Why Referees Are Abandoning Gaelic Games

Analysis: 94% of match officials have experienced verbal abuse in their career and 23% have experienced some form of physical abuse

By Christmas Brick, Gavin Breslin, Marc Shevlin and Stephane Shannon, University of Ulster

Exercising has many benefits for our physical and mental health. Despite this, recent high-profile examples, such as that of Simone Biles during the Tokyo Olympics, show that athletes can experience mental health issues due to the performance demands that competitive sport can bring. As a result, recent years have seen a welcome resurgence in awareness to research and talks developed to meet the mental health and wellness needs of athletes.

But one group of individuals has received comparatively little attention: match officials. Like athletes, referees, referees and judges charged with the vital role of fairly applying the rules of our sports may experience distress from non-sport and sport-specific sources. This can range from social lives and constrained family demands, to media scrutiny and mistakes made during games when applying the rules of the game.

One of the main sources of distress for match officials is the experience of abuse from spectators, coaches and players, leading many referees to leave his role entirely. These abuses are often the result of decisions made by match officials, decisions which may not be seen as the “right decision” by spectators, coaches or players and which may lead to confrontations.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, Gaelic football referee David Gough on referee abuse

Very little is known how this abuse affects the mental health of match officials. To help answer this question, we undertook a study Gaelic games bring together officials to explore the impact of episodes of abuse on their mental health, well-being and intentions to leave their roles.

We interviewed 438 Gaelic games referees, most of whom (98%) were referees. We asked them if they had ever experienced verbal or physical abuse against them during matches. Examples of verbal abuse included intimidation, threats of harm, swearing, or harassment, while physical abuse included hitting, shoving, or punching. We also asked them how often they had experienced each type of abuse and from whom they had experienced this abuse.

To explore their mental health, we included questions about feelings of distress during the week after being abused (for example, whether they felt worried or tense), and questions about symptoms of anxiety, depression and mental well-being (feeling optimistic about the future, coping with problems well) during the previous two weeks. We also asked if episodes of abuse caused them to consider quitting their role as match referee.

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From RTÉ News, the Oireachtas committee learns that referees have been attacked and abused on the pitch

We found that 94% of match officials had experienced verbal abuse during their career and 23% had experienced some form of physical abuse. Verbal abuse was mainly experienced twice or more per season, was more frequently encountered by younger and less experienced match officials and was mainly inflicted by (in order of ranking) managers/coaches, spectators and players. Physical abuse was most often experienced once or twice in a career and was mostly perpetrated by players and spectators.

What these results highlight is that the proportion of Gaelic games referees who have experienced abuse, and the frequency of it, is similar to that reported in Other sports. But the prevalence of physical violence among Gaelic Games match officials (23%) was higher than previously reported among English (19%) and Dutch (15%) football referees.

In terms of mental health effects, we found that match officials who experienced more frequent verbal abuse experienced higher distress, more symptoms of anxiety and depression, lower mental well-being and stronger intentions to leave their roles. Distress resulting from physical abuse had a similar impact and led to poorer mental health and stronger intentions to quit smoking. Physical abuse was also reported as more distressing by those who experienced it. While 5% of match officials tested positive for significant distress during the week after experiencing verbal abuse, that figure rose to 13% for those who experienced physical abuse.

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From RTÉ News, RTE GAA correspondent Marty Morrissey on the Oireachtas committee report on abuse in sport

Each of these findings highlights important issues that need to be addressed. The fact that younger and less experienced match officials were subjected to more frequent verbal abuse may explain, in part, why many newly qualified referees quit soon after taking up their duties. To underscore the extent of this concern, a June 2022 advisory report published by the Joint Commission for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sports and Media on Eliminating Abuse in Sport noted that approximately 66% of referees in the Irish Football Association resign within two years of completing their beginners’ refereeing course. Violence was cited as the main reason for the decision to leave, a suggestion supported by our research.

Further still, 49% of referees in our study agreed that episodes of abuse caused them to consider leaving their role, with abuse cited as the main reason by 8% of officials who said they were considering leaving. in the next 12 months. Without referees, our matches simply could not take place and the experience of abuse is a factor that causes many referees to leave their role.

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From RTÉ Sport in 2019, Davy Fitzgerald, then Wexford’s senior hurling director, explains why referees are under pressure

Based on our findings, we make the following recommendations to safeguard and protect match officials. Sports association support should include appropriate disciplinary action for reported episodes of abuse, training for match officials on conflict management to de-escalate conflict situations in games, and training to develop mental skills such as maintaining concentration and managing emotions during games. There should also be training in psychological coping strategies to cope with distress caused by abuse and therapeutic support to manage the mental health needs of match officials.

Clearly, the elimination of abuse against match officials is the primary objective of sports organisations. As such, it is important to recognize – whether we are spectators, coaches or players – that our behaviors impact the mental health of match officials long after the match is over. Therefore, changing the way we treat match officials is something we all have a responsibility for.

Reducing and eliminating abuse will help retain more referees and other match officials in our matches. It will also help maintain their sanity and make officiating a more enjoyable, rewarding and enjoyable experience. the reasons why many are motivated to take on the role in the first place.

Dr Noel Brick is a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at School of Psychology in University of Ulster. Dr Gavin Breslin is a lecturer in psychology at School of Psychology in University of Ulster. Prof Mark Shevlin is a professor of psychology at University of Ulster and Honorary Professor of Psychological Research Methods and Statistics at the University of Southern Denmark. Dr Stephen Shannon is a lecturer at sports school at University of Ulster.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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