Explosive evidence of racial bias against selecting minority referees for the Premier League

December 2001, almost 21 years ago, Gurnam Singh walked out of an employment tribunal with an apology from the Football League. It had taken Gurnam Singh nearly 6 years to win his case but they had been found guilty of discriminating against Mr. Singh, refusing to promote and giving him lesser matches to referee despite a stellar record, because he is Asian. The most devastating proof in favor of Mr. Singh was when Ken Ridden, the Football Association’s director of refereeing at the time, allegedly said: “We don’t want people like him (Singh) in the Premier League.” Ken Ridden was forced to retire as an assessor at age 65 but would later go on to be awarded UEFA’s Ruby Order of Merit for his services to refereeing.

The Football League at the time said what these organizations always say when they are caught being overtly racist: we’re sorry, we won’t do it again, we will investigate this situation, and we will make appropriate changes to make sure it will never happen again.

Fast forward to May 11th 2008. On that day the Premier League’s first and only ever black referee – Uriah Rennie – blew his final whistle. It was a 2-0 win by Liverpool over Tottenham. Rennie would be the last black official in the Premier League.

In November 2021 a group which calls itself the Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity Referee Support Group wrote a scathing 53 page report which accused FA observers – the people who assess referees for promotion – of racism. They say that the reason there haven’t been any minority officials in the Premier League or Championship is because referees assessors are marking them down based on the color of their skin. It’s an accusation with a lot of weight behind it as damning quotes from very high level referees assessors, including the resignation of a chief, prove that they have had a problem with racists in the group.

It’s important to understand how referees get promoted to get a clear picture of how even a single racist could halt promotion.

There are 7 levels of referees in England. Groups one and two are the Premier League and Championship officials. These are managed by the PGMOL. Below that are levels 2-4 and those are managed by the Football Association. Levels 5, 6, and 7 are managed by the county FAs. Opportunities for promotion only occur annually and it can take many years for an official to rise through the ranks.

There is only one minority official in level 2, Joel Mannix, the chair of the BAME Referee Support Group. He said of the system “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 also went on to say that most of the assessors are old white men.

One man in particular seemed to be the focus, David Elleray. Elleray had been working for the FA in a number of roles including as Chair of the FA’s Referees committee and chairman of the FA’s 14 man referee diversity committee. Elleray was a powerful figure in English refereeing, serving on IFAB as well as a number of additional roles in refereeing and referees assessment for the FA.

In 2014, the FA sanctioned Elleray for racist remarks to another FA employee. Elleray apologized for his comments and underwent diversity training. In December 2021, the FA reopened the case amid allegations of a coverup and with fresh allegations emerging. The FA hired an independent law firm to compile a report. After that work was done, however, Elleray resigned from all of his commissions and retired to South Africa. The FA has refused to make the contents of the report public.

However, in June 2022 the FA suspended referee’s assessor Michael Ewan for two incidents of using racist language. Ewan, who is 70, was suspended for 16 weeks after a unanimous decision by a three panel board found him guilty.

Minority referees in England have a strong case that the people in charge of referees have had a long-standing bias against promoting people of color to the highest echelons of refereeing. This isn’t a surprise since the culture of football has been deeply racist and very little is done about it at any level. When UEFA’s maximum punishment is to fine a club $5000 for their fans making monkey chants at players (multiple times), when referees assessors are given a paltry 16 week ban for multiple instances of racism, or when England International players are let off on a technicality after racially abusing their fellow professionals, and when this happens consistently for decades, it’s difficult to believe these organizations’ statements that they are taking this problem seriously.

It does look like the FA are finally doing something about the endemic problem with racism in referees assessments. The FA has started a program which they are calling “Widening the Net” which is only available as a PDF from their web site (link below). That presentation is full of suggestions for recruitment, retention, and promotion of minority, women and disabled referees but we will need to see some evidence of action rather than a more colorful version of the talk we have seen in the past. They also seem to have a much more diverse “inclusion board” than what we have seen in the past. But once again, we are left in a “wait and see” situation. Waiting to see if there are any real life changes in the makeup of the referees at the top level and opportunities for minorities to represent their profession.


Widening the net: http://www.thefa.com/-/media/files/thefaportal/governance-docs/equality/inclusion/widening-the-net—an-fa-guide-to-widening-diversity-in-refereeing.ashx


  1. Sounds like more lip service.

    Here’s an interesting post I saw on LinkedIn the other day, which does not necessarily get at overt racism, but at how difficult it is to change a system even when the intent is there (and I wouldn’t bet that the intent is even there in this case):


    I also want to applaud you for moving the conversation away from the nonsensical binary of CONSPIRACY vs NOTHING TO SEE HERE. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real, it exists everywhere, and it’s hard to fix. But by talking about it, we can start to move the needle on this refereeing conundrum. It doesn’t have to be a CONSPIRACY to be highly, highly inequitable.

    1. I would also add that now we know how top referees are selected (by a small group of assessors who have proven racial biases and almost certainly have other biases) we should start to ask the question: why is nearly every referee in the PL from the north, what are they doing to get referees from the London area into the top flight, and what biases have they uncovered against southern referees?

      1. “I also want to applaud you for moving the conversation away from the nonsensical binary of CONSPIRACY vs NOTHING TO SEE HERE. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real, it exists everywhere, and it’s hard to fix. But by talking about it, we can start to move the needle on this refereeing conundrum. It doesn’t have to be a CONSPIRACY to be highly, highly inequitable.”


        What I was trying to explain to Bill

  2. Thanks for covering this topic. As a white kid growing up at the time of the change of regime in South Africa, I was drawn to Arsenal because of its multi-culturalism. As my school became more ethnically diverse, so did Arsenal and the link was pretty clear to me at the time as well.

    Being a club that has historically had more players of African heritage, it would be interesting to find out how those racist biases in selecting referees impact black players and the club’s that have a history of multi-culturalism… 🤔

    1. I actually started noticing it recently that the player who is first booked in a Premier League game is often black. And this often happens after several other players make the same foul. I think there’s a race problem in the premier league and that unconscious bias against black players is effecting the way that games are called.

      1. A simple statistical analysis on % of players booked first who are black vs % of players who are black would be interesting. I’d even do non-white, and then non-British to supplement.

  3. A few thoughts on the Zurich game last night.

    –First off, interesting new tactical wrinkle. A 2-1-4-3, not a formation I can remember Arsenal ever using, with Nketiah and Martinelli at striker and Vieira as the 10. Tierney played as the LM. I wonder if this is something Arteta is flirting with for the first choice group as well in response to the MU game. With 3 CB behind Sambi and Xhaka, that does provide an additional layer of security, while Tierney can easilry drop back to make a 4 if needed.

    –Marquinhos looks like he belongs, on that stage at least. He works hard, he is explosive, he can score and make goals… what else can we want in an alternate to Saka? He’s young, yes, but Bukayo himself just turned 21 and wing is not a position where experience is too important. I’d say that performance has vaulted him from fringe asset to useful backup.

  4. In relation to the racism issue. Have you noticed that English officials have in recent years been overlooked by fifa and uefa for the world cup and euros respectively? This kind of biased assessment based on color rather than merit could be a factor. Recent dubious officiating decisions especially with VAR in English football are only making it worse. If assessment and consequently promotion is not made on merit then a few years down the line the effects will be devastating.
    That research on the relationship between color and players booked or sent off in a match in English football is also long overdue.

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