Black referees are being blocked from climbing the league ladder by observers at county level, according to Ref Support UK’s ambassador for black, Asian and minority ethnic officials.
Reuben Simon, a former non-league referee, believes this is due to overt racism or unconscious bias, with the only solution to use mystery shopper-style ‘ghost observers’ to assess the assessors.
Uriah Rennie was the last black referee to officiate in the higher reaches of the English game before retiring in 2009. There are no BAME referees currently working in the top four divisions, and only one in the National League.
“It’s a myth that there’s a lack of black referees – there are loads at grassroots level but they are not progressing up the pyramid,” Simon told Football Paradise.
“Why? They are being blocked. There is a ceiling for black referees and it is non-league.
“When a footballer is very good it’s obvious and it’s in the manager’s interest to pick them. So even managers with racist views have picked black footballers.
“It’s the same with salesmen. You might have a racist manager but he cannot say you’re not a good salesman if you have the most sales. But decisions about referees are more subjective.”
Simon, who tweets on refereeing issues at @radical_referee, explained that referees who reach the county level must be assessed by observers if they want to climb the ranks.
“These observers will almost always be white chaps of a particular age,” he said.
“Nothing wrong with that and most try to be as fair as possible. But there is also no question there is a lot of unconscious bias in the ratings.”
Simon, who reached the level just below the National League before retiring in 2014, said he has given the Football Association a solution to this problem.
“They need to go back through the Match Official Administration System, which is where all the assessments are logged, and analyse the data,” he said.
“They should look for assessors who, on average, give black referees worse marks than white refs.
“Now, let’s pretend that every black ref is rubbish – it’s possible, not probable – but let’s check that by sending out a ghost observer to the same games as those assessors who give black refs poor marks. And let’s do it a few times, just to make sure.”
Simon denied there would be any issues with data protection rules – an excuse which has been given for not taking his advice – and said identities would be protected and any observer proven to be unfair on BAME referees would be given a chance to address their actions.
Asked why BAME referees are not applying to become observers themselves, Simon said: “Because they think the system is broken. The solution is to get black refs up the ladder – it’s not rocket science and there is a solution.”
The FA is well aware of the issue and in 2012 launched the ‘Widening the Net’ initiative to increase the number of BAME officials.
At the time, the national governing body estimated that only four per cent of its 28,000 registered referees were BAME and it set a target of reaching 10 per cent by 2016.
Progress has been made but the target was missed and Simon believes the current figure is around nine per cent.
In a statement released to PA Sport, an FA spokesperson said: “The FA recognises the value of a diverse group of referees and we continue to offer support and development opportunities for referees from all backgrounds and across all levels of the game.
“The face of refereeing is continually changing and becoming a better representation of the football community.
“We see a rise in the number of women and BAME referees in English football and we encourage people of all backgrounds to join the refereeing community.”
The professional game is also taking steps to address the situation. The Premier League recently agreed to work with the organisation that provides its referees, Professional Game Match Officials Limited, on a BAME scheme.
A PGMOL spokesperson told PA Sport: “We are committed to working with the FA to provide better opportunities to referees from different backgrounds, and we welcome the recent offer from the Premier League to support the development of a BAME refereeing programme.
“During this process we will consult with a range of stakeholders from refereeing bodies and wider football, and will of course seek to draw on the experiences of current and former BAME referees.”