Politicians seek to withhold funding if referee abuse continues

‘Twitter has failed spectacularly in this area,’ Senator tells committee, while another claims situation is worse in underage sports

With a mighty swing for the fences, the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media is seeking the “elimination of any and all abuse directed toward referees, officials and players in sport”.

The committee is not looking to temper what has become an epidemic of abuse, particularly online bullying and parental interaction with refs, but are seeking a complete removal of “any and all” incidents.

“These are just recommendations,” said TD Imelda Munster before stating that Government grants should be withheld from sporting bodies that cannot protect officials and athletes.

The Sinn Féin representative for Louth went further by pointedly revisiting Sport Ireland’s handling of the FAI’s financial crisis under former CEO John Delaney.

“Sport Ireland, we’ve seen before, turned pretty much a blind eye to what was going on in the FAI,” said Munster. “They didn’t hold them to account until they were literally in the spotlight, and they had no choice but to start asking questions.

“We have to get back to that: your funding is gone, you are not getting it, unless you prove you are adhering to [anti-abusive] policies.”

How such an ultimatum can be carried out remains to be seen. One politician appearing at the report’s publication in Leinster House laid blame squarely at Twitter’s door. Another arrived in a retro Meath jersey.

“Things have changed since the time of the jersey I am wearing, 1986 and the style of play that was done,” said Senator Shane Cassells.

“But think back, why was this report initiated? It came about because last year there was a [referee] strike in the Dublin schoolboys and schoolgirls [soccer] league. We had around 550 games cancelled in November of last year. There was a serious issue.

“That’s the key point: [abuse] is more prevalent at underage games, where the real problem is, where the real abuse is. Think back to evidence that was given in the Dublin schoolboys scenario — it was actual vile abuse by coaches and parents towards the referees.”

Cassells sat beside TD Alan Dillon, a recently retired intercounty footballer, who expressed sorrow that “he didn’t get the memo from Shane to wear my Mayo jersey”.

“Twitter has failed spectacularly in this area,” went Senator Malcolm Byrne, “and it has become a toxic platform that allows [online] abuse to continue.”

Over to Elon Musk, who has repeatedly suggested his $44 billion purchase of the social media giant could be scuppered by Twitter claiming “bot” accounts only make up 5 per cent of its monetisable daily users. Musk believes it is closer to 20 per cent.

“There is clearly a systematic problem at the heart of that platform,” Byrne continued. “I would certainly like them to come out in the debate to hear what they are doing to combat online abuse of athletes and referees.”

Munster believes that officials feeling unsafe in voluntary and vital roles overseeing youth soccer, GAA and other field sports can only be solved via financial penalties.

“If the funding is linked [to combating abuse] that would be the biggest deterrent that we can think of at the minute.”

Again, how this might be achieved went largely unanswered. Of the committee’s 11 recommendations, number one is the appointment of a “sport ombudsman” while number six “recommends that all sports funding and grants administered by the Department of Sport require funded entities to provide evidence of the adoption of anti-discriminatory and anti-abusive policies”.

The wonder is how the Government or Sport Ireland could block funding to a national sports body that categorically states a “zero-tolerance” approach, as the FAI recently reiterated, when referees are abused.

“We have to have the message sent out that if you are not playing ball, pardon the pun, you are not getting your funding,” Munster replied.

Has that message not existed for decades? “Possibly it has, but up until now there has been no real steadfast thing: you are not getting the funding. If anything goes out today it is the message that if you are not doing your best to stamp out [abuse], your funding is gone, forget about it.

“It has to get to that stage. Again, it is up to the department and Sport Ireland.”

Sport Ireland was offered the right of reply.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent