NB: This isn’t so much an ethical discussion as much as it is an opinion piece… though I suppose you could say that about this entire blog, but this has less ethical discussion than usual.
Recently a referee in the United States died after being punched by a player he had sent off. I believe that incidents like these are a consequence of the way referees are treated at the top level of football. Despite FIFA’s “respect” campaigns, and the fact that foul or abusive language is punishable by a red card according to the laws of the game, the lack of enforcement causes real issues lower down the game. The fact that players at the top level run up to referees to scream in their face at every decision trickles down to all levels of the game.
Here in New Zealand you can go to any football match, and I mean any, from kids just starting out, to top club level and the players (or parents in the kids case) will hurl abuse at referees and question every decision. I play at a level where a player from the home team will referee the game and even the refs own team mates will get angry and abusive over something as innocuous as a throw in not going their way. There is no respect whatsoever despite the fact that these people are volunteers giving up their time.
This isn’t something that happens in other sports here, rugby and cricket are sports where at the top level players have the utmost respect for officials and dissent is heavily punished. As a result even at the lowest levels of the game, again where players are forced to officiate and, in cricket especially, this can lead to some really biased officiating (it’s hardly worth bothering to even appeal for an LBW decision in most grades of Wellington club cricket) there is still respect for the official and their word is final, and not questioned, if a player verbally abused an official the club would be fined and the player banned, you’d never see this in football. Indeed I know of several incidents whereby players, spectators, and officials have written to my local governing body, Capital Football, to complain about the abusive behaviour of teams and have not received a reply let alone an acknowledgment there is a problem. I think this creates a culture where incidents involving violence towards officials is more likely to occur, though thankfully they are still rare.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is how easy it would be to stamp this behaviour out by simply enforcing the laws of the game. Law 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Games states that it is a sending off offense for any player to use “offensive, insulting, or abusive language and/or gestures”. Now you might think that if FIFA were to send off players for committing these offenses then games would need to be called off for a lack of players and would soon turn into a farce. That might be the case for one or two weeks, but players would learn. They’re not stupid. All it would take is for referees worldwide to clamp down and players would realise that the consequences of their actions aren’t worth crowding around the referee and hurling abuse at him. It would stop, it would then hopefully give referees at all levels the confidence to deal with such abuse the same way, and in the not to distant future maybe the football pitch would be a pleasant place to spend a weekend.