UK Sporting bodies join forces to tackle abuse towards officials

Back view of female referee holding up a card

The aim is to tackle the abuse that officials face and interconnected issues such as isolation and the impact on mental health.

  • 17 December 2021
  • 4 min read

A number of UK sporting National Governing Bodies (NGB) are coming together to help tackle the issue of abuse towards officials and how to support them and protect their mental health.

The new panel, led by Dr Tom Webb from the University of Portsmouth, so far involves organisations such as the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Premiership Rugby (the body that oversees the professional game and the Gallagher Premiership in rugby union), Rugby Football League (RFL), England Netball and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) among others.

The aim is to tackle the abuse that officials face and interconnected issues such as isolation and the impact on mental health, disciplinary processes and duty of care around sports officials.

By learning from different sports (both in terms of aspects and initiatives that have worked and those that have not worked) and sharing good practice, it is hoped that the outcomes can help improve the recruitment and retention of sports officials.

We are trying to increase and develop the conversations between sports and so to be able to get these different sports to discuss the abuse, support and mental health of officials and to look at what can be done across sports to combat these issues, is a real step forward.

Dr Tom Webb, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management

Dr Tom Webb, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and co-ordinator of the Referee and Match Official Research Network, said: “We are trying to increase and develop the conversations between sports and so to be able to get these different sports to discuss the abuse, support and mental health of officials and to look at what can be done across sports to combat these issues, is a real step forward.

“Through our research, we have talked about the need for national and international collaboration, it's something I really think could and would help. It hasn't been done before and to my knowledge, this is the first group of this type anywhere in the world, especially with the focus around the concept of abuse and the impact on mental health. It is very important to get sports to meet like this, for them to share ideas, potentially work together and tackle a shared issue.”

Dr Webb will be chairing the panel, which will be run through the Referee and Match Official Research Network at the University of Portsmouth to maintain independence and ensure cross-sport collaboration.

The work of the panel will be informed by previous and ongoing research conducted by the Referee and Match Official Research Network to provide insight across sports and have a joined-up approach to potential solutions.

Dr Webb said: “The research and evidence tell us that a joined-up approach towards abuse and related issues could be very effective. Our research findings and policy recommendations have identified the need for sports to work together, share ideas and develop their thinking in this area through collaborative working.

“I think we need to try and be innovative and also look at how the professional game can influence and impact at the grassroot level and if we can look at joining this up across sports  it could be very powerful.”

Through our research, we have talked about the need for national and international collaboration, it's something I really think could and would help. It hasn't been done before and to my knowledge, this is the first group of this type anywhere in the world, especially with the focus around the concept of abuse and the impact on mental health.

Dr Tom Webb,

A new House of Lords report includes evidence from Dr Webb who told the National Plan for Sport and Recreation Committee “the duty of care of sports officials is an important issue and ... [sports officials] are often an underrepresented and forgotten group. Dr Webb called on NGBs to develop initiatives to reduce the abuse of sports officials and for more sharing of good practice.

The first meeting of the panel is on Wednesday 15 December. It was due to take place in person at the University of Portsmouth but because of the new Government Covid-19 requirements, the meeting will now take place online. Future meetings are hoped to be face to face at the University – COVID guidance permitting.

The new panel is supported through the University’s School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science research theme (Individual, Occupational and Organisational Performance) and also the University’s Democratic Citizenship research theme.