A strongly-worded letter from Bay of Plenty Rugby Union chiefs to all clubs and schools asking them to clean up their act on the sideline abuse of match officials has had a positive effect, says Bay referees chairman David Hodgson.
In the letter, sent out on June 13, chief executive Mike Rogers and president Phil Barnett voiced particular concern about the frequent instances of abuse directed at their volunteer referees.
“This behaviour is totally unacceptable and an embarrassment for all of us involved in our game,” they wrote.
“Our volunteer referees have been instructed to not tolerate abuse directed at them and to report any instances to the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union where we follow New Zealand Rugby disciplinary procedures. It is not a player, coach, manager, supporter or any person’s right to abuse referees or officials.
“This behaviour must stop.”
The letter has gone viral, with a number of shares on Facebook, including by Taranaki Rugby referees.
“The reach of the letter has been really pleasing for us,” Mike says. “We want to support our volunteers and we want our environment to be safe and enjoyable.”
He says they’re prepared to back up their strong words with action. “If there’s individuals who contribute to an unsafe environment then we don’t want them involved in our game.”
David says the picture has worsened recently, but since the letter was sent out, his members have noticed an improvement.
“I think it would be fair to say in recent weeks we’ve seen a bit of a spike in match official abuse situations occurring.
“We’re regularly faced with referee abuse. There’s been a couple of difficult ones where the abuse has continued off the rugby field.
“The comment that I’ve had, however, from a number of referees is that in the majority of cases there had been a noticeable improvement (following the letter).”
David says his members appreciate the stand Mike Rogers and the Bay of Plenty union have made.
“We’ve tried to turn this whole thing into a positive and I think Mike Rogers’ letter going out has had a positive outcome in the response we’ve had to it. It’s brought it out into the open.
“We haven’t had some of the situations they’ve had in other provincial unions, where they’ve had physical violence. We haven’t got to that.
“And it’s really good from a referees’ perspective that we know we’ve got the 100 per cent support from the union.”
The communication with clubs and schools is part of Bay of Plenty Rugby’s wide-ranging strategy to deal with the problem. Initiatives include enhanced training for referee recruits, visual reminders at matches that officials are volunteering their time and sideline support for newbies.
“When we know a new referee or a young referee is going out there, we try to make sure there is support in one form or another,” says David.
“We’ll put a coach or a senior referee with them just to be there for support.”
Counselling is now also available to referees who suffer abuse.
“Within our group now we’ve got a professionally trained clinical psychologist, so he’s making his services available to referees that have suffered abuse,” he says.
“We’re going to make that mandatory so when referees suffer abuse he’ll follow through to make sure they’re okay.”
“The support from the union is exceptional,” says Tauranga grassroots referee Richard Brown. “Their programme is incredibly professional.”
In his six years with the whistle, Richard says he’s never had to deal with serious abuse. He says he’s perhaps fortunate that he has a thick skin, but the minor attacks he faces don’t put him off.
“Refereeing is just a great way to stay in the game and stay fit,” he says.
“It’s a great vehicle to teach values. I coach two teams as well as referee. I look at refereeing as being able to help me in a coaching role as well, so I understand the game better and have a wider view of the game.”
Having some understanding of where players and supporters are coming from helps him deal with any issues, he says.
“As a former player I made referees earn their stripes and I pushed the boundaries and this is another opportunity to repent, basically.”
He would ‘absolutely’ encourage anyone thinking of taking up refereeing to give it a go.
“It’s incredibly rewarding. As with all sports it’s just a really good vehicle to teach values.”
One further initiative David Hodgson would like to see is the onus put on home teams to take more control.
“Club and school officials need to be on the sidelines managing things. I’ve been promoting for some time that the host team need to be proactive in that regard.”
Referees are out there on their own doing the very best they can, he says.
“Yes we make mistakes, but we don’t go out there to make mistakes, we do our very best to be fair.”