Lee Duffield

Edited by Lee Duffield
Freedom and Truth

Terrified league refs want protection

Rugby league referee Belinda Sleeman often feels intimidated by violent players and spectators.

Rugby league referee Belinda Sleeman says she often feels intimidated by aggressive players and spectators.

Death threats and physical violence have prompted some rugby league referees in south-east Queensland to call for greater levels of security at junior and senior club games.

They say a spate of physical and verbal abuse towards club-level referees this season has many whistleblowers scared for their safety and wanting immediate action.

All NRL referees are escorted by security guards to and from the video referee box.

This is the type of protection referees at local junior and senior clubs are now seeking.

Darren Winningham, the south-east division coordinator of Queensland Rugby League Referees, said he had received a number of complaints from referees this season.

“Levels of violence in games seem to be escalating,” he said.

“More often than not it is placing our referees often in very difficult and dangerous positions.

“Fans and spectators, and this is just at club level I’m talking, are very, very passionate.

“As a result I’ve had an abnormally large number of complaints from my guys.

“Verbal abuse they can cop a bit of, although they shouldn’t have to.

“But I’m hearing of more and more physical encounters.”

Winningham said the abuse epidemic sweeping the code was one of the most difficult challenges facing the sport.

In June this year, an extreme case in Rockhampton rocked the junior league community.

Whistleblower Adam Hudson was hit in the head with a tennis ball-sized rock during a game, fracturing his skull.

In another incident this year, a player in Ipswich was also banned for five years after shoulder-charging a referee.

Winningham said these types of incidents were why he supports calls for increased protection at a local level.

“Given the cases we’ve seen this year, I believe it’s completely justified,” he said.

“People just don’t want to do the job because they see these things happening.

“To retain these people that are so vital to our game, we need to be doing something about these issues and fast.”

First hand experience

Brisbane based-referee Belinda Sleeman, 22, believes she is just one of many whistleblowers potentially in danger of what is a growing setback to the game.

Earlier this year, a rowdy male spectator made a death threat against her.

She was escorted from the field by security and ground controllers escorted the man from the Ipswich grounds.

“I really feared for my life,” Miss Sleeman said.

“I’m not usually one to complain – you have to be able to cop a bit of flack to be a ref – it comes with the job.

“It didn’t just sound like one of those empty threats – it was scary.

“This year was the worst I’ve seen it in regard to violence.

“Parents, players, spectators, coach, just out of control.”

Miss Sleeman says she has called off more than 10 games this year.

She says those games could have escalated into a situation which put her own safety, or that of the players, coaches and spectators at risk.

Previously, she has only ever called off two games in the past four years.

‘Zero tolerance’ policy

One association which says  it is leading the way with protecting referees is the Ipswich Junior Rugby League (IJRL).

This year, the IJRL introduced a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for behaviour on and off the field.

This already resulted in the banning of one footy-dad two weeks ago.

The same week, the IJRL decided to move the players’ bench to the opposite side of the field, away from the spectators.

IJRL chairman Brendan Bowers said this was to reduce the friction between players and spectators.

“We doing everything we can to give refs a fair go,” Mr Bowers said.

“We don’t believe we have a high rate of incidents, but we are trying to do everything we can to prevent those that do.”

He says the new measures also help the IJRL curb costs.

“Providing security escorts to every referee at every venue is just not a viable option,” Mr Bowers said.

“We don’t have the funds available to pay those kind of people required.

“If it were volunteers we were talking about, that is just hundreds of hands we don’t have.”