Attacks on sports referees are abnormally normal

Binary thinking about referees feeds into polarisation, aggression and violence

Referee Daniel Sweeney was assaulted after a match in Horseleap, on the Offaly/Westmeath border, between Horseleap United and Mullingar Town. His jaw was broken in two places, his eye socket was fractured and he had to get multiple stitches in his nose.

Referee Daniel Sweeney was assaulted after a match in Horseleap, on the Offaly/Westmeath border, between Horseleap United and Mullingar Town. His jaw was broken in two places, his eye socket was fractured and he had to get multiple stitches in his nose.

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The “beautiful game” – the nickname for soccer, popularised by Pelé – is for many a source of joy, health and happiness. And it is this, the Irish Soccer Referees Society tells us, that motivates people such as Daniel Sweeney to referee week in, week out at amateur fixtures, come rain or shine. Without referees there is no beautiful game.

We are aware at some level that refereeing is a thankless task. Before we start pointing the finger at the few bad apples, let’s think about how much we all routinely undermine referees. Find me the international soccer or rugby match where the referee isn’t subjected to allegations of bias or incompetence by supporters of both teams. Reports from minor matches indicate that GAA and soccer referees are regularly dealing with difficulties of this type from parents. That said, since Sunday refereeing has been upgraded to a risk sport. Sweeney was left with a broken jaw and fractured eye socket last weekend after refereeing an amateur game.

There are many psychological explanations of aggressive behaviour of the type that left Sweeney hospitalised. Studies in criminology indicate that serial killers usually have a track record of escalating offences. Mass shooters often have a previous record of violence against women. Previous aggressive behaviour left unchecked can allow the aggressor to feel that their behaviour is warranted or even acceptable. The absence of a clear line in the sand that distinguishes between verbal aggression, jostling and overt physical aggression can facilitate violence. In short, aggressive behaviour generally escalates over time. And this escalation is socially facilitated.

Binary thinking

There are particular conditions under which aggression and violence are likely to occur. In the postwar period, European psychologists took to studying the conditions that had facilitated the terrible acts of violence that had accompanied the second World War. Key characteristics of contexts that are ripe for conflict and violence are strong oppositional identities and competition orientated towards a zero-sum game. This results in binary thinking and polarised positions. In these zero-sum contexts, if you are not with us you are against us. Referees, rather than being seen as independent arbiters, are construed as the extra person on the other team. We all know this effect. We remember it from the Ireland v France 2009 football game: “The ref may as well have been wearing a French jersey.”

That said, it is worth remembering that the events of the weekend occurred at an amateur game, not an international one. Yet it was high stakes for the players. And reports from around the country suggest increasingly unpleasant incidents at minor games. And this scourge extends into GAA and rugby games. Indeed, if these are amateur games it really is very serious.

It brings to mind the Bill Shankly quote: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s more serious than that.” Comments such as these are made and validated because, for some – for many, even – who we are can be bound up in club, school, county and country. So much so that sometimes, in social psychological parlance, the fortunes and misfortunes of the team can feel very, very personal. Any threat to my team is felt as a direct attack. And if we feel we are being attacked, one response is to fight back. And so under conditions where feelings of threat are high conflict often ensues. In this regard, it is no wonder football is no stranger to violence.

Physiological arousal

And so all of this helps us understand the conditions that might allow violence against referees to become a problem. Aggressive behaviour of this sort has blighted the game for many years, but equally it is not everyday. It is de-escalated regularly. How can we explain the escalation in the heat of the moment? In any field of sport, players are physiologically aroused. Physiological arousal is essential to optimal sporting performance. But physiological arousal is also central to the experience of emotion. We often say “emotions were running high” with reference to sport. In fact, felt emotions cause further physiological arousal.

So the physiological response to exercise, combined with the emotion associated with the red card and suspension of the Horseleap United and Mullingar Town players, is a heady mix. In such a situation, people search for cues to label the heightened physiological arousal they are experiencing.

Psychologists sometimes reduce the complexity of human emotional experience to four categories: mad, sad, glad or scared. Of the four, research suggests that mad is the emotion that many men are most familiar and comfortable with and the one, for men, that is most socially acceptable.

And so, in the heat of the moment, when the stakes were perceived as high, the situation was polarised, the referee reclassified as on the opposing team, in all likelihood the aggressors acted spontaneously intuitively in defence of their team. I am not justifying this behaviour: it is an abnormal normality.

Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at the University of Limerick

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