How effective has the FA’s Respect campaign been?

Respect FAThe pressure on the FA to clean up football from the grassroots level to the Premier League reached a critical point in 2008, when the number of referees leaving the game reached an all-time high.

Violence, abusive behaviour and a total lack of respect for officialdom was damaging the game in England, and the Football Association was taking the brunt of the blame. Since the launch of the FA’s Respect campaign in 2009, things have improved significantly. But what is the initiative, and how can you implement it in your own local league or team?

What is the Respect campaign?

The FA’s widely publicised Respect campaign recognises that cleaning up the image of the game is the responsibility of everyone within it – from the fans to club chairmen. The main aim of the campaign is to make football environments enjoyable, fair and safe places in which to enjoy the beautiful game. Rather than being a strict set of guidelines, Respect is an ethos. It is aimed at fostering a general atmosphere of manners and sensible conduct both on the pitch and behind the scenes.

A range of tools has been developed in order to modify the behaviour of spectators and players alike, including training packs, codes of conduct and promotional material. Rather than simply punishing those people who use bad language and violence to get their message across at football matches, this campaign is aimed at gradually modifying behaviour through education. It is hoped that once pushy parents and spectators realise how their actions affect players, the perpetrators will want to change their own behaviour.

The Respect campaign was officially launched in 2008, and a number of celebrities lent their name to the initiative to widen its appeal, including Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock and actor Ray Winstone. As many as 7,000 kids and 5,000 referees had quit the game due to abuse from the sidelines during the previous year, so the FA pinned their hopes on a lavish launch to give the campaign impetus from the outset.

Is the Respect campaign working?

Unfortunately, the FA reported that assaults on officials at the grassroots level actually rose during the first two years of the initiative. However, the new approach seemed to entice more referees into the game almost immediately, as the number of qualified officials in English leagues rose by five percent to more than 27,000 by the start of 2012. However, according to the boss of the Respect campaign Dermot Collins, there has been a marked decline in the number of assaults on referees during the last two years.

More recently, the FA has modified and extended the campaign to take into account the changing nature of the game. A ‘Respect the Technology’ film was released to get the message across that everyone involved in the game can play their part in promoting courteous and respectful behaviour at all levels. The FA has also released an online interactive course for coaches who want to instil the principles of Respect within their teams.

What is the future of Respect?

The FA is continually re-imagining its Respect campaign to take into account feedback from spectators, players and coaches. Barriers are being introduced in youth football in a bid to dissuade spectators from approaching officials. Respect coaching sessions are being implemented in communities throughout the country, and the ‘Use Your Head’ campaign is trying to persuade fans to improve their behaviour in order to enhance their club’s image – thus making it more attractive to potential sponsors.

There is far more at stake here than the number of qualified referees at the grassroots level, however. Abuse and violence is deterring kids from playing in their local youth leagues every weekend – throughout the country. And with fewer youth players in the system, the future of the England national team could be far worse than many in the game are predicting.

Despite the excellent progress made by the FA’s initiative, it seems that one group is simply refusing to improve on its behaviour – the professionals. How many times do we see referees subjected to dreadful abuse by millionaire footballers in the Premier League? When the cameras are rolling at every match, and thousands of children and parents witness this type of behaviour from elite players and coaches, how much can really be achieved by a grassroots campaign. Whether they like it or not, the professionals are the key to the success of Respect. If they start to abide by its principles, who knows what can be achieved.

Malcolm Cox is a writer and former sports journalist from the north east of England. He is now a professional blogger and copywriter, who writes on behalf of The Soccer Store about grassroots football in Britain.

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