Is It Really Football That’s Toxic?

Last summer, John Bieniewicz, a referee in America was punched and knocked out by a football player he was trying to send off. Bieniewicz, a husband and father, died two days later and, last week, the player was quite rightly sent to prison. An absolute tragedy for his family and a stain on football for America that such unforgivable, abhorrent behaviour from a player should have such a heartbreaking and fatal end.
There really is nothing else you can say about it, it was an unnecessary and avoidable end of a life that the family and the player will have to live with. Most of us can simply offer condolences and respect the family’s need for privacy as they come to terms with their loss. Not so the British press though, or at least one journalist in particular, who is choosing to use this tragic incident to dig out Premier League players.
Using sweeping generalisations like “it told a sad and unpalatable tale of the behaviour that is leaving an ugly, ugly stain on football”, to highlight players remonstrating with referees in the Chelsea-Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United–Arsenal games, we read that ‘threatening officials’ is regarded as just part of the game. Now whilst I don’t in any way condone players laying hands on officials, much less punching them, I fail to see how comparisons can be drawn between a group of players verbalising their frustrations at the one person best-placed to address them and the single, deplorable act of physically assaulting a referee.
With a clear agenda, this journalist highlights decisions managers don’t agree with (mentioning no names obviously) leading to the abuse and hounding of officials, who now need to be almost superhuman to get through 90 minutes unscathed. Nowhere in this ‘article’ is there any context or even an attempt at balancing players perceived bad behaviour with that of the ‘heroic’ men in black. You see, whilst the finger is pointed squarely at ‘managers’ ridiculing officials to cover for poor performances, it is generally the inadequacies and inconsistencies of these officials that leads to the feelings of injustice and subsequent on and off pitch remonstrations.
This isn’t the voice of a minority, paranoid supporter either. Commentators, pundits, former players and former officials alike have all seen and voiced similar disbelief at some of the decisions they’ve witnessed over time, maybe more prominent than ever this season. This isn’t about ‘angry games, played by angry men’, or ‘clever’ intimidation designed to ‘get an edge’ in the game, this is about the FA not addressing the root cause of players and managers verbalising frustrations about perceived injustices – the inconsistent and often error-ridden application of their rules.
Of course, the journalist is careful to point out this isn’t just about Chelsea and Manchester United, or even English football, despite referring to the former as ‘hungry beasts’ in their game against PSG and highlighting Di Maria’s (idiotic) pull on Michael Oliver’s shirt. However, the journalist is equally careful to point out the influence ‘Premier League’ players will have on children in local parks, suggesting they could “do the same and possibly worse.”
It is of note that I rarely get time to write these days, yet reading such outrageous sensationalism at our expense – and that of a bereaved family – compelled me to. I also feel obliged to make clear that in no way is this intended to trivialise the tragic death of John Bieniewicz in America. In fact, there is no connection between that tragic incident and what is happening in English football right now – a point the British press would do well to be both mindful and respectful of.

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