Referee Joe Stearne, who is recovering after having recently been assaulted in an amateur game, has spoken of his concern over the increasing abuse of match officials, particularly on social media.
And he has revealed that last month’s incident during a National Conference League fixture between Milford and Oulton, for which home player Josh Nathaniel has been banned sine die by NCL bosses, was not the first time he had been attacked during a match.
The 25-year-old Grade One Castleford whistler, speaking to Rugby-League.com, said: “I played at Lock Lane Under 6s/7s, and had a spell at Cas Panthers, before a refereeing course came up when I was around thirteen.
“Gradually the refereeing took over. We’d train at the South Leeds Stadium, 40 or 50 of us, with the likes of Ben Thaler, John Holdsworth and Paul Crashley and it was good to be around that environment.
“I did my first open age game when I was 16 and that was tough – but I stuck with it and managed to work my way up the RFL ladder.”
He continued: “In 2014 I was refereeing a BARLA Cup semi-final between Lock Lane and East Leeds when with about 15 minutes to go a big brawl kicked off. I calmed it all down but one of the players attacked me, stamped all over me and knocked me clean out.
“I took a fair bit of time away from matches after that, although I still went to training, just to be around the lads – more to keep me sane really. It was probably about 16 months before I refereed again but I didn’t look back really and got promoted to Grade 1.
“Then Covid came so I didn’t referee at all last year, but touch-judged a few times.”
Then came the build-up to last month’s incident. “I only did a couple of games this year, and then found out my partner was poorly, and took some time away,” said Joe, “but I decided to come back to refereeing to give myself something else to focus on. I’d only done three games when I refereed at Milford and got attacked again.
“Milford and Oulton couldn’t have done much more in terms of splitting it up and making sure I was all right. I must have had 300-400 messages, so the support’s definitely been there. I’ve spoken to Sporting Chance, to Rugby League Cares, and to the Match Officials people at the RFL.
“I broke my nose and got a few scratches – luckily other players got in there to stop anything worse. I don’t really know where I’ll go from here. I’ll speak to my family and see whether I’ll progress, and if I do carry on refereeing, to what standard. From what I’ve dealt with in the past, and what I’ve got going on in my life now, and what I do as job as a prison officer, it’s probably given me a bit of resilience to handle it and talk about it.”
He reflected: “The main message is that referees are human beings, like everyone else.
“You’ve only got to go on social media after you’ve watched a TV game and the abuse the guys get, it’s ludicrous really that they think we care about the result – we’re turning up to do a job, we’re not bothered who wins or loses.
“I do think this all starts from the top level of the game. People need to realise that there’s kids games every weekend struggling for referees, and you’ve got to look at why. You get abuse at games, and people don’t just leave it there now, it’s all over social media – you stand at a kids’ game and listen to some of the parents, and they’ll be the same ones bagging the referee that’s on telly.
“It’s definitely costing us referees. Most of us keep going, but some walk away because of the nature of the abuse we receive on a week-to-week basis – and we can’t afford for that to keep happening.”
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.