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Abuse is Not in a Day’s Work – The FA and RFU Crack Down


Abuse of Match Officials has been a rising problem for a number of years. Two high-profile rugby officials, Wayne Barnes and Tom Foley, recently stepped away from the sport following abuse on social media. Mr Barnes announced his retirement following his appearance at the World Cup final last year. He received numerous death threats and warnings, including threats to burn down his house and threats that his wife and children would be killed. Mr Foley announced his retirement a month after Mr Barnes, following what he described as a “torrent of criticism and abuse online”. Football referee Anthony Taylor and his family were subjected to abuse as he boarded a flight home from the Europa League Final in Budapest in May 2023, with Roma fans being filmed hurling abuse and objects at him.  The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) said that it was appalled by the “unjustified and abhorrent” abuse he faced.

Clearly abuse of any form against Match Officials is unacceptable. Not only does it lead to poor retention of Match Officials, but is a deterrent for those considering taking up a position as an Official. This article explores the way two well-established regulatory bodies are defining Match Official abuse and attempting to tackle the issue.

The Football Association (“FA”)

The FA published its first Annual Grassroots Disciplinary Review on 19 December 2023, providing an insight into all misconduct types which were overseen by the FA’s Grassroots Discipline Team during the 2022/23 season.

The review contained some eye-opening statistics. In the 2022/23 season, there were 1451 serious offences against Match Officials. This included: 72 allegations relating to actual or attempted assaults; 291 allegations relating to physical contact or attempted physical contact; and 988 allegations relating to threats.

The review confirmed the extension of the ‘Body Cam’ trial, stating:

since the trial began, there have been no allegations of misconduct against a match official, by the match officials who wear the cameras. On that basis, we are looking to expand the pilot even further to create a greater sample size to prove the concept that match officials wearing body worn cameras, does indeed reduce misconduct and where it doesn’t prevent misconduct, it gives greater evidence to the County Football Association when bringing disciplinary proceedings”.

Further, the review introduced point deductions for teams across the grassroots game from the start of the 2023/24 season where players or coaches committed repeated offences of serious misconduct. Deductions range from 3 to 12 points depending on the number of breaches within 12 months of the team’s first offence and the severity of the case(s).

The Rugby Federation Union (“RFU”)

The RFU has recognised that Match Official abuse can take a number of different forms and that eradicating such abuse is essential to maintaining the game’s ethos and core values. A Match Official survey was conducted in 2022 and 2023, which revealed that 49% of Match Officials were abused in the previous season.

On 1 January 2024, the RFU Head of Judiciary, Richard Whittam KC, issued guidance to all disciplinary panels to the effect that any instance of Match Official abuse would be subject to mandatory aggravation of any sanction by a set number of weeks depending on the level of the offence. Statistics proved that 18% of all disciplinary cases were related to Match Official abuse.

The RFU disciplinary process distinguishes between five categories of Match Official abuse, each within their own range of available disciplinary sanctions. All five categories of ‘on field’ Match Official abuse are catered for by Law 9.28 of the World Rugby Laws of the Game. The categories are laid out in the document ‘Match Official Abuse – A Guide for Referees’ and as follows:

  1. Disrespecting the authority of the Match Official

This is referred to as ‘dissent’ rather than abuse. The difference is that it involves a questioning of a decision. Comments such as “Are you fucking serious?”, or “Are you having a laugh” would count as disrespecting the authority of the Match Official.  The discipline statistics from surveys conducted in 2022 and 2023 showed that the largest category of offences against match officials involved dissent.

  1. Verbal abuse

Abuse is considered verbal abuse when the offender uses ‘Foul or offensive language in comments aimed directly at the Match Official’. Examples include “You’re a cheat”, or “You’re fucking pathetic”.

  1. Using threatening actions or words towards Match Officials

This occurs where a specific threat is made to the Match Official either verbally or by physical gesture, but there is no physical contact made. Examples given include “I’m going to punch your lights out”.

  1. Making physical contact with a Match Official

This is referred to as ‘making incidental contact with a Match Official’ and is when there is contact which is more than merely accidental. Examples given include a player moving the referee out of the way at a breakdown. A referee may initially apologise for their positioning, but this does not prevent a charge being issued on review.

  1. Physical abuse of a Match Official

This would be when the offender intentionally makes physical contact with the Match Official. They would need to make physical contact which could not be categorised as merely reckless, careless or purely accidental.


RFU Regulation 19, Discipline (Appendix 2) sets out the sanction entry points. There are three entry points in total, ‘Low-end’, ‘Mid-range’ and ‘Top-end’. In order to provide an additional deterrent, from 1 January 2024, any offence contrary to Law 9.28 is aggravated in accordance with RFU Regulation 19.11.3(b) as follows:

  • Low-end, by 2 weeks
  • Mid-range, by 3 weeks
  • Top-end (whatever starting point is determined), by 4 weeks. 

The new start of play

The FA and the RFU are clearly paving the way to establish that Match Official abuse is unacceptable and will be taken seriously by the regulators. It will be interesting to see a comparison of statistics at the end of the 2024 season, to analyse whether stronger sanctions have acted as a deterrent to abuse and whether there has been an improvement on the retention and recruitment of Match Officials.


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