even particularly rare these days) is that they will simply drive people away from involvement in organising and participating in local, grass-roots sporting activities. It is already unusual for local parks football teams to find themselves with a league appointed referee more than about once a month (and there have been occasions in recent weeks when one of the local leagues has been able to appoint referees to only one third of its scheduled matches). Worse than that, though, is the impact that inappropriate behaviour has on participation. Anecdotally, I have been told of youngsters who have been put off playing rugby and football in south Wales because of the hostile atmosphere that is a far too regular feature of matches. Almost invariably this emanates from parents, coaches and others on the sidelines rather than from players on the pitch (and this is certainly my experience as a referee too). Unfortunately, however, the atmosphere on the sideline all too often spills over into behaviour on the pitch

There’s probably a PhD to be written on the apparent causes of this decline in standards of behaviour at local amateur events that should primarily be about participation, development and enjoyment. It’s likely that it’s down to a number of factors : an increasing sense that we are all consumers now, rather than participants, and that anything that falls below our sense of what we are entitled to gives us just cause to complain loudly and persistently until we elicit a response; a general decline in any sense of respect for authority; a lack of understanding that volunteers are there because they choose to be, not because they need or have to be; ubiquitous media coverage of the poor behaviour of professional sports people and an often hostile attitude amongst commentators and summarisers towards officials and administrators of professional sport

And what can be done about it? There is clearly a need to act decisively and quickly to address bad behaviour. Local leagues and area associations need to ensure that they are visible at places where matches are taking place, and are able to see and be seen to be monitoring the behaviour of coaches and spectators in support of officials, players and the good name of the sport that they represent. Equally, and on the basis that promoting good behaviour can be as powerful as sanctioning bad, clubs and participants that act in a sporting and (to use an old-fashioned but pertinent term) Corinthian manner need to be formally recognised and rewarded for that

Sport can be an incredible force for good, improving and maintaining physical and social well-being, and acting as a means of social cohesion, bringing together people from different backgrounds and perspectives in a common purpose. It diminishes us all when the poor behaviour of a small minority leads to a loss of opportunity to participate for the many

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One thought on “Abuse it and lose it : amateur sport in a consumer society

  1. Pingback: NEAR POST – THE REFEREE’S NOT A WANKER | No Standing

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