Close up of referee about to pull yellow card out. Life Solved logo and title overlaid

How do we make football a fair game?

  • 21 February 2022
  • 20 min listen

Football is at the heart of culture for billions of us around the world.

But how does it reflect and amplify harmful inequalities in our societies?

In the latest episode of the Life Solved podcast, researchers from the University of Portsmouth discuss how changes in the game can have an impact on wider society.

Abuse and Exclusion

Dr Tom Webb has been studying the experiences of match officials. He says that referees have historically been underfunded and marginalised in favour of players, coaches and even fans. He’s identified referee abuse as one of the major international issues in sports around the world.

If verbal abuse exists, it's quite easy for it to escalate. In England, one in five respondents had some form of physical abuse.

Dr Tom Webb, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management

The impact of this has been mental health problems, reduced participation rates and a decline in referees staying with the game. He’s even looked at how different countries and cultures relate to referees in terms of their relationships with authority:

This culture of abuse has sort of become almost ingrained within football and, as I said, an accepted part of the game.

Dr Tom Webb, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management

Further research into the experiences of female officials highlighted the isolation and intimidation faced in male-dominated scenarios. This culture creates a barrier to women wishing to enter the profession or feeling they can develop there.

Opportunities for Equality

Tom works closely with Dr Beth Clarkson. Beth spent over ten years coaching elite youth football and today delivers education programmes for the premier league as well as advising on women’s football policy for Fair Game UK. She thinks her drive towards creating equality, diversity and fairness in the game came from her own experiences of playing football:

Football has a social power to help inclusion and people's development.

Dr Beth Clarkson, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and Development

Beth has been studying the journey of British football from its evolution as a male-dominated, white, working-class preserve to an integral part of our culture. In the podcast, she explains the breadth of initiatives in place to make it a welcome and safe space for all but says more needs to be done.

Racism, homophobia and sexism have not gone from the sport. It’s certainly a mirror for our society. There's a role that the sport can play in developing inclusivity, equality and diversity within our communities.

Dr Beth Clarkson, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and Development

Taking action for change

Beth thinks that the game can work across society to develop healthier and more inclusive narratives and that representing diverse voices and experiences is key to doing so. She and Tom have been working to bring people together to share their experiences in a safe place.

They hope that this will give a truer picture of the state of the game, allowing decision-makers to promote a healthier, safer and more inclusive sport for all.

To the full podcast and hear Beth and Tom discuss their research, search for “Life Solved” from the University of Portsmouth on your podcast app of choice, and why not share this story with a friend who might be interested.

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for joining us for Life Solved. I’m John Worsey and here at the University of Portsmouth we work on sharing amazing research, breakthroughs and cutting-edge science with the world. Much of our research is informing and exploring the way we live today, including our cultures and society. This time, we’re catching up with some brilliant researchers on how attitudes, ideas and behaviour are being experienced, shared and perpetuated through one of our nation’s most beloved past times. Historical references to football in England go as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, but today it occupies a global industry worth around 1.8 billion dollars. It’s at the heart of the way billions of people socialise, share experiences and celebrate. In the first of this two-part special, we’ll ask what the function is of football in creating and sharing culture? How are harmful cultures impacting the health of individuals and the game? And how can we make football fair for everyone?

Beth Clarkson: That's the whole point of academia to be able to create and share knowledge that can then impact the societies that we live in and in the areas that we do research in.

John Worsey: Let’s meet Dr Tom Webb and Dr Beth Clarkson. They’re both looking at how values in our sporting world play out in wider society.

Beth Clarkson: my name is Dr Beth Clarkson I'm a senior lecturer in sport management at the University of Portsmouth. My background is in sport coaching. I've worked in elite youth football as a coach for over 10 years. I deliver education programmes for the Premier League and also a women's football policy advisor for Fair Game UK, which is a group of football clubs who are striving for change in the game that's driven by sustainability and by fairness and success. My research interests are grounded and fed by that applied experience, so predominantly centres on equality, diversity and inclusion in coaching and management and also governance of women's sport that started with a focus on women's football is beginning to branch out into other sports such as rugby, cricket and golf.

Tom Webb: I'm Dr Tom Webb, senior lecturer in Sport Management at the University of Portsmouth. My research is all around sports officials, so from different backgrounds, different sports, different countries. My research takes a global approach to look at some of the challenges, issues and problems which exist within officiating.

John Worsey: Beth’s passion for promoting equality and diversity in sport was born of her experiences playing youth football. Football led her into leadership roles and eventually her PhD.

