SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE A CRUEL mistress. Just ask James Child.
The abuse and harassment he has received in the course of his career as a professional Rugby League referee was enough to drive the 32-year-old offline, with the future of the RFL’s innovative ‘Ask The Ref’ feature on Twitter also potentially under threat for the same reason.
“I’m not on Twitter; I did have an account a few years ago but I simply had to get rid of it,” he told RLW.
“People found out my username and just constantly abused me for anything and everything, so I took myself away from it, it wasn’t right. The only access to Twitter I have is through Ask The Ref — but I don’t even read that account now because it just doesn’t do you any good.
“In all honesty it’s now just become a forum for people to abuse us.
“The criticism that we were originally faced with was that referees never speak to the media and they sit in the ‘ivory tower’ of Red Hall, so we decided to open ourselves up and communicate with people. It started really well and people engaged with us, but now, no matter what response we issue, people just tell us we’re wrong. I listened to Stephen Fry on the radio the other week and he mentioned how although he’s a prolific Twitter user, he never reads tweets because of the vitriol on there. That’s now what I do; I read the Ask The Ref feed but I wouldn’t dream of looking at the comments we get sent.”
Child openly admits that abuse on social media is hard to deal with, but he does think the game is making a concerted effort to drive it down on the field, even if there are some particularly bad incidents now and again.
“If you’re going to take up the whistle you know what to expect. It never really bothered me that much; there’s always been the odd occasion of course — I can think of a game when I was around 12 years old and I got abused quite badly. It was on the field all the way back to the changing rooms and it was vile to experience, and it was one of those days where you question why you’re doing this, and every referee will have had them.
“But ultimately you know when you come off the field whether you’ve officiated well or not, and you don’t need people to tell you otherwise.”
What concerns Child, one of the RFL’s senior full-time match officials, more is what impact the modern social media-driven world and several high-profile incidents on the field are having on the future of refereeing.
He is adamant that the levels of dissent and abuse are putting young referees off taking up the whistle, something he did when he was only 11.
“Definitely, it’s a problem,” he said.
“I was reading in Australia about an incident with the Fifita brothers at junior level. There is an allegation they abused a referee over something that happened in a game, and for that young referee — I think it was an under-15s game — to be hurled into the world media makes it tough for him and it makes it tough for aspiring young referees.”
Child is still involved with the referees’ society in Dewsbury, his hometown.
“I know referees who’ve packed it in and given it up because of abuse and it’s difficult because you’re never going to completely cut it out, but all you can try do is educate people on it.
“We’ve got to try to do more to protect referees because we don’t have enough, and we want more to try and drive standards up for people like me. If people think before they shout then that might happen.
“We have one of the largest societies in Dewsbury in terms of junior members but it could always be more.
“When they go off to university they don’t referee as much which doesn’t help, but dissent is a worry.”
Child’s own career beginning at such an early age is a rarity when compared to his peers; he started refereeing before he was a teenager and by the time he’d reached his mid-20s, he was running the line in some of the biggest games in the world — including the 2008 World Cup Final.
“I always used to go watch Dewsbury; their old ground was round the corner from where we lived, and kids always got in free at half-time. When I was at primary school we always used to take it in turns to referee because nobody wanted to do it — except me! I enjoyed it and it’s stuck since then. There was something in the local paper about young referees, I decided to give it a go and after writing to the RFL twice — they didn’t reply the first time — I got a letter back from Greg McCallum asking me to go on a refereeing course.
“I was identified for a trial match in 2006 and by the time it got to 2007 I’d become a Grade One referee, it was a pretty quick leap. Fast forward another year and I’m running the line in the World Cup Final, although I’d probably fallen a little bit lucky because they wanted to give new blood some big chances.
“In 2008 I’d already done Super League games, Challenge Cup Finals and a mid-season Test so I had experience, but this was on a whole other level. To be on the line in the final of the World Cup is what dreams are made of — but it doesn’t mean you’ve done everything. You then start to set an ambition to referee Challenge Cup Final and Super League Grand Final matches, something I’ve not done yet.
“I’ve still got plenty left to achieve.”
Child is a valuable commodity for the RFL in that he not only officiates, but he still runs the line as a touch-judge and takes up the hotseat as a video referee — although he much prefers to be out on the field than in the box for various reasons.
He said: “There’s no margin for error as a video referee; reasonable people will understand that as a referee on the field you get one look at something live and have to make a call.
“As video referee you can watch it as much as you want and you have to get it right — although we have made one or two mistakes this year. I once wore a heart rate monitor when I video refereed and my heart rate went from 60 to 120 — that’s just sitting down in a chair and not doing any physical exertion.
“It’s the intensity and pressure of making big decisions — that’s my average heart rate when I run the line in Super League, so that shows the pressure you’re under. I much prefer being out in the middle to being in the video referee chair, put it that way.”
The switch to full-time officials several years ago didn’t stop Child continuing his job as a chartered surveyor for Leeds City Council — albeit on a part-time basis — but he believes that with more time and effort dedicated to refereeing, the standards can only continue to get higher.
“Referees used to meet once a week — on a Tuesday, I believe — and they’d train once and watch the odd bit of video.
“If you were lucky you’d get the odd VHS from your game and you’d have a conversation with Stuart Cummins on the phone; that was it.
He continued: “Stuart’s big challenge was making sure referees were consistent and it’s hard to do that if you don’t see each others’ games.
“We now sit down together, debate and discuss every key incident and that’s vital for us to keep learning and keep getting better.
“People still think we’re not consistent but we strive to be as consistent as we can, and the development of full-time refereeing is still helping — not least because people don’t have to work all day and then go to a game at night — that’s where more mistakes could happen.”