By Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh
EARLIER this year, we saw the research published by the sport psychologist Dr Noel Brick about the psychological well-being of referees. It made for grim reading. 94 per cent of match officials experienced verbal abuse and 23 per cent suffered some kind of physical abuse.
Week in, week out, various controversies hit the headlines, to the point that we don’t notice anymore. Or we get very worried about it for a few days if a referee gets hurt, like what happened to a referee in Roscommon in recent times.
For all the talk we do about the welfare of participants within the GAA, we don’t seem to extend the same courtesy to referees.
They’re under the same pressure as players, perhaps even more so. It’s expected that even the best player will make mistakes during the chaos that occurs in the white heat of battle. Unless it’s a very obvious howler made by a goalkeeper, mistakes by players are rarely remembered.
Referees are in the same cauldron, alone, save for a radio where they might get some information from the sideline or from umpires. They’re expected to return at full time with an unstained copybook of perfection.
Any gaffe, big or small, is dissected at full voice by bystanders, online and if the referee is really lucky, by the national media or on The Sunday Game. The rules of psychological welfare don’t seem to apply to referees.
It’s acknowledged that players sacrifice a lot to get to the top tier of sport. Constrained social lives, hours dedicated to travel, training, the gym, diet.
It can affect relationships and careers. It can affect the head. The same is also true for elite referees.
The research published by Dr Brick pointed to abuse from spectators, coaches and players as the one of the main sources of distress for match officials, to the point that many quit altogether. Most of the verbal abuse came from coaches and managers. People who also are far too familiar with abuse, and yet instead of stopping the cycle, they prefer to perpetuate it. The physical abuse seems to come from players and spectators. The more abuse they got, according to the research, the more mental distress experienced.
This research was published to a fanfare of outcry earlier this year. Everyone agreed it was terrible and without referees there would be no games at all. Despite efforts made by Croke Park to improve things in the immediate aftermath of the publication of this report, things aren’t changing fast enough.
The abuse still rains from the stands from Croke Park to your local u-8 blitz. Nobody turns around to their local GAA hooligan and tells them to calm down. Everybody mutters under their breath about your man making a show of himself shouting at the referee officiating the kids, but nobody does anything. Ironically, the abuse often comes from the same lad who tweets ‘but what about mental health’ on the regular.
It appears that doesn’t include referees. The spotlight on referees is ever increasing, thanks in no small part to social media. One missed free is often enough to instigate a pile on. Even a correct but unpopular decision can also result in days of constant abuse directed at a referee, and at times their friends and family.
I often wonder what potential impact the added weight of Twitter might have had on referees like the late Jimmy Cooney who inadvertently blew up the All Ireland semi-final between Offaly and Clare in 1998, with five minutes left to go, prompting Offaly supporters to stage a sit down protest in Croke Park.
Managers verbally abusing and attempting to intimidate referees are described as passionate instead of using the appropriate language of bullies. We laugh at it. We say ‘ah he’s a great man for the GAA. He gives it his all.’ All the while he’s threatening someone where in any other setting, you might be inclined to call the authorities. Or at the very least, ensure you’re not left alone with him. Being the person in the middle must be the loneliest place on the field at times. And none of us seem to worry too much about it.
We have the evidence thanks to Noel Brick and his colleagues, and the many media articles written about incidences all over the country. I do wonder what is it going to take for us to actually take action and stamp out this abuse.
The major tone of these conversations is that if they don’t get respect, good referees will just quit. I fear that might not be the worst of the potential consequences.
Psychological breakdown, psychiatric illness and potentially the death of a referee might be what it takes for us to respect their mental health as much as pretend we do.