Beth Clarkson: I think it goes all the way back to the power that football can have in terms of developing people, but also maybe the social power that it has to help inclusion and people's development. Football is kind of an ecosystem. It's made up of so many people, and it really does broadly connect people, either at the time or later in years to come, or people that you might not know very well, but you know, through football and you always find you come across people in different ways. So, the sport has certainly been kind to me. And sometimes the more you invest in it, sometimes the more you get out of it.

John Worsey: Beth thinks that football has made enormous strides in providing equal opportunities in recent times, but more needs to be done to make it a fair game:

Beth Clarkson: We probably need to recognise that historically, football has not necessarily been an inclusive sport. It was developed for and by white working-class men, and that's led in the past of people outside of that group not feeling particularly welcome or to be able to participate in the sport. But attitudes and behaviours have certainly changed somewhat since then, and in some cases, are certainly much more progressive. Although some of the research that we've done has uncovered that, that needs to be more progress that we need to make. Football associations, and governing bodies have put into place lots of different initiatives to try and make sure that football is more inclusive, whether that's through placement opportunities for coaches from different ethnic backgrounds or through better funding for women and girls’ football. The Premier League have got Rainbow Laces campaign to help tackle homophobia. Multiple professional football clubs have LGBT supporter groups now. It's not exhaustive of everything that goes on in football to try and promote inclusivity, and I probably should note that all of those initiatives and others certainly have their limitations and racism, homophobia and sexism have not gone from the sport, but constantly developing and improving the sport is in place for people from different backgrounds. And given the role that football plays in our country, it is our national sport. It's certainly a mirror for our society. There's certainly a role that the sport can play in developing inclusivity and broadly more equality and diversity within our communities.

John Worsey: And Beth’s point about this interplay between sporting norms and wider society is backed up in other research. Tom Webb has been exploring different cultural relationships with authority and how this translates to the experience of match officials:

Tom Webb: When we started looking across sports and countries, I think you have to try and understand the impact of culture and also the historical development both within sport in that country but also in wider society. So, a good example of that is something like how referees are treated in sort of Latin Europe. So, if we look at Italy, for example, there's a distrust of authority in Italian culture, and there are reasons for that. You can look back at the rise of fascism in Italy and some of the impacts of that on wider society. And so generally, people don't like being told what to do and in particular with referees, it's something that when they look at the referee as an authority figure is something that they automatically almost distrust. So, the referees, the research we did with those referees, they were talking about how any errors are their fault. And if you look at the culture in the UK is very different. We've had different historical challenges and developments that have affected how we might behave as a society and how we might treat some of those officials now in the UK and England in particular, this culture of abuse is sort of become almost ingrained within football and, as I said, an accepted part of the game.

John Worsey: Tom’s been looking closely at the mental health impacts of the game on referees. He explains more.

Tom Webb: If you think about any sport you have, like four groups of stakeholders, really, you have the players, the coaches, the spectators and then you have the officials. And what tends to happen and certainly what's happened historically is that the referees and the officials that the group that come last and they get the source of the funding, they get less of the attention and they're almost like an afterthought. Referees only professionalised in 2001, so if you think about the gap in terms of where players have had the training, the focus, the development over that period of time, referees were doing it part time: it was an additional job. They were doing other jobs there were fitting in and around their work, even at the top level. Referee abuses, is a major issue in countries and sports around the world. So, football has particular challenges, particularly in the UK, I think it's fair to say. But even in other countries, we've conducted research in other countries with different FAs, and some of the trends cross into other countries in other cultures as well. Referee abuse exists at all levels, if verbal abuse exists, it's quite easy for it to escalate. We found that in England, the respondents to one of our pieces of research, the referees were saying the one in five of them that responded had some form of physical abuse. Why should someone in the workplace because they're getting paid more often than not, it's the workplace. Why should they suffer abuse? Why should they be subjected to the verbal and physical abuse that they that they encounter? And of course, it has a knock-on effect in terms of participation rates, if there are no referees, then it affects how many people can play the game. But it also means that referees start walking away and discontinuing as well, and that's something that's happened considerably over the last few years.

John Worsey: If a culture of abuse is allowed to normalise in football on any level, the negative impacts are already evident: mental health consequences for individuals, and a severe impact on the sport and the opportunities it can present for people to develop and succeed. It’s something that Beth’s research has picked up on too:

Beth Clarkson: We've just submitted a paper for publication that has explored some of the lived experiences of women football coaches from ethnically diverse backgrounds and some of the challenges that they face in being part of the coaching profession, but also existing within football culture. And there are some really stark inequalities that they feel that certainly don't necessarily make a career particularly appealing to some, and they certainly have to be thick skinned and able to deal with acts against them that, I suppose similar to sports officials, can be quite damaging and affect them in terms of personally in terms of their empowerment and confidence, but also in terms of interpersonally and some of the relationships that they have with people that they work with within their clubs and other coaches and officials and people higher up in sort of governance structures.

