Diversity Among PL Officials: Where Is It?

Premier League Referee Mike Dean. Image courtesy of BBC

The Premier League is diverse, populated with players from all across the globe. The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) – the association of Premier League refs and assistant refs – not so much. So let’s take a look at why there is a lack of diversity among PL officials, and if it matters.

Where are the female PL officials?

The PGMOL Select Group represents the highest-rated referees and assistant referees in English professional soccer. Of the 50 panel members – 22 referees and 28 assistant referees – Sian Massey-Ellis is the only woman. So what explains the gender discrepancy among Premier League officials? Retired referee Mark Clattenburg believes it could be down to life choices – career or family.

According to Clattenburg, “[women have] got to make this choice – do they want to be pregnant and have children, or do they want to be referees.” He goes on to detail the rigors of being a professional referee. And he has a point. Pregnancy is an incredibly arduous and draining experience, from which many women never regain prior fitness levels. But then again, Massey-Ellis managed to do it

Clattenburg would continue, ​​”They’ve also got to pass the men’s fitness test. A lot of women struggle with the men’s fitness test. If you want to be in the men’s game, you have to meet that criteria.” While the referee fitness requirements are significant, one can’t help but think there are women fully capable of keeping up with the likes of 50 year olds Jon Moss and Martin Atkinson. Surely, there must be more women in England like League Two ref Rebecca Welch and FIFA ref Stephanie Frappart, right? In fairness to Clattenburg, he does concede that if they’re good enough, women should referee in the Premier League – and likewise for men in the Women’s Super League (WSL).

Where are the PL officials of color?

There are currently no referees of color in the Premier League. As of 2020, there were roughly 2000 Black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) officials among the 28,000 FA officials. So, it seems the vast majority of BAME officials are relegated to the bottom rungs of English soccer. At such a level, referees work on a part-time basis and have little hope of reaching the upper echelons of the game. So what accounts for this lack of representation for people of color in the top levels of English soccer?

According to the Daily Mail, “In 2012, the FA set a target of having 10 per cent of referees from BAME backgrounds by 2016. But Sportsmail understands that target was downgraded in 2018 and last year [2019] just 9.4 per cent of referees at all levels were BAME, and a large number of those were white Eastern Europeans.” Uriah Rennie – the last Black referee in the Premier League – retired thirteen years ago. When you look at the causes for so few top level BAME officials, some, like former EFL ref Phil Prosser point to a lack of role models. With no BAME refs to look up to, aspiring officials of color see no way through. Others, like Ref Support chief executive Martin Cassidy, point to a more sinister history. 

In 2014, former Premier League ref David Elleray racially insulted BAME official Robert McCarthy. Elleray said that McCarthy looked “rather tanned” and asked if he’d “been down a coal mine”. In response, the FA simply instructed Elleray to apologize to McCarthy. According to Cassidy, this superficial “punishment” has been a genuine deterrent to many BAME officials considering a move for positions among the PGMOL elite. 

Does it matter?

Yes. For more reasons than this article has space to delve into. Suffice it to say, referees are human and not immune to unconscious bias. Better representation among Premier League officials can only be a good thing. It’s time for Mike Riley (PGMOL General Manager) to step into the twenty-first century. The whole world is watching.

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