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

By Noel Brick, Gavin Breslin, Mark Shevlin and Stephen Shannon, Ulster University

Taking part in sport 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 difficulties as a result of the performance demands that competitive sport can bring. As a result, recent years have seen a welcome upsurge in awareness research and interventions developed to support the mental health and wellbeing needs of athletes.

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

One of the main sources of distress for match officials are experiences of abuse from spectators, coaches, and players, something that leads many referees to quit their role entirely. This abuse often results from decisions made by match officials, decisions that may not be considered the 'right decision' by spectators, coaches or players and that can lead to confrontation.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Gaelic football referee David Gough on abuse of referees

Very little is known about how this abuse impacts on the mental health of match officials. To help answer this question, we undertook a study of Gaelic games match officials to explore how episodes of abuse impact on their mental health, wellbeing and intentions to quit their role.

We surveyed 438 Gaelic games match officials, most of whom (98%) were referees. We asked if they had ever experienced verbal or physical abuse directed toward them during games. Examples of verbal abuse included intimidation, threats of harm, swearing, or harassment, whereas physical abuse included hitting, pushing, or punching. We also asked how often they experienced each type of abuse and who they experienced this abuse from.

To explore their mental health, we included questions about feelings of distress in the week after receiving abuse (eg whether they felt worried or tense), and questions about symptoms of anxiety, depression, and mental wellbeing (feeling optimistic about the future, dealing with problems well) over the previous two weeks. We also asked if episodes of abuse made them consider quitting their role as a match official.

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From RTÉ News, Oireachtas committee hears 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 mostly experienced two or more times a season, was more frequently encountered by younger and less experienced match officials and was mostly received from (in order of ranking) managers/coaches, spectators and players. Physical abuse was mostly experienced once or twice in a career and was mostly perpetrated by players and spectators.

What these findings highlight is that the proportion of Gaelic games match officials who had experienced abuse, and its frequency, is similar to that reported in other sports. But the prevalence of physical abuse amongst Gaelic games match officials (23%) was higher than that previously reported amongst English (19%) and Dutch (15%) soccer referees.

In terms of mental health effects, we found that match officials who received more frequent verbal abuse experienced higher distress, more symptoms of anxiety and depression, lower mental wellbeing and stronger intentions to quit their role. The distress resulting from physical abuse had a similar impact and led to poorer mental health and stronger intentions to quit. Physical abuse was also reported as more distressing by those who experienced it. While 5% of match officials screened positive for significant distress during the week after receiving verbal abuse, this 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 into abuse in sport

Each of these findings highlight important issues to address. That younger and less experienced match officials received more frequent verbal abuse may explain, in part, why many newly-qualified referees quit soon after assuming their role. To emphasise the scale of this concern, a June 2022 report published by the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media on the elimination of abuse in sport noted that around 66% of referees in the Football Association of Ireland quit within two years of completing their beginners' referee course. Abuse was cited as a primary reason for deciding to leave, a suggestion that is supported by our research.

More so, 49% of match officials in our study agreed that episodes of abuse made them consider quitting their role, with abuse cited as the main reason by 8% of officials who said they were thinking of leaving within the next 12 months. Without referees, our games simply could not take place and the experience of abuse is one factor that leads many referees to quit their role.

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From RTÉ Sport in 2019, then Wexford senior hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald on why referees are under pressure

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

Clearly, eliminating abuse directed toward match officials is the foremost goal for sporting organisations. As such, it’s important to recognise – whether we are spectators, coaches, or players – that our behaviours impact on the mental health of match officials long after the game has ended. Therefore, changing how we treat match officials is something we all have a responsibility for.

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

Dr Noel Brick is a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the School of Psychology in Ulster University. Dr Gavin Breslin is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the School of Psychology in Ulster University. Prof Mark Shevlin is a Professor of Psychology at Ulster University and an Honorary Professor of Psychological Research Methods and Statistics at the University of Southern Denmark. Dr Stephen Shannon is a Lecturer in the School of Sport at Ulster University.


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