Sport has recently made headlines for the wrong reasons, with examples of participant misconduct becoming increasingly prevalent.

Manchester City is charged with a breach of FA Rule E20.1 (failing to ensure their players do not behave in a way that is improper) concerning its Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotspur on December 3, 2023, and, in more shocking scenes, the President of MKE Ankaragucu, whose club plays in the Turkish Super League, marched on to the pitch at the end of a match against Caykur Rizespor and punched the referee in the face.

This alarming event has raised multiple concerns, not least the message it sends to grassroots sports and the potential ramifications for the overall ethos of fair play and discipline in sports generally.

Implications for Grassroots Sports

The FA National Serious Case Panel on which I sit is busy, and I have adjudicated on several incidents, from physical abuse to assaults on match officials. Many charges are admitted or proven, with referees and/or assistants explaining that they felt intimidation and fear. Of particular concern is the frequency with which this occurs in youth football, more typically involving parents or guardians.

At the grassroots level, young athletes look up to professional players, coaches, and administrators as role models, and incidents of misconduct at the elite level reverberate down, which will shape young players’ understanding of fair play, respect, and discipline.

Impact on Officials

The incident in the Turkish football league highlights concerns about the safety and well-being of match officials, but sadly, the subject is not new. Referees play a pivotal role in football, and any act of violence is bound to deter individuals from taking up officiating at all levels. This threatens the quality and fairness of the sporting experience for all participants.

Educational Opportunities

Grassroot sports provide valuable educational opportunities for participants.  Beyond the physical aspects of the game, sport instills important life skills such as teamwork, respect, and resilience.  The incident in the Turkish football league serves as a high-profile reminder that the actions of those in leadership positions can either enhance or undermine these educational objectives.

Conclusion

Many consider misconduct to be a greater problem now than it has been in the past, but that approach should be tempered with an acknowledgement that governing bodies operate now with stronger governance and more clearly defined disciplinary codes and processes than before.

An assault on a referee at any level is extremely serious, not least because it can likely result in criminal proceedings. But from my personal experience of sitting on panels, whether in football or other sports, the impact of such incidents on grassroots sport cannot be understated, as they influence the development of players and raise critical questions about the state of discipline in sport.

It is imperative that governing bodies, clubs, and individuals in positions of authority take decisive actions to address and rectify such behaviour, ensuring that sports remain a platform for growth and fair competition.

However, participants must remember that beyond the serious sanctions that can be applied for breaching the rules of sport, the ordinary laws people obey and respect in everyday life apply, whether you have crossed the white line or not.

Frustration at the result or the quality of officiating will very rarely operate as a defence.