Tom Webb: Effectively, what we're talking about are quite often marginalised groups. Officials in most sports are often marginalised. And we actually did a study published last year which looked at female sports officials in football in particular. You're probably not surprised to know that there's very few pieces of research which look at female officials and a lot of research has been done is on white males. I think sometimes if I if I take officiating some of the challenges that are faced by men or by female officials, by LGBT, you know, these different groups, they can actually be outside of officiating. It can be from like players can be from coaches and the whole structure around that sort of makes it really difficult for the referees within those environments, you know, do players understand when they behave in a certain way what that does to the official, particularly if it's a female official or female official officiating a male game? And how does that make them feel? Well, isolated is a starting point, but probably be quite intimidated. Probably, you know, feeling like, you know, they're in a masculine dominated sport and environment and they don't feel comfortable. And certainly, the research we did that was what we found in football. It was a it was still a male dominated masculine environment, for female officials and one that they felt wasn't really conducive to them developing. There is this definitely crossover in some of the stuff that Beth and I do, and we've done some stuff together over the last year or so. But no doubt there'll be more because there are there are some of the barriers and issues do cross over.

John Worsey: So what kind of approach is needed to challenge inequalities and create genuinely inviting spaces for everyone in football? Tom and Beth swapped a few ideas:

Beth Clarkson: Part of the challenge is certainly bringing together different people who are working in the spaces and all have the mindset to want to make change, and it's about making informed change as well. So, part of the difficulty of that is people working in silos. So, academics need to be working with people working in policy, also working in decision-making, also working operationally with enacting some of those policy changes or trying to develop initiatives within their clubs or with a particular workforce. We really need to be working together on this and part of sometimes initiatives, and not to speak specifically about any of the ones I mentioned previously, but just some of the challenges with those initiatives is whether they're informed by the people that they're meant to be affecting. And so that's really where research can really help, by utilising contacts, networks ectara to really be able to bring those voices together. And certainly In research that Tom did last year and that I've been doing as well, bringing those people together and giving them a platform to be able to speak on some of these issues, bring them to the forefront in an anonymised way, which means people can be more candid without fear of reprisal, and then that information is key to working out what change Is needed.

John Worsey: For a football that’s forward-facing, collaborative, and active in seeking out the voices and opinions of those it seeks to represent, it sounds like there’s much work to be done. Research like Tom and Beth’s has a huge role to play in driving that vision forward. The pandemic also had a significant impact on equality in sports, as in many parts of society. Beth explained how research the team has carried out shows how women’s football has been hampered by institutional actions taken at the higher level, exacerbating inequality.

Beth Clarkson: Sport is really a crucial, it's interwoven aspect of our society and so, as a result of that, these elite sports from a women's perspective, have been adversely affected by the societal changes, but also what's happened within different sports. And certainly, it faces an existential threat because of that. Men's sport has been prioritised and there are financial reasons for that, but has certainly exacerbated the inequalities between men's and women's sport in terms of the way that they are broadcast, that they're spoken about within the media in some instances, in the way that they're funded. An example of that was that in the first lockdown, the sports women had to take to social media to source equipment because they weren't provided any in a way that some of their male counterparts within the same organisations didn't necessarily have those particular challenges.

John Worsey: Working with Christina Phillippou, who we’ll hear from next time, Beth and Tom are about to release research on financial sustainability in women’s football.

Beth Clarkson: The findings from that have really highlighted the need to consider what the long-term sustainable plan is to address some of those issues, particularly things like short term, low value pay contracts. And so there needs to be some equitable solutions that really recognise the growing value that women's sport has. The long-term sustainability is key to that because the pandemic is a long term issue now, and so being mindful of that, but also still making inroads into inclusivity, but also on top of that, really harnessing the growth area and potential of the sport.

John Worsey: Next time, we’ll be hearing more from Beth and Tom’s colleagues at the University of Portsmouth. Join us as we look more deeply into the systemic financial and economic issues around football, and ask whether the anti-corruption steps are enough to make it a fair game for all:

Christina Philoupou: If a club goes into administration and their wages don't get paid, that is a problem.

John Worsey: You can find out more about research at the University of Portsmouth at port.ac.uk/research, and find links to all the studies we’ve mentioned there. If you’ve found this episode thought-provoking, we’d love to hear from you. Share it on social media with the hashtag lifesolved, or perhaps just send it to a friend. And if you have a moment, please do rate, review and follow this podcast on your app, so that more people like you can join the conversation. See you again next time.

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