OPINION: Does Rugby League have a growing respect problem?

Once upon a time, there wasn’t a day you could go without someone rightly pointing out Rugby League’s magnificent approach to respect.

It was one of several core fundamentals the game could pride itself on – and there were comparisons drawn towards football in how well the game at all levels handled itself when it came to officiating and how to deal with referees.

But recently, there is a grim undertone developing in the sport at elite level, where the respect issue seems to be fading: not so much on it, as the players are generally still very good, but more off it.

It’s important to point out from the word go that it’s not so much the players who are the problem when it comes to Rugby League’s respect issue, but everyone else. Again, there are many who are still conducting themselves impeccably, but the problem seems to be growing at a worrying rate.

This is not a defence of referees; in this writer’s opinion, they should be completely open to criticism and feedback just like players, coaches and everyone else. But the abuse they are getting lately seems to be worse than ever before.

Last Friday’s game between Widnes and Wakefield seemed to be the match which magnified that. Again, it’s imperative to point something out: this is not an attack on Widnes Vikings in particular – this is a growing game-wide problem. Denis Betts’ comments about referee Joe Cobb will almost certainly land him a fine from the RFL, but as Sky Sports’ Brian Carney put it online earlier this week: “The RFL can forget about claiming to protect referees if they don’t eliminate that type of unfair, bullying and factually incorrect type of verbal assault on a referee.”

Carney is right: the RFL must act and show that they are upholding their respect policy to match officials. In a sport which is plagued with too few referees at the elite level already thanks to a multitude of reasons, comments like Betts’ could seriously put off younger referees unless the RFL show they are prepared to defend their refs. Cobb is not officiating this weekend incidentally but, according to Carney and Rod Studd on the Rugby League Renegades podcast, that is because Cobb is otherwise engaged, something pre-arranged by official and governing body – and something TotalRL has chased up with the game’s governing body.

But it gets worse.

In an interview with James Child in last year’s Rugby League World magazine, he discussed the usage of social media with me at length, and how he has been forced to deactivate his personal accounts online.

Remember Ask The Ref, that innovative and unique way for officials to discuss decisions with fans? It was stopped at the end of this year and Child said last year: “I wouldn’t dream of looking at the comments we get sent.” I took time when it was run on a weekly basis last year to look at some of the responses when officials admitted they were making mistakes, and it was horrific. If you were even slightly sensitive to online criticism, you’d never open Twitter again.

Some match officials are still on social media platforms like Twitter, but to go back to the Widnes-Wakefield match – in which Cobb issued five cards during an ill-tempered contest – he received some horrific abuse online. Search for “Cobb disgrace” on Twitter and you’ll get a feel for what was going on. I’m not a sponsor for the RL Renegades podcast, but Carney and Studd go into this in good detail this week, and it’s a fascinating listen.

If this kind of abuse keeps going, it will only drive more and more officials away from the sport. Again, this isn’t a staunch defence of officials – as they make mistakes like the rest of us – but try having a game of Rugby League without a man in the middle. You’ll find it’s rather impossible.

Referees are human, they make mistakes like we all do. It’s time the sport gave itself a good shake and tried to address the respect issue because if they don’t, it’ll get out of control quickly.