From breakdowns to death threats - the reality of referee abuse from the sidelines

By Te Ao with MOANA

This week on Te Ao with Moana, reporter Hikurangi Jackson investigates the rise in referee abuse in rugby, and the emotional toll the abuse brings with it.

The camera slowly zooms in on a young man in footy garb crouched down on the grass, his head buried in his left arm. A person is hovering on his left, patting his back, consoling him.

This video captured the immediate moment after a young referee was abused from the sidelines on an Auckland rugby field earlier this year. After it was posted to social media, it went viral.

The man in the video was 20-year-old Joseph Green. He’s been a referee since he was 14, and he’s got big dreams of refereeing the NRL one day.

But he says the experience that preceded the moment captured by the viral video was enough to make him want to leave the game for good.

“When you’ve got like 20, 30 people just pretty much abusing you, saying everything under the sun, you know, it’s a pretty daunting thing to face,” Green says.

He had to take a few weeks off after the incident, and he says it took a big toll.

“Like, life just got real dark… it still affects me today, to be honest.”

Even death threats

Jackson Reuben-Swinton has also experienced his fair share of sideline abuse from being a referee for over two decades.

He says he’s been the target of racist abuse and, recently, he’s even received death threats.

“It was continuous ... things like, ‘if he comes back to our marae, we’re going to run him over’, and ‘he better not come near us, we’re going to kill him’, things like that,” Reuben-Swinton explains.

After that particular game, he says he had to sit down with his whanau to reassess whether it was worth continuing as a referee.

“I'd be lying if I said it didn't mess with my mental health … there was a gap there where I was actually nervous to go back to that club.”

Refereeing at elite levels can carry even greater risk, as every decision made is magnified by the TV.

“You’ve got tens of thousands of people watching the game and every single one of those people that are watching it are watching it through the colours of their team,” says Henry Perenara, who, after retiring as an NRL player in 2007, became a referee in 2011. 

Offputting for young referees

He recalls the infamous match between the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs and the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2015, in which he watched angry spectators in the stands fling plastic bottles at his referee colleagues, who were surrounded by security guards. 

For this reason, the presence of security guards at elite-level matches is a common occurrence. 

Perenara says abuse at any level is unacceptable but he worries that it can be offputting for young referees at the grassroots. He believes it’s critical to find ways to limit the abuse.

Twenty-year-old Green agrees.

While he hates that he was caught on camera in such a vulnerable moment, he’s grateful that the widespread sharing of the video has helped raise awareness about the impact of referee abuse.

Reuben-Swinton says it’s important for referees to speak out about their experiences and not bottle it up, and he hopes spectators will start to understand that referees are humans who just sometimes make mistakes.

“Behind the whistle … is actually a person who has feelings, who deals with mental health, who has kids who are on the sideline listening to the kōrero that is being said.”