Bodycams To Be Worn by Grassroots Referees in Nationwide FA Trial
When Alexander Mitrovic manhandled the referee during an angry confrontation in front of the cameras, the spectre of abusive behaviour towards referees once again reared its ugly head.
What should have been a televisual feast of football — an occasion to inspire youngsters up and down the country — became another shameful indictment on the state of the game.
Every weekend, on local grassroots football pitches throughout the UK, unpaid referees and match officials are subjected to the most vile abuse. And is it surprising if the biggest names in the game are setting this kind of example?
It’s not just Mitrovic, of course. And it’s not just physical displays of aggression. In fact, the vast majority of abuse in the professional game is of the verbal variety — and most of it goes unpunished.
This is a problem that has been getting worse for decades. The FA’s inability or refusal to deal with abuse towards officials has made the game an angrier, more intimidating spectacle than ever before. And the situation is stifling participation levels across all levels of the sport.
So when the FA announced that body cameras were to be introduced in grassroots football, match volunteer match officials around the country breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But will this latest initiative tackle an increasingly complex problem and make the game more hospitable to newcomers and under-represented sections of society? Or is it just another public relations exercise?
The World’s First Body Camera Trial for Football
That’s right — match officials in grassroots football competitions in England will, for the first time ever, be allowed to wear body cameras during matches. The FA made the announcement back in February of this year, and there’s already a great deal of excitement within the game.
The initial trial will involve around 100 grassroots referees in four regional leagues. Only adult games will be eligible initially, but it’s hoped that the technology could be rolled out across the entire football pyramid as early as next season.
Leagues in Essex, Worcester and Liverpool are taking part in the trial from its inception. And games in Middlesborough have already been involved. In the event of abuse or assault, the footage captured on the cams can be used as evidence in disciplinary proceedings.
This is fantastic news, but it won’t work unless the disciplinary process is robust and fit for purpose. Perpetrators must be punished with significant suspensions. And repeat offenders should have to face the possibility of blanket league and competition bans. This will require a greater level of cooperation between regional FAs, of course.
But the elephant in the room needs addressing before any of this can deliver the change in culture that’s needed within the game. Professional footballers must face harsher punishments for verbally or physically abusing match officials. Until that happens, youngsters will continue to replicate the most abhorrent behaviours displayed in the country’s biggest stadia.
Let’s be honest: If multi-millionaire footballers enveloped in privilege can’t control their anger, how can the country’s most deprived players be expected to rise above such behaviour and set the tone? Perhaps it’s time to take rugby union’s lead on this issue and impose lengthy bans on verbal abuse in the Premier League and Football League.
Grassroots Referees are Crying Out for Help
Despite the Respect campaign and various other initiatives designed to improve the situation, grassroots football referees in England still feel exposed and vulnerable. A recent survey by the BBC revealed that around a third of grassroots officials have experienced physical abuse by spectators, players and coaches. There are no statistics for verbal abuse, as it’s not considered part and parcel of the game. And that has to change.
The ultimate goal of the trial is to ascertain the efficacy of bodycams as a mechanism for reducing on-field abuse and improving the behaviour of players, coaches and spectators. The FA is leading the trial with the help of Reveal Media — the technology manufacturer. Crucially, the initiative has received the go-ahead from the International Football Association Board, which oversees the laws of the game.
Before a referee can participate, they must first be trained on the use of the equipment. And the bodycams can only be used in pre-approved fixtures. Officials will offer feedback, and trial organisers will review the footage in order to identify successes and challenges.
If the introduction of these bodycams changes behaviours and provides the evidence needed to exclude the most serious offenders from the game, expect them to be rolled out across the country next year. But unless there’s a joined-up approach to suspensions and banning orders between the various FAs and organisations involved, this initiative may fail to deliver the cultural change we’re all hoping for.