The Roar
The Roar


It's time to fix our sporting culture and give the referees some love

Dealing with referees: how not to do it. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
3rd August, 2018

How truly pathetic must someone be to threaten the life of another person because of a refereeing decision?

There is no justification for such a spineless act. None at all. Yet it happens.

On Thursday night, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Webster revealed Matt Cecchin is retiring from the NRL at the end of the year. The causes? Death threats so serious the police got involved in New Zealand and Australia, and the endless criticism of referees in 2018.

It’s plain sad that the finest whistleblower in the NRL has been forced from the competition. And it’s an indictment on rugby league as a whole.

It was only on Monday that there were two columns on this very website coming out in support of our referees, one penned by Ryan O’Connell, the other by Mary Konstantopoulos. But the news around Cecchin has brought the issue back into focus – not that talking about referees has ever really been out of vogue this year.

Twitter has always been awash with criticism of the decisions made on the field, but this season has seen that whinging and moaning spread about by some of the game’s highest-profile commentators as well. What was once the domain of the disgruntled fan for an hour or two after a game became bread and butter stuff for Friday night monologues and Monday morning columns.

It’s hardly a great shock, then, that a high-profile referee has decided to call it quits.

Matt Cecchin

Matt Cecchin is a big loss for the NRL. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

What we shouldn’t do, though, is mistake this for an issue caused solely by a few well-known media antagonists; our problem with referees extends far beyond the realms of professional sport.


Head down to your local ground this weekend and you’ll find a handful of uniformed men and women (and boys and girls), whistle in hand. They might be volunteers, they might not be – either way, they certainly won’t be getting paid much, yet they’re as important to their sport of choice as anyone else there.

I guarantee you the vast majority of those referees have been subjected to some vile abuse for a decision they’ve made at one time or another, whether by a player standing on the field, a coach sitting on the bench, or a parent standing on the sideline. Those who haven’t been on the receiving end of such rubbish yet probably will be in the future.

It’s a situation I’m familiar with. Instead of flipping burgers at Maccas, I ran around as a football referee to earn some extra pocket change while I was at high school.

Refereeing is a thankless gig. The stress that comes with making critical decisions is one thing, but the seemingly endless stream of dissent and accompanying insults is far worse. God knows what it’s like at a professional level. Unenviable, I would think.

Not every parent, player and coach is like that, of course. Plenty aren’t. But there are enough around who think having a crack at the ref is fair game – and many more who let such behaviour slide without any objection.

With that kind of culture at our local grounds, is it any surprise that there are people out there who think it’s fine to send sickening abuse the way of professional referees? And, to look at the flipside of that coin, why wouldn’t those on the sidelines every weekend think it’s okay to endlessly criticise the ref when that’s what some high-profile commentators and coaches do?

Fans abuse the referees as they leave the ground

Dealing with referees: exactly how not to do it. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

This isn’t to say you should never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, complain about refereeing decisions. Sport is a passionate business and sometimes that emotion is going to be directed at the game’s adjudicators.


Nor must referees to be free from critique and consequence. Just like anyone else in professional sport, we should expect the best from them.

Currently, though, there’s one set of standards for professional referees and another for players.

We’ll forgive players for a knock-on, let the odd penalty slide, and look past a missed tackle or two. But god help the poor referee who backs him or herself and makes a tough decision, or misses a forward pass, or calls a strip that wasn’t, or, well, does just about anything that isn’t absolutely perfect.

Hell, in Cecchin’s case, getting the decision right didn’t matter to the pea-brained idiots who decided to threaten his life.

It’s been said ad nauseam, but I’ll add one more voice to the chorus: much as we’d like them to be blessed with unerring, robotic accuracy (and most of them are pretty damn good anyway) referees are human.

They deserve to be treated as such, to be forgiven for the errors they will make here and there, whether that’s in the last second of a World Cup semi-final or on a patchy old paddock on a Saturday arvo.

So, when your team loses next, don’t blame the referees because your mob wasn’t good enough to get the job done. They probably made more mistakes than the men in the middle anyway.

And when you go down to watch your kid play this morning, or lace the boots up yourself this weekend, cut the refs some slack. Say thanks. Shake their hands, stop to have a chat with them. Your sport will be better for it.