Violence against amateur referees – a football phenomenon | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 10.12.2019
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Violence against amateur referees – a football phenomenon

Reports of attacks against amateur football referees continue to surface in Germany. If the sole cause is society's increased exposure to violence, one would think that other team sports would be affected. A DW survey.

"I can deny that," answered Mark Schober, chairman of the board of the German Handball Federation (DHB), when asked by DW whether violence against amateur referees had increased in the sport in recent years. With almost 750,000 members, the DHB is the country's largest team sports federation after the German FA (DFB), which dwarfs it and every other sport in terms of membership (7.1 million). There are 20,000 qualified handball referees in Germany.

"Of course there have been isolated incidents of referees receiving abuse in handball too," Schober said. "We've got to take care of our officials. Our rules and regulations help achieve this. There are serious consequences for the culprits."

The DHB chairman believes that professional stars in the sport need to function as role models for youngsters and players at lower levels.

"Amateur players observe the behavior of Bundesliga coaches and see how they behave towards referees," he said. 

Handball has long had a two-minute penalty in the rulebook for coaches who are too confrontational in their complaints to the officials. When this happens, the team of the offending coach goes down a man (or woman) for the duration of the coach's penalty.

"This does have an effect," Schober said.

Volleyball Bundesliga | VfB Friedrichshafen - SWD powervolleys (picture-alliance/nordphoto/Kurth)

In volleyball, the distance of the official from the playing field is thought to help keep a lid on aggression

'More respect than is the case in football'

An informal DW survey of team sports associations in Germany produced a surprisingly uniform result. According the associations (apart from football) that responded, physical violence against amateur referees either does not occur at all or is a rare exception. There has also been no sign of an increase in recent years. However, verbal exchanges do occur from time to time.

A spokesperson for the German Volleyball Federation (DVV, roughly 410,000 members, 56,000 referees) described that sport's "worst" incident: A referee was approached as he left the changing room area and the culprit lashed out by kicking his suitcase.

"There was no physical altercation involved here though," the DVV spokesman said. Fair play is paramount in volleyball and it's not uncommon for players to alert referees to mistakes that are to their own disadvantage.

Basketball is the fourth most popular team sport in Germany in terms of membership, with roughly 210,000.

There have been "no cases of physical violence against referees reported," Professor Lothar Bösing of the University of Tübingen told DW. As vice-president of the German Basketball Federation (DBB), Bösing is responsible for the almost 10,500 active referees.

Occasional cases of verbal altercations in the sport are rigorously pursued, according to the DBB's vice president. However, comparisons cannot be drawn against the precarious situation of amateur referees in football.

"In my opinion, referees in basketball are held in higher esteem and more respected than is the case in football," Bösing said.

Early showers for culprits

Even in the case of team sports where physical contact is prevalent, amateur referees have no reason to fear for their safety.

Österreich Innsbruck | Das Schiedsrichter-Team bei der Euro Bowl XXVII im Tivoli-Stadion (picture-alliance/imageBROKER/H. Kratky)

American football referees always turn up in numbers

"This problem is completely unheard of in American Football," said Robert Huber, president of the American Football Federation of Germany (AFVD, 67,000 members, 1,200 referees).

Values such as fair play and respect are taught and learned from an early age in American football in Germany.

"Just touching the referee can lead to immediate expulsion from a game," continued Huber, who highlighted the factor of having five to seven referees for a single game of American football. "This means a referee is never alone, but part of a group. This definitely helps guard against hostility."

Like their American Football counterparts, ice hockey also features multiple referees for a single game – even at amateur level where there are three on-ice officials for under-20 matches, while games involving U-17s feature two referees.

"Physical violence against referees is not a problem that German ice hockey has been confronted with; in recent years there have been no such incidents," the German Ice Hockey Association (DEB, 20,600 members, roughly 1,200 referees) told DW.

Security guards are used to secure the dressing-room corridors, not just in Germany's top tier, but also in regional and junior leagues. Only the referees themselves are allowed to enter the referees' dressing room before, during, and after a game. There have been cases of referees being on the receiving end of verbal abuse, but the number or reports has not risen in recent years, according to the DEB. The referees are instructed to report any incidents directly to the association before the DEB disciplinary committee decides on the appropriate punishment.

No grip on emotions

Marion Sulprizio - Psychologin von der Deutschen Sporthochschule in Köln (Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln)

Marion Sulprizio of the DSHS

So why is it such a prevalent problem in football? Is it down to the increased exposure to violence that has become a part of modern society?

"From my point of view, it's all about having a grip on yours emotions. Not all footballers have the best control over their emotions," Marion Sulprizo, a psychologist at the German Sports University Cologne (DSHS) told DW.

"Perhaps there are more people in football who wear their heart on their sleeves, who attach importance to physicality, to being hard, to battling. In certain situations this can lead to people letting their tempers get out of control."

Sulprizo believes that football can learn from other sports "to treat others with more respect and that fair play can improve life on the whole, not just on the pitch. Everyone has a responsibility: coaches, players, officials and fans. You have to practice keeping your emotions under control. That seems to be easier in other sports than in football."

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