Top-flight English football has a diversity problem. Whilst 43 per cent of the players in the Premier League are black, there are still other aspects of the game that are greatly underrepresented.

A Lack of Diversity at the Top

In recent years, with the implementation of VAR, and the growing use of social media for football discourse, English referees have become the hot topic of several debates. Referees and the PGMOL have come under greater scrutiny for controversial decisions. Referees have therefore been afforded high levels of attention in the media and general football discourse.

What hasn’t been as widely discussed and debated, however, is the lack of racial diversity amongst referees and match officials in England’s top-flight football. Whilst the Premier League remains committed to ending racial inequalities and discrimination through its No Room For Racism campaign, arguably, not enough is being done to tackle the visible inequalities that continue to persist.

While the diversity of players has increased, it appears that the diversity of referees, arguably the people with the most power on the pitch, has not progressed at the same pace. In fact, it has not progressed at all given that the last time a black person officiated a Premier League match was fifteen years ago. In 1997, Uriah Rennie became the first black man to referee a Premier League match and after refereeing over 170 matches, he retired in 2008. His final match, astonishingly, remains the last time a black man was the lead match official in a Premier League fixture.

Evidently, not enough has been done to increase racial diversity across all areas of the pitch as Uriah Rennie appears to be an anomaly in English football. This was particularly obvious during the 20/21 Premier League and Championship season when all 40 chosen referees were white. This season was not simply a case of underrepresentation — there was no representation at all. It also emphasised the Footballing Association’s failure to meet the targets set in 2012. As part of their ‘widening the net’ campaign, the FA set a target of having 10 per cent of referees at all levels who were BAME by 2016. In 2019 this target still had not been met with only 9.4 per cent being BAME.

Understanding the Pyramid

But why is this the case? Why is it that it is a rarity to see black referees higher up the football pyramid?

One potential explanation is that the ongoing problem further exacerbates the current problem. Ultimately, the lack of visible representation at the very top may make pursuing this career undesirable for young black people as it indicates that there is no clear path for them. Since there are a limited number of role models for black people to look up to, losing interest is almost inevitable and leads to fewer people from the black community trying to break into this environment, which in turn leads to fewer black people making it to the top of the footballing pyramid.

Actions speak louder than words. For this reason, the FA must continue to work on improving opportunities to promote more black referees to the highest levels of the football pyramid. Only then, will young black people see refereeing as a viable career option.

Presently, for referees to move up the footballing pyramid they have to be assessed. This process of assessment has often been cited as one of the causes of the vast racial inequalities that persist in refereeing. In a refereeing report on diversity submitted by the Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity Referee Support Group to the FA in 2020, it was suggested that some FA observers who assess referees for promotion to the higher leagues were racist.

The report details various racist comments that are alleged to have been made by several assessors towards black referees. One comment that is alleged to have been made was: ‘You lot can all run fast, but that’s all you are good for.’ Former referee, Hickson-Lovence, told The Athletic that he had some ‘dodgy observations’ and believed that they weren’t judging him ‘purely on my refereeing abilities.’

These findings suggest that black people face several barriers, many of which are out of their control, that make it extremely difficult for them to reach the highest level of refereeing. Along with explicit racist comments that persist, there is also an unconscious racial bias that some FA assessors may have which influences how they judge black referees. Racism is ingrained in the system and needs to be rooted out.

The Turning Tide

Despite these findings and uninspiring statistics, all hope is not lost as progress has recently been made.

Earlier this year in August, talented referee, Akil Howson, became the first black person to be a permanent referee official in England’s top flight in 15 years since Uriah Rennie. This made him the second-ever black official in the Premier League. Whilst this is long overdue, it demonstrates that English football is moving in the right direction.

In an interview with Football Focus Howson discussed how important this progress was, saying: ‘Now it’s up to me to make sure that I’m the best that I can be so then I can inspire people coming through. They can see it, they can be it and it won’t ever be 15 years again.’

Howson’s promotion is a sign of changing times. This, coupled with the recent announcement by the FA and the Premier League that Sam Allison will be in charge of Sheffield United v Luton Town on Boxing Day — making him the first black official to take charge of a match in 15 years — demonstrates that a tide is turning in English football.

Whilst these recent changes are long overdue, this small progression is still significant. As society becomes increasingly inclusive and diversified, all aspects of football must reflect this welcome change.

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