Michael Jones has been refereeing soccer for about 10 years between Ontario, and now in Nova Scotia. He knows sometimes things can get tense, so he tries to communicate throughout the game.
“As a referee, when I’m in the middle, I try to talk to players as we’re going to try to calm things down if things get a little escalated,” he says.
But even with his self-described thicker skin, “there’s times when it gets tough out there, for sure.”
Like one game this past week, where he was an assistant referee working the lines, two players had to be ejected because of verbal abuse against him.
“A lot of language thrown at me and a lot of verbal abuse, and it comes to a point in time where you just had enough,” he says. “It starts off with a little bit of language and then… in that instance, it escalated to, it was very expletive.”
But Soccer Nova Scotia says it’s part of a bigger issue: a rise in referee abuse early in the season.
“The last couple of weeks, we have had an upswing of incidents regarding referees and verbal abuse and there was a physical abuse as well,” says Brad Lawlor, the executive director.
“Most of it is just the insulting language such as you are a cheat, you don’t know what you’re doing, do you have a badge, have you ever learned anything?'” Carman King, the organization’s referee development officer, says. “It’s a low level that keeps escalating within the game.”
Soccer Nova Scotia referees make between $20 and $80 per game, going up to the highest level.
But Lawlor says the abuse is becoming “detrimental” to the game.
“Players will make mistakes during the game, coaches will, referees will as well,” he says. “There’s no point of us abusing and insulting the referee during the game to the point where the referee will not come back.”
“When half of your referees are new referees, with a retention rate of 50 per cent, you’re never going to get to a point to be able to develop them to get them to that next level.”
King estimates the organization is short by about 150 referees, making things challenging when it comes to booking officials for games.
“We cannot condone this behaviour, we have referees making a little bit of money a game to help out, so that kids can play,” Lawlor says, “and right now, it’s at a point where it is becoming detrimental to our game.”
Jessie Burgins, the executive director of Suburban FC, says officials are getting abused, but that his club is trying to get some of their own staff through referee certification to help better understand both sides.
“We do feel like there’s a level of inconsistency on the referee side, and as much as we’re being held accountable as a staff and coaches, we do believe the referees need to be held accountable as well,” Burgins says.
“Having a balance between, you know, having the coaches out there and not feeling like they’re being mistreated and making sure the referees are not mistreated: I think it all goes hand in hand,” he says. “And if we’re able to work together better, referees will come, coaches will stay, kids will have fun, and the game will grow in the country and the province.”
Abuse can come from players, coaches and fans.
This season, though it’s only about a month in, has been good so far for Ben Pineau, a 22-year-old referee who’s been officiating since he was 15.
“Much more when I was younger, I found the parents definitely kind of jump at you a bit more,” he says. “If you mess up anything they’re going to be right behind you, they’re going to be right on your back.”
But it hasn’t been a good year for others.
“We have a referee, a senior referee of 30 years, that has said he does not want to do any more game because he is being verbally abused to that point where he doesn’t want to put up with it,” Lawlor explains.
He says compared to 2019, the number of instances of referee abuse has tripled.
To anyone thinking of abusing an official, Jones, the senior ref, has a message: “anytime you want to take the referees shirt and the whistle, come on in and see what you get.”
One thing all sides agree on is that a safer and more respectful environment on both sides is better for all.