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Abuse of sports officials: Where is the problem?

A recent survey of approximately 1,500 rugby union referees ranked spectator behaviour as their top concern, outranking player dissent for the first time. 4,219 Australian Football officials were asked specifically about the match day environment. This data showed spectator, not player or coach, behaviour as the area of greatest concern.

Match day environment areas for improvement (Umpire AFL Satisfaction Survey, 2019)

This is likely due to the fact that officials have leavers of control to moderate player and coach behaviour, whereas this is not commonly the case for spectators, of which many are likely to be parents. While moderating spectator behaviour will support the retention of officials looking at the research holistically suggests a strength-led strategy is likely to be far more effective.

We reviewed publications and surveys totaling over 8,000 officials to determine the top reasons why sports officials stay and leave officiating (1,2,3,4,5).

The top reason officials continued to officiate was social connections. The reason why officials do not return is varied, however, there was little evidence that abuse significantly contributes to attrition.

To validate these findings, we surveyed a small regional officiating association of 98 members. Camaraderie was the top reason officials stay. Abuse was not cited as a reason as to why they would leave (below).

35 Officials were non-returning with two officials citing abuse as the reason they would not return the following season; just 2% of the total cohort of total umpires (or 6% of umpires who did not return). These combined findings are perhaps surprising considering the perception of abuse of sports officials. However, one thing that is very clear is the reason why officials stay – social connections.

Why are social connections so important? We all want to belong. It’s human nature. However, arguably more important in the context of officiating is the value of protective factors that social connections bring. Protective factors are conditions or attributes in communities that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and mitigate or eliminate risk. Such attributes may include skills, strengths, resources, supports or coping strategies.

Non-return rates of officials are consistently higher in cohorts that have a younger, less experienced officials. A contributing factor to this is likely the decreased strength of social connections in newer officials. This is where mentor programs add value and close these gaps by offering both protective factors and social connection.

Abuse, of any kind, is unacceptable, however, focusing on creating an environment that propagates social connections, including mentoring program for new officials, more positively impacts the retention of officials than focusing on match day environment alone.

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