Want to stop racism in football? Start with the refs.

There is an unmissable lack of diversity in football and whilst it is not so prevalent in team line-ups, the problem extends beyond the changing room to referees.


Yes, we do have several black and ethnic minority individuals in the football industry but as yet, only a single BAME referee has plied their trade at the top level of English football.


The statistics for BAME referees since the inception of the Premier League makes for depressing and grim reading. 11 years since Uriah Rennie took charge of his final match before retiring, marking the last day in Premier League history to see a BAME referee. Not one of 72 referees on the 2018-19 National List – from where all league referees are drawn- were black or Asian. “The black man’s graveyard” continues to live up to their label by BAME referees as they are rendered obsolete amongst their peers in the top flight. 


With a lack of diversity, we start to see a palpable discord and a misunderstanding of ethnic and gender groups, simply because they are underrepresented. This leads to a lack of much needed empathy.


Arguably, referees can be considered the most important individual on the pitch.


They ensure that all the players are abiding to the rules set by the governing bodies. They have the power to influence the complexion of an entire game with a single decision, the power to capture the most significant moment, the power that can decide a compelling 90-minute match that can ultimately end up deciding the most prestigious accolades with just a single decision.


Referees under the Article 14 of UEFA rules and regulations also have the power to call a halt to a game if there are repeated discriminatory violations.


The issue is that if you can’t empathise, or relate to issues underrepresented individuals encounter, there’ll be no urge to take such bold and drastic approaches – perhaps because of the fear of sparking headlines.


With the continual technological improvements being welcomed into the game, most recently in the form of VAR, and more facilities to help critique, analyse and assess pivotal moments of every game, we unconsciously start to devalue the role referees play in a football match.


Add race and ethnicity into that equation and one can only imagine the type of backlash a BAME referee would receive for making a mistake.


Uriah Rennie is a prime example. Rennie, one of the only BAME referees UK football has seen, was made a figure of ridicule in the football world. Articles were published branding him the worst referee the premier league has ever seen. 


We recall Uriah Rennie being described as the worst referee ever, in the end they decided that another referee in question (Stewart Attwell) hadn’t done enough to take the mantle. There is a level of irony when his name is mentioned with reports from numerous outlets claiming that Rennie wanted to ‘steal all of the glory’. 


Rennie was labelled deluded and believed that he was the 23rd player on the pitch. His pre match routines were scrutinised severely although it had nothing to do with the job that he was performing. Painting the picture that he was a pure spectacle and a circus act, meanwhile Stewart Attwell who was famed for reckless decision making was excused by the fact that “he was still learning.”


For example, the phantom goal he awarded Reading against Watford, there were two stoppage time goals he failed to award Derby in the East Midlands derby, allowing Nottingham Forest to escape with a 1-1 draw. Attwell booked eight players in that game and sent off another, yet despite averaging a dismissal every three matches he returned to Premier League duties before Christmas (Paul Wilson).


When Rennie made a clanger in the 2-2 draw between Newcastle and West Ham he was hung out to dry by former official Kevin Lynch who describe the error as “an appalling piece or refereeing”. As a former referee do you really chuck another referee under the bus like that?


Ultimately these types of incidents must have had a knock-on effect and left some scar tissue for the current generation of potential BAME referees. One can only imagine the media backlash a BAME referee will face if they make an error. The pamming, the online trolling; the endless cynical, racial and disgusting slurs.


Wilfried Zaha, a high-profile player who has publicly been targeted on the pitch and also online by racist trolls has repeatedly posted Instagram pictures of the kind of abhorrent abuse that has no place in society.


We witnessed the disturbing scenes surrounding Malcom’s transfer to Zenit.  He was welcomed by fans with a banner titled “the absence of black players is an important tradition.” 


Derby County defender Duane Holmes was targeted online after celebrating a win. The perpetrator told him to “drop a banana off” in a clear attempt to racially antagonise him. Tammy Abraham was bombarded with an avalanche of repulsive messages containing the N word after missing the deciding spot kick in the UEFA Super Cup final.


It’s widely accepted that there is unconscious bias at work when decision makers go through the hiring process, unknowingly hiring candidates that are most similar to them in terms of appearance, personality and values among other elements.


And because there is so little diversity in the pool of current referees, people will continue – unconsciously or otherwise – to hire others who are like them, and the cycle continues.


Racially related incidents are growing more prevalent in the game, and in recent months we’ve witnessed more incidents rearing their ugly heads within the confines of stadiums.


In December 2018, we saw the high-profile incident surrounding Raheem Sterling where he was innocently going about his work only to be racially abused by a Chelsea ‘fan’ in the terraces. This caused Sterling to speak out on Instagram as he strongly accused the media for “fuelling racism.”


Going to the continent, we have seen the Moise Kean incident where fans in Italy continually hurled monkey noise chants at him which must have been an ordeal for the young player who even had to put up with his captain, Leonardo Bonucci justifying the abuse by confidently and assertively saying “I think the blame is 50-50.” 


The unfortunate thing for us at The Beautiful Game Podcast is that from the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem like an intransigent approach is being implemented to sort out this issue.


These incidents are part of a much larger problem of racism which is plaguing and hampering the sport.


Change needs to start from somewhere. Improving diversity among referees and officials is a great starting point as it can be the vital cog to get the others moving to get the train of change chugging along in the right direction.


The power brokers at the apex of the game need to make conscious decisions to aid a much more diverse refereeing roster.


You can’t be what you can’t see after all, and without the PGMOL taking a hard-line approach to ensure the game is better represented on a refereeing level we won’t see improvement any time soon.


We need as many people in the game that can empathise with the minority.


Governing bodies need to introduce schemes and bursaries to act as an incentive for BAME candidates who are interested in pursuing a career as a referee. Why not even get Uriah Rennie on board to give out sessions and masterclasses to interested individuals? This will help prepare them for what life under the spotlight will be like.  This will give them the kickstart to launch their career and will offer them sturdy encouragement to feel that they can shatter through the mould and change the status quo.   


By:  The Beautiful Game Podcast (@Podcast_TBG), Dotun Abijoh (@LfcNino), Joseph Odedina (@Dej_TBG), Justin Cole (@BujTheGooner)


Photo: Alamy