Football South Coast has launched an initiative ‘Developing Armbands’ to provide support for referees under 18, or those at the beginning of their referee journey.

Verbal harassment, threats, and even physical assaults have become common occurrences for South Coast referees, and have raised serious questions about respect and fair play within the football community.

Ryleigh Wilson, 20, began refereeing older men’s and women’s community league and representative games at 12-years-old. The verbal harassment and abuse she experienced during this time ultimately led to her decision to quit refereeing at 18-years-old.

“A lot of the reason why Football associations are screaming out for referees currently is because nobody wants to continue doing it when they’re getting abused constantly,” Ms Wilson said.

“I would let the abuse slide during the game, and then have panic attacks afterwards.

“They would scream out to me as a girl, and I would just internalise it and deal with it at the halftime break. I would have a little cry and go back out like nothing happened.”

Northern NSW Football started the trend and launched its ‘green shirt’ initiative in 2022 to improve the refereeing experience of its first-year Level 4 match officials.

The green shirt is a visible reminder to players, spectators, and coaches that the referee is new or is under 18 officiating a senior game.

The green shirt initiative encourages more support and respect towards young and new officials, leading to greater retention in numbers. 50 per cent of Northern NSW game officials stopped refereeing, compared to a 98% drop the year before.

NSW football referee Demi Goddard was among the first female referees in charge of a men’s first-division game in the Peoplecare District League and said the initiative would lead to more respect between spectators and junior referees in the Illawarra.

“I think the green band initiative will make people step back and think about the consequences of their abuse a bit more,” Ms Goddard said.

“It will serve as a reminder that referees are still learning and developing and that obviously, not every decision made is going to be one that all parties agree with.”

Football South Coast’s ‘Developing Armbands’ initiative aims to follow in Northern NSW’s footsteps and to create a more supportive and respectful match day environment.

“This initiative will encourage increased respect and support for our young referees as we continue to focus on improving recruitment and retention of referees,” Football South Coast told the ABC.

The next stage is for the green armband initiative to reach District league games in the Illawarra and then move to State National Premier League competitions, such as the Stingrays and Wollongong Wolves.