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No referee no game! do we need a more compassionate response to the referee in the middle?

​​October 28, 2019

Cardiff Metropolitan University
Nigel Owens, referee 

As we move beyond the pool stages of the World Cup and into the 'do or die' matches of finals rugby the pressure on the players and coaches has received much attention.  Michael Cheika, Wallabies Coach left his post of five years within 24 hours of his team's quarter final loss to a disciplined Welsh Team.  The Wallabies boss, as with all coaches are compelled to face the throngs of media post match and expose themselves to immediate scrutiny about the rights or wrongs of their team's performance.  

For Cheika, and as Rugby World Cup history tells us, many others before him at this stage of finals also face the dark question of 'resignation'!  Rugby and all sports talk about coaches 'dying-by-the-sword' and this is not far from the truth. Research tells us for many coaches the transition away from international rugby is a challenging one, resulting in periods of low mood and even a post-failure based depression.   What was surprising about Cheika's  response however to the `resignation' question was his call for 'compassion'.

'Compassion' not a word commonly associated with sport, yet this World Cup seems to have shone a light on the good and bad of the Rugby 'humanity'.  The scenes of the Canadian Rugby Team helping the local community in Kamaishi recover from Typhoon Hagibis after their final Rugby World Cup match against Namibia was canceled, helps us make to make sense of the role compassion can play in sport. Their emotional response to perceiving suffering and their authentic desire to help the citizens of Kamaishi illustrates a basic desire for a common humanity based on kindness, altruism and empathy. 

Yet our sense of compassion seems to desert us when we enter the turnstiles, turn on the TV, flick the radio on, and this is particularly the case when we consider the referee in the middle. This weeks Rugby World Cup headlines have centred on the 'de-selection' of Jaco Peyper, the South African Referee who controlled the Wales quarter final clash with France. Peyper got virtually every big call right during the quarter-final and has been one of the outstanding referees in the tournament, yet he was reportedly 'sacked' from a World Cup semi-final appointment for a 'photograph' with Welsh Fans at a train station. Without debating the rights or wrongs of the picture it should make us consider our view of the man in the middle.  

Across sport we seem to have permitted a vilification of the role of the referee, legitimising a non-compassionate view based on a lack of tolerance for anything that falls short of 'perfection'.  This has been further highlighted this week by South African fans demanding the removal of referee Jerome Garces from taking charge of their Rugby World Cup semi-final with Wales. An online petition has been started calling on World Cup managing director and World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper to take the game away from the highly-rated French official and for what, because statistics demonstrate that South Africa has lost more games when he has been in control.

In the benign our immediate response to shout at a referee for what we consider to be a poor decision is a view lost in the stadium's cacophony of other noise.  At the extreme it is the referee and their family being trolled through social media with verbal threats of physical harm. We owe referees compassion - Research into refereeing highlights the intense role demands and 'heavy' psychological loading they face which result in poor psychological well-being and adverse mental ill health experiences. Referees are walking away (sprinting away) from the game at all levels as the only viable means to protect their mental health.  Without a more compassionate response from the rugby community the game itself is at harm. The rugby World Cup should be a show case of the wider rugby community including referees, it's primary purpose is to promote rugby to a wider audience as a game for all.  It will be a shame if this World Cup is remembered for failing to protect the mental health and wellbeing of the referees.

Dr Mikel Mellick is a Senior Lecturer In Athlete Mental Health and current researcher into the Mental ill health experiences of elite referees.  Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences, Cardiff Metropolitan University.