The cultural stigma of referees is still relevant | Referees


In one of the most memorable and moving passages of Your show – Ashley Hickson-Lovence’s new novel based on the life of Uriah Rennie – the Premier League’s first black referee scrolls through a selection of internet commentary and press coverage of some of his recent performances. “Too big for his Fila-sponsored boots.” “In my picture book dictionary under ‘seeing referee’.” “The penny never went down that the game wasn’t about him.” “A Malteser Taped to a Bag of Marshmallows.”

It goes on, for pages and pages. Your show is a remarkable book: highly stylized, written in the second person and – although based on lengthy interviews with the man himself – largely imagined. Still, the most touching parts of the novel are what we know happened. The title of the book derives from an announcement made over the Deepdale public address system as officials emerge from the tunnel during a match between Preston and Crystal Palace: “Enjoy the second half of the Uriah Rennie show”.

It was perhaps the most persistent of the accusations leveled against Rennie during his 15-year career in English league football: that he somehow wanted to be seen, that he craved the spotlight, that he craved attention.

“Uriah Rennie likes to make history,” said Paul Jewell after his Wigan side lost to Arsenal in 2006.

“He’s arrogant in the way he behaves,” was Dave Jones’ verdict after Wolves lost to Bolton two years earlier. “As for talking to him afterwards, we can’t talk to him. He’s probably too busy putting on lip balm.

Reading all of this now, years later, it seems impossible to dissociate that kind of criticism from Rennie’s unique status as the first (and still only) black referee in top-flight English football. In a way, it was a focus that revealed more about the gaze and the preconceived idea of ​​the viewer than about Rennie. While he has been retired for more than a decade, the cultural stigma of referees still holds true, particularly when English football faces a chronic shortage of experienced officials.

On Wednesday, Kevin Friend became the fourth Premier League referee to announce his retirement this summer, following Mike Dean, Jon Moss and Martin Atkinson. The four of them had amassed 63 years of Premier League experience and took charge of 95 games last season.

Their departures leave the world’s most-watched league at an impasse: as Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) undertakes refereeing reform in English football, promoting and encouraging young officials, the lack of experience at the highest level means that they may have no choice but to throw some of these less experienced referees into the big games. On Saturday, PGMOL announced that Mike Riley would be stepping down as head of England referees at the end of the upcoming season. Riley has been its general manager for 13 years.

It’s all just part of a bigger picture, one that afflicts the whole of English football, from top flight to grassroots football.

Kevin Friend is the latest Premier League referee to announce his retirement after Mike Dean, Jon Moss and Martin Atkinson. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

An estimated 10,000 referees have left the game in the past five years, many of them as a result of abuse and victimization. A study by the University of Portsmouth has found that 93% of referees in English football have experienced abuse at their job, compared to just half of referees in the Netherlands. During the 2019-20 season – a season cut short by the pandemic – the FA recorded 77 incidents of physical assault against a referee.

At the highest level, the levels of compensation and protection are higher, but so are the levels of surveillance and belittlement. That Rennie remains the only black referee to have officiated in the Premier League is an indictment not only of PGMOL but of the whole culture of English football, a purpose-built hostile environment that so many talented and potential officials have simply found intolerable.

English football is not unique in its vitriolic fixation on referees. But much of their treatment in this country – the granular finding of fault, the personal abuse, the pantomime libel, the frequent accusations of bias and corruption – seem to stem from very particular tendencies in society.

It’s not a new process. The systematic erosion by the political and media class of this country’s institutions – from parliament to the judiciary to the BBC to the education system – stems from a common popular impulse: that there is no impartial authority , that authority itself should be suspected, that the very concept of impartiality is akin to deception.

So the National Trust isn’t just rewriting a few pamphlets to better reflect this country’s colonial past: it’s indulging in a woke agenda. The three High Court judges who ruled that the government should consult Parliament before enacting Brexit were not simply judging a case on the merits of the arguments and evidence presented: they were enemies of the people.

And the referee who awarded your team a penalty is not just a human being who calls in real time under the highest pressure: he is biased, he is paid and his integrity must be destroyed down to the smallest detail, often by former referees in the media.

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This is, in its most basic sense, a form of mass immaturity, and there are no easy solutions. In the short term you can set up respect agendas, toughen disciplinary sanctions, train more referees, import referees from other leagues, better compensate them for the indignities they suffer.

But the larger problem requires large-scale rewiring, a re-examination of our obligations to each other as fans and as people: a footballing problem that – as always – has its roots in the world beyond.

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