Issue #154 Respect / Response

As told by Michael Wood

The Football League has a new set of rules to cope with the “unacceptable levels” of “intolerable behaviour” by players and managers in English football.

Ad absurdum these new rules mean that players can be booked for bumping into the Referee but more practically they give the officials the power send players off for swearing at them or insulting them.

Which is unarguable on the surface and few people would suggest that anyone should have to put up with abuse, insults and swearing directed towards them. Of course the Football League is not going to do anything within the context of the laws of the game to prevent players from being the object of this – racist abuse supporters is entirely a Police matter – and when it gets onto the field we they prefer to punish the victim.

The detail is more murky. Reading the list some of the enumerated offences are practically useful to stop match officials from being insulted and abused but, smuggled within those, are offences created to stop players from questioning or disagreeing with decisions.

Take the unclear working “visibly disrespectful behaviour to any match official” and imagine a defender who has seen a forward dive over his withdrawn leg to win a penalty. The double hand swallow dive mime is a direct question to the authority of the Referee who has given the incorrect decision but should it be a yellow card offence? It is now.

As is banging the floor hard when a forward is brought down and believes he should have had a penalty but sees the Referee wave play on. Smash the ground with your fist and of course what you are doing is questioning the Referee’s decision but is that a bad thing?

What is the ethical merit of never questioning Referees? Why is it virtuous for players to accept every decision as correct even when they may know better than the official that it is not? Everyone knows the practical benefits of an unquestioned autocracy but few welcome it in other areas of life.

It is not as if the match officials are never wrong. Ask the better ones and they will tell players they are often wrong but try to be right as often as they can be. Those Referees seem to be the ones which players respect.

Which is, in the end, the root of these new laws. The dual belief that match officials are drowned in a sea of disrespect and a misguided sense of how respect can be forced into players. On the former point one could be excused for thinking that events at Bradford City games are drastically different from the rest of football.

One struggles to remember any significant incidents of abuse of officials worthy of the name at City matches going back years. I’m sure they hear the odd bad word and that some of them are directed at them but nothing that stopped them doing the job as evidenced by the fact that no games descended into chaos or anything similar.

This idea that football is awash with disrespect of officials at the professional level to the point where it is obvious to supporters – and thus that it could make a difference as an example at other levels of football – is not true. Stamp out all disrespect from professional League One football and it would look exactly as it does now, unless you increase the definition of disrespect to include any questioning of a decision.

Which speaks to the idea that respect can be forced into footballers. It cannot.

Questioning a decision – and there are right and wrong ways to do that – is a natural reaction and one that a grown man is allowed to have. Football seems very much concerned with stopping this.

Referees seem very much concerned with stopping this as if stopping anyone showing what they consider to be disrespect means that there is no disrespect and, by extension, that they are respected.

But respect can’t be forced and if anyone in football wants to seriously think about respect as an issue then perhaps they should consider the inherent lack of respect with which football treats the players. They are told not not even think that that the Referee could be wrong.

Referees are not Headmasters. They have the responsibility for enforcing the laws of the game but that is where their role stops. They are not responsible for the behaviour of the players just for enforcing the laws when behaviour transgresses those rules.

From today they can be booked – told off – for banging their fists on the floor in frustration at a wrong decision.

Footballers are treated like children and these new guidelines smuggle in more ways to tell them off for questioning as if they were kids to an demanding father.

Maybe changing that is where respect should start.