Is Mic’ing Up Referees the Long-term Antidote to Anti-social Behaviour?

Sport loves a milestone. On 10 June 2015, it will be one year before the start of Euro 2016 and 100 days before the start of the Rugby World Cup. This coincidence places two sports alongside one another that provokes as much debate as it does anticipation.

There's a playing field very close to where I live. Not a big field, but big enough to accommodate one football pitch that is positioned adjacent to a rugby pitch. I have often seen either one game or the other taking place but never both together… until the other day. Two matches being played side by side, both well supported by enthusiastic friends and families. That’s where the similarities end. The rugby match had 30 players in an intense physical encounter, respecting rules, obeying the referee. The football match had 22 players in a significantly less physical encounter, disrespecting rules, directing abuse at the referee. Both matches were being played by U12s!

One could not help but recall the marketing mantra of those who plug the importance of youth sport participation: “sport instils discipline and values that form lifelong learnings…” and so on. The chasm between football and rugby when it comes to respecting the authority of a referee is well documented but with Euro ’16 and a Rugby World Cup both on the horizon, spectating these two sports side-by-side felt more like a social experiment rather than a casual walk in the park.

So why do we think a young group of footballers aged 11 and 12 think it’s OK to run after the referee questioning his decision when less than 50 yards away, we see the very opposite on a rugby pitch? It stimulates a fascinating debate that is very much informed by the application of behavioural science. 

A learned colleague, Matt Battersby, is currently studying this subject at the London School of Economics and is creating a proprietorial behavioural insights model to help us better understand our clients’ audiences. So we got talking.

Social norms are very powerful as we are strongly influenced by what we see others do or seemingly approve of. For example, research has shown that one of the most effective ways to encourage people to reduce energy consumption is to provide a comparison of their energy usage with that of their neighbours on their energy bills. Unfortunately, at the moment the highly visible instances of footballers being abusive to referees are likely creating the impression that this behaviour is the norm so encouraging children to do the same when they play football”.

Of course, Matt is right. But why is rugby so different? Probably because from the first moment you start to play rugby, discipline and a respect for the referee is bred as a social norm. Take the brilliant example of legendary rugby union referee Nigel Owens disciplining Treviso scrum half Tobias Botes. Now compare this to the infamous example from 26 years ago when a UK current affairs programme placed an open mic on David Ellery, who was refereeing a match between Arsenal and Millwall. Football often displays a blatant disregard for authority whilst rugby embraces it.

Many would – and have – argued this is because referees in rugby wear open microphones. Being able to hear and understand why certain decisions have been made helps entertain and educate the audience. Crucially, it also allows fans to hear the interaction between players and officials, something being taken to the next level this autumn when every game at the 2015 Rugby World Cup is expected to have both RefLink and RefCam. The RFU is on record as saying football should have followed its initiative years ago. The Australian FA did try last April, only for their noble attempt to be pulled by FIFA.

Aggressive, petulant outbursts by role models create social norms but they also have the capacity to create shame when subsequently viewed by the offending player/s; and shame can have a significant impact on behaviour.

There is lots of evidence to show people behave better if they think they’re being observed” Battersby says. “Even merely hanging up posters of staring human eyes can change people’s behaviour. For example, an experiment in a University cafeteria showed that twice as many people were likely to clean up after themselves if there were posters of eyes on the walls rather than posters of flowers”.

There would certainly be shame in watching back a football match where any dialogue between player and referee contained more bleeps than audible conversation! After a difficult start, placing an open mic on football referees would inevitably lead to a positive change in behaviour amongst the players; that creates a new social norm of respecting the referees’ decision; that is observed by fans; who will start to mimic the same behaviours of their role models; that improves on-pitch discipline at all levels of the game; that has a positive impact on spectator behaviour too (no crowd segregation in rugby; significantly fewer arrests); and ultimately these improved behaviours transcend sport into everyday life.

By itself, mic’ing football referees is obviously not the answer to eliminating anti-social behaviour. But it would be a big step to answering the call for sport to become more open and transparent. Governing bodies, not just football, have long understood they are not just sport administrators; they’re agents of social change. Behavioural science helps us better understand why - and then how - to instigate such positive change and these changes bring commercial as well as social benefit: companies will find it much easier to be associated with sports that help amplify their own brand values, thereby increasing sponsorship revenues.

As Nick Timon said in his brilliant ‘Purpose By Powerpoint’ article, “… purpose is built on beliefs and beliefs are something that exist deep in your corporate DNA, they’re part of what you stand for and why you exist in the first place”. So for the good of its own commercial health and society at large, sport must demonstrate purpose not just talk it… and football talks a lot about ‘values’, ‘integrity’ and ‘building a better future’.

In all probability, the 12 year olds I watched in the park the other day would have behaved differently if football had decided to mic up referees after that David Ellery documentary was first broadcast in 1989.      


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