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Talking Point: Is violence at grassroots threatening the future of football?

Published in Sports Management 04 Apr 2016 issue 117
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Actor Ray Winstone appeared in the FA’s Respect campaign adverts in 2009 / the FA
Actor Ray Winstone appeared in the FA’s Respect campaign adverts in 2009/ the FA

Violence against referees and linesmen at children’s football games hit the headlines recently when The Times published details of a letter sent to parents and clubs by the chair of a youth football league.

In his letter, Surrey Youth League’s Graham Ekins claimed incidents involving adults on the sidelines are getting so bad he fears someone may be killed if something isn’t done. At the very least, he predicted that volunteers would no longer feel safe, therefore jeopardising the future of volunteering in football.

We asked our panel how bad the situation is and what can be done.

Graham Ekins,

Chair,

Surrey Youth Football League

Graham Ekins
Graham Ekins

The level of outright violence, abuse and disrespect has to stop. We’re now in a situation where in some cases, adults have removed the ability of a children’s football league to function in its current form – being run by volunteers.

In a single weekend, I’ve received emails reporting head butting and abuse towards linesmen; two parents fighting on the touchline; two teams abusing a referee under the age of 18; a referee being threatened with a stabbing by a parent and at least three games being abandoned.

This cannot continue, clubs and volunteers running children’s football need to take back control from the people who are spoiling Sunday mornings for children. Shortly the volunteers will walk away and I am questioning my own future with the league. While I accept the problems are caused by a minority, why would I – or anyone else – want to have my name associated with a children’s competition that resulted in the death of someone as a consequence of violence?

And don’t just say the worst could never happen. A linesman in the Netherlands was attacked and kicked to death after a match between two junior teams near Amsterdam in 2012. If the violence is allowed to continue here, I fear that this maybe the result.

It’s football for children – we need some perspective.

"This can’t continue, clubs and volunteers running kids football need to take back control"

Tom Cable,

Referee,

Cheshire

Tom Cable
Tom Cable

From my experience, violence can be an issue in grassroots football. Many referees every year quit the beautiful game due to the violence and verbal abuse they receive from managers and players. It’s harmful to self confidence and destructive to our game.

The main issue is the team managers, who are a bad influence on the players, who then feel it’s acceptable to act in the same way.

Having been a football referee for the best part of five years now, I’ve had a few issues with managers and players where I’ve had to intervene to prevent a potentially destructive situation. In some instances I’ve had to follow it up with the local Football Association in order to report senior figures from local clubs for bad behaviour.

One of the ways that we can prevent abuse is to heighten the punishments. The fines and bans that are already in place are not effective, because they don’t act as a deterrent.

I also find that referees aren’t sufficiently trained in how to deal with abuse. They aren’t told how to handle stressful situations and if the FA introduced these training methods and fines I’m sure we would see a decrease in the number of cases of violence and abuse in football.

"The main issue is the managers, who prove a bad influence on the players"

Kelly Simmons,

Director of participation and development,

Football Association

Kelly Simmons
Kelly Simmons

Examples of violence are rare, but the problem of overly aggressive parents needs to be dealt with.

We have to keep trying to get the message across that it has a really negative impact as it ruins the enjoyment for children and it’s not helping their learning and development.

The only person they should be listening to is their coach, who has probably gone through at least 30 hours if not a lot more of training to support those kids. I’d urge parents to think about what is in the best interested of your child and that is that they go and enjoy their football and have a referee who is protected and supported.

There’s no indication to suggest that the situation is getting worse, but that said it’s a continual process of supporting clubs and leagues to get across the ethos of the Football Association’s Respect campaign and make sure we provide the right learning environment for young players to enjoy the game and develop.

We also have to protect our referees, which is absolutely fundamental. We’ve gone up to 28,000 referees now but we need to support and protect them, so it’s ongoing work.

There’s a new strategy coming out, which will be a chance for us to draw breath on it and ask what we can do going forward to keep driving home the message and supporting clubs to put the children’s enjoyment and learning first and let the coaches do their work.

We’ve just been through a big reorganisation at the FA to invest more money into the grassroots game and thinking about how we’re going to support and invest in grassroots and this will involve reviewing Respect.

It’s time assess how we refresh the campaign and the programme to give it the biggest impact we can to get those messages out there, which is all part of looking ahead to the next four years.

"Examples of violence are rare, but the problem of overly aggressive parents needs to be dealt with."

Paul Kirton,

Spokesman,

Grassroots Football (GRF)

There are so many positives about grassroots football. Not only does it create lasting friendships, it provides a place where football is inclusive to all youngsters, whatever their ability.

We know a lot of parents are passionate when watching their child play, and sadly that passion can manifest into incidents where referees have been verbally abused or anger has flared up between parents. This kind of behaviour cannot and should not be condoned. However, it’s rare to see extreme violence at a grassroots football match and there are a lot more positive aspects to grassroots football that don’t get the coverage they deserve.

Over the years we’ve seen friendships made on and off the pitch, the confidence of youngsters soar and memories being made for families that are irreplaceable – not to mention the health benefits of keeping children active and developing good exercise habits.

The number of people playing grassroots football is high and no sport is without its problems. We can understand a linesman being beaten to death in the Netherlands being used as an example to drive home the message of the consequences, but it’s an extreme example to say the least. All it has done is led to fears of violence in football being blown out of all proportion – when there are so many more positive benefits linked to the sport.

"This kind of behaviour cannot and should not be condoned, however, it’s rare to see extreme violence at a grassroots football match"

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