Elite football in England has 40 referees – all white. Why don’t black officials get top jobs?

Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Tottenham under bright blue skies at White Hart Lane on 11 May 2008 was described by the sports writers at the time as a lacklustre affair.

But it has turned out to be a historic fixture: it was the last time a black referee officiated in England’s top league.

It was hoped Uriah Rennie, the Premier League’s first black referee, would be the trailblazer for a new generation of minority ethnic referees.

Instead, the business administration and law graduate, who refereed more than 170 Premier League matches, proved to be an outlier.

While its footballers take the knee each week in a gesture to support anti-racism, no black or Asian referee has officiated a Premier League match for more than a decade.

There are 40 referees on the books for the 2021-22 season in the Premier League and the Championship. They are all white. Out of a workforce of about 200 referees over the country’s top seven divisions, just four (2%) are black or Asian: Sam Allison, Joel Mannix, Aji Ajibola and Sunny Gill.

There are approximately 24,500 referees in England, most of whom officiate amateur Sunday league football, and the Football Association (FA) claimed last week that about 2,000 (8.2%) are minority ethnic. So why are they failing to break into the country’s two highest divisions?

Top minority ethnic referees say the answer lies in a refereeing report on diversity submitted to the FA in the summer of last year.

The 53-page report, compiled by the Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity Referee Support Group, alleges that some of the FA observers who assess referees for promotion to the higher leagues are racist.

According to the report, one observer is alleged to have told a referee: “You lot can all run fast, but that’s all you are good for.” Another is claimed to have said: “If you want to progress, you need to cut your dreadlocks.” Another made an offensive comment about throwing a banana.

The FA this weekend faces calls for an inquiry into its referee programme and allegations of racism; more transparency over its diversity policies; and an audit of the appointment system for referees.

Reuben Simon, 49, from Hanworth, west London, who was a referee in southern England between 2005 and 2015, said he was initially baffled at why the significant number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) referees officiating in the lower leagues were not climbing the ranks as quickly as white officials. He concluded that racism and unconscious bias were blocking them.

Simon said: “There are lots of black referees at the grassroots level, but they are not getting through the system. It’s possible that every single black referee is rubbish, but if that’s absurd, what’s the other conclusion? They are being blocked because of racial bias.

“Not every observer is racially biased, but the margins are so small the higher you go up the system that if just one person marks you down it’s game over.”

Simon said he told a senior FA official in 2011 that regular and transparent audits of observers, including the use of “ghost observers” to shadow official assessors, would tackle the issue of racism and unconscious bias. The proposal was not taken up.

Most referees are classified on an ascending scale from level seven to level one, with annual opportunities for promotion. The elite referees in the Premier League and the Championship are in two higher groups: select group one and select group two.

The assessments for appointment to the next level are based on reports by FA observers and input from football clubs.

Level 1 and the two select groups are overseen by Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), a company partly controlled by the FA and Premier League; levels 2 to 4 are overseen by the FA; and levels 5 and below are overseen by county FAs. A referee in the lower division will typically earn between £25 and £40 a match, while a professional referee in the Premier League can earn more than £100,000 a year.

Mannix, who chairs the BAME support group and is a level-2 referee, said: “Levels 3 and 4 are known as the ‘black man’s graveyard’ because you’ve got observers who are racist and they are marking down officials on their colour.” He said the observers were mostly “old, white males”.

The frustration is compounded by the fact that the FA’s 14-strong referee committee overseeing the diversity initiatives has no black, Asian or mixed heritage members. It is headed by David Elleray, a former referee who was sanctioned by the FA in 2014 after allegedly making racist comments to another official.

Mannix said the FA was keen to address the diversity issue, but was not implementing the fundamental changes required. He recounted how, during one diversity meeting, a senior FA official had suggested that additional black referees could be recruited from among people leaving prison.

“It was incredibly insulting,” Mannix said.

Tony Burnett, chief executive of the anti-racism charity Kick It Out, said: “Black and Asian referees are not getting through to elite refereeing and it suggests a systemic problem. We need a review so we can understand the numbers and home in on the problem. It will not be a quick fix. This is going to take years.”

The FA’s official diversity figures are of limited use because they have been boosted by counting white Irish and white Polish referees as ethnic minorities.

Any referees “not from white British backgrounds” were included in the minority ethnic figures, the FA told the Observer. It has now launched a review and update of the data.

Any allegation of discrimination would be taken extremely seriously, the FA said. Unconscious bias training has been delivered for referees, coaches and observers operating throughout the professional game and national leagues.

An FA spokesperson said: “We want to grow the pipeline of a high-performing refereeing workforce across both grassroots and elite football, which is representative of females, black, Asian, mixed or other ethnic groups and disabled people.”

Mike Riley, managing director of PGMOL, said: “We believe there should be no barriers to entry or opportunity in football. We have established an inclusion advisory group to focus on creating and implementing initiatives to address under-representation, as well as reviewing our existing practices and policies.”