The Scottish Premiership referees have voted to strike this weekend in protest against the growing threats that they receive from players, managers and fans alike in addition to the fact that they feel their integrity is being questioned. But are they right in doing so?
The latest controversy was fuelled by match officials, Steven Craven and Dougie McDonald, admitting that they lied about the reason for changing a penalty decision. This led to widespread criticism about the honesty and integrity of referees, and Celtic Chairman (and ex Home Secretary) John Reid and Scottish MP Pete Wishart, to suggest that officials are forced to declare which teams they support and prevented from refereeing in those matches.
There are two particular ethical concepts at the core of this issue; fairness and respect. One of the basic tenets of sport is that it is a fair contest where the best (i.e. most talented, most deserving) side wins. A sport where the rules are ignored or overlooked can quickly descend into anarchy and is no longer sport at all. Sport can only work if the rules are followed. The Victorian conception of sport was that officials were unnecessary since players themselves were able to ensure adherence – the role of umpire in cricket was just to hold the hats and jumpers of the bowlers and count the balls in the over. However, the rise of professional sport (with its extrinsic rewards), along with a change in sporting attitudes, led to officials being needed to make sure that players didn’t try to give themselves an unfair advantage. And these officials were expected to be totally objective and impartial, even if their competency could sometimes be questioned.
Now, the SPL officials are being attacked on grounds of both competency and impartiality. On the latter, there is no defence for official’s bias towards one team over another. If the adherence to rules is a prerequisite for sport then this undermines the game itself. Even if all officials do genuinely seek to remain impartial, it would still seem reasonable to bring in Mr Wishart’s suggestion that referees do not officiate in games where they support one of the teams so as to ensure there is no sub-conscious conflict of interests or grounds for accusation of bias.
However, on the issue of competency, the criticism given towards the referees is unreasonable. And this bring in the concept of respect. All those involved in the game realise that matches can not be played without a referee. Let us be charitable and say that these referees are doing their utmost to ensure they make the correct decisions. So when considering the limitations of being human and the balance of probability, an incorrect call occurs, does this justify the torrent of abuse that officials receive? Of course it doesn’t. No-one deserves to be subject to death threats, especially on the grounds that they gave a penalty when it wasn’t, or vice-versa.
And this seems to be the fundamental problem with football. Officials are not given the respect that they, as humans, ought to be given. The FA’s respect programme seeks to change behaviour towards officials in football, but it it is limited because it focuses primarily on amateur and children’s football rather than professional leagues. Arguably, it is fighting a losing battle when those at the grass roots emulate the behaviour of players and managers at the top.
In no other job would such behaviour be considered anywhere near acceptable, and those involved would be subject to disciplinary measures on the grounds of bullying and harassment. However, sport once again, appears to be a moral vacuum.
So are the referees right to opt for strike action? I would say absolutely. I would like to see such solidarity spreading out to other associations whereby referees refuse to officiate unless they are granted the respect they deserve, both in the capacity of being human and in that they enable the game to take place at all (let us witness a professional game without the use of match officials to see how it works). Nevertheless, in return, officials need to ensure that their biases do not affect (either consciously or sub-consciously) the decisions they make. They need to ensure that they do their level best to keep the game fair.
I recognise the frustration that clubs and fans feel when referees make incorrect decisions but the times I have been on the receiving end of this, I have had to bite my lip for I know that without them we would have no game at all. We must respect officials regardless of the (human) mistakes that they might make simply because without them the game would become unplayable.