According to a recent survey, nearly half of all incidents of abuse against officials have resulted in increased penalties from the RFU.
Nearly half of the match officials who were surveyed by the Rugby Football Union reported experiencing abuse in recent seasons. This has led to the implementation of more severe consequences at all levels of the sport, including the Premiership. This information was discovered by the Guardian.
Due to concerns about the impact of mistreatment on driving officials away, the RFU has implemented harsher penalties for those found guilty. These “aggravated sanctions” will result in an additional two, three, or four weeks added to the original suspension, depending on the severity of the offense. This decision was made following the resignations of prominent RFU officials, Wayne Barnes and Tom Foley, who both cited social media abuse as a contributing factor.
At the beginning of the previous season, the RFU attempted to address the increasing issue of abuse by providing referees with guidelines on how to handle threats, such as “I’m going to physically harm you” and “I’m going to damage your vehicle.” However, the most recent disciplinary data from the union shows a concerning trend, with 18% of all cases involving abuse towards match officials. The majority of these cases were for showing disrespect, while almost half of the 1,200 officials surveyed in 2022 and 2023 reported experiencing abuse in the previous season.
Therefore, authorities urged the RFU to implement stricter regulations, which they have now done at the beginning of 2024. Both players and coaches will still face consequences for breaking rule 9.28 through the current disciplinary system, but minor instances of disrespect towards match officials will result in an additional two-week suspension, moderate cases with an extra three weeks, and severe cases with an additional four weeks.
Match official abuse is defined as disrespecting the authority of a match official (dissent), verbal abuse, using threatening actions or words towards match officials, making physical contact with match officials and physical abuse of a match official. The RFU insists that the vast majority of cases relate to disrespect and that incidents of physical abuse are extremely rare but is adamant that the level of abuse is “unacceptable”.
According to David Barnes, the head of discipline for the RFU, most players and coaches show proper respect for match officials. However, there are some individuals who believe it is acceptable to challenge and disrespect them, and in extreme cases, even abuse them. Approximately 20% of disciplinary cases involve this issue, and it is important for us to address it. As a sport, we cannot deny that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with.
About 20% of cases involve volunteers organizing games for others, but many cases go unreported. While some issues may be resolved during the game, the reported 18% is likely lower than the true extent of the problem.
“We believe it is appropriate to include an extra measure of discouragement in all penalties in order to address some of these problems.”
Wayne Barnes decided to end his career as a referee following the World Cup final in October, citing the online harassment he experienced and the targeting of his family. In December, Foley, who served as the television match official during the World Cup final, announced his retirement from international rugby due to death threats aimed at him and his loved ones since the tournament.
Barnes believes that if derogatory comments about officials are deemed acceptable online, it will also become acceptable in face-to-face interactions. He suggests that the growing acceptability of criticizing officials on social media or through electronic means may lead to an increase in similar behavior in person. This is due to the lack of accountability online, which is a major concern.
“We continue to observe a significant amount of individuals enrolling in refereeing courses; there has not been a sudden decline. However, the issue of referees being subjected to abuse will inevitably affect our recruitment and retention efforts. After all, who would willingly sacrifice their afternoon for such treatment? Our goal is to attract individuals to the sport in alignment with our principles, and mistreating referees goes against that.”