A Football Referee Spent A Year Fighting With The FA Over Its Handling Of Alleged Anti-Gay Abuse And Has Now Quit
Exclusive: “Homophobic abuse is not properly investigated, and victims are not sufficiently supported," Dr Jolyon Dales told BuzzFeed News after his yearlong fight.
A football referee has quit after 14 years, accusing the Football Association of being “indifferent” about anti-gay prejudice and of using pro-LGBT campaigns as “window dressing” after it ruled in favour of the club member he says shouted “faggot” at him, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
Dr Jolyon Dales reported the individual the same day the alleged abuse took place. But after nearly a year, he was still battling the FA, trying to have his complaint upheld.
Even the club at the centre of the allegation said “the complaints mechanism does not work” and added, “the FA does not have the systems in place, the experience, nor the diversity among staff to successfully handle these issues.”
In despair at “shocking institutional behaviour”, Dales resigned from refereeing, and handed over a cache of documents to BuzzFeed News revealing the entire complaints process – in an attempt to blow the whistle on football’s governing body. “This isn’t just a problem with the local FA, this goes up to the national FA,” he said. Anti-LGBT discrimination is “completely ignored”.
His decision to turn over the documents followed months of lobbying the FA, during which its disciplinary panel rejected his complaint, disbelieving him despite using the lowest standard of proof — and despite holding the hearing without some of the witnesses Dale had intended to call.
During this period, his emails went unanswered for weeks, on one occasion because a senior figure in the FA left and did not pass his workload onto his successor.
Dales then attempted to have the ruling reconsidered and escalated it to the top of the FA. All of his attempts to make the organisation take further action failed, prompting him to announce he was quitting. By then, the head of judicial services at the FA — the most senior figure in charge of complaints — had stopped responding to him, despite assurances from the organisation that there was a new process in place ensuring complainants are kept informed.
His resignation comes amid an ongoing row about inaction over racism in the sport, and arises the week after players at an LGBT league club — Village Manchester Football Club — spoke out about the mounting anti-gay abuse they receive and called on the FA to “radically overhaul” its complaints process.
The alleged incident against Dales occurred during a local Leicestershire league match. In his complaint, Dales — who was the assistant referee — detailed his version of events: that he was concerned that there were people in the technical area of one of the teams who shouldn’t be, so he went to speak to them. One of them told Dales his name.
When Dales returned to his position for the start of the second half, he wrote, “I heard a shout from behind me: ‘Lino, you’re a faggot’.” ("Lino" is an abbreviation of "linesman.") He did not see who was shouting but reported hearing it to the match referee. The referee went to speak to the team concerned, informing them that there would be a report made against the club for using anti-LGBT language. If successful, such complaints can lead to goal points being deducted from the club.
“The man who had previously identified himself… said that he was the one who shouted,” wrote Dales. “He said at this point that he had actually shouted ‘lino you're a fanny’, although this was quite clearly not what had been said.” The man later described himself to the FA as the most senior person in the technical area, but the club disputes that he has ever held an official capacity at the club.
Today Dales restated that “faggot” was what was said and that it was delivered loud enough to ensure there were witnesses. “I know it was heard,” he said, referring to those sat by the man believed to have said it. “There was sniggering. Everyone knew what had happened.”
In an email to Keith Murdoch, CEO of Leicestershire & Rutland County FA, the day he filed his misconduct report, Dales wrote that this was not the first incident of its kind he had witnessed, and as such, that he felt “homophobic language is ingrained in football in Leicestershire and no action is being taken to counter it”.
What followed would only underscore his concern.
The following week, the local FA discipline manager emailed asking if anyone “could have witnessed the incident?” Dales replied with a list of names of those who would have been in the technical area, including those on the substitutes bench, according to the match report. He added that several players and officials would have heard what was said as the bench was “less than 5 metres away”.
On Oct. 24, 2018, the FA wrote to the individual who had identified himself to Dales, officially charging him with improper conduct, citing breaches of the code. But the people listed by Dales, who were in the immediate area at the time of the incident, were not, he said, asked to either give statements or attend the hearing. An email from an FA Discipline Manager to Dales said that when contacted, the club “responded to say the individuals…’never witness[ed] anything’” and that the FA is therefore “not in a position to force any of these individuals to provide a statement”.
This revealed a failure in the FA’s process, said Dales, who responded suggesting that such individuals should be contacted directly by the FA and not through the club. In particular, he added, the fact that points can be deducted from a club if they are found guilty means that there is a much lower chance they would give evidence, if approached through the club.
But when approached by BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for the club concerned said that in fact they offered up four witnesses who were happy to give evidence but that on the day two were unable to attend, one because he had sustained a serious injury.
On Dec. 4, 2018, however, the Disciplinary Commission held a hearing into the matter anyway. The man accused pleaded not guilty to two charges, of improper conduct (which includes using abusive or insulting words) and an “aggravated breach” of this, which relates to hostile references to someone’s gender, sexuality, race, religion or disability. He denied using anti-LGBT language, saying his remark was about the “linesman being a bit of a fanny”.
The match referee did not attend. The referee’s match report was, said Dales, “spartan” and “did not include important information”, including the exchange immediately following the alleged utterance of the slur, in which the accused admitted he shouted out, but used the word “fanny” rather than “faggot”. Instead, the referee stated in the report what Dales had told him was said.
Dales was also unaware of the details of the referee’s match report and without his attendance, Dales said none of what he did hear could be probed.
A player from the club did attend, however, and denied the word “faggot” was used. A second witness from the opposing team supplied an email to the panel saying he did not hear any anti-gay remarks or swearing.
In the ruling, seen by BuzzFeed News, the FA disciplinary commission took the accused’s word over that of Dales. The panel wrote in conclusion that the club member was “quite precise stating that he did not use any homophobic remarks”, that the player from the same team who also gave evidence was “precise” too and “creditable” (sic). Therefore the panel “preferred” their accounts to Dales’, and that because there was “no other corroborating evidence” the abuse was therefore “not proven”.
The files reveal that the FA did not use a criminal standard of proof — beyond reasonable doubt — but the lower, civil one: the balance of probabilities. For Dales, the fact that even with the lower threshold he was not believed is concerning.
None of the reasons for dismissing the case were conveyed to Dales until 10 weeks later.
In not responding quickly to the complaint, not approaching witnesses directly, and holding the hearing without the referee present, Dales told the FA in an email following the ruling, that he saw no point in appealing the decision — that the window of opportunity to secure the necessary evidence had passed. If Leicester County FA had followed the protocols for such complaints, he wrote, “then the protocols are clearly inadequate”.
Days after the hearing, Dales informed the FA that he was stopping all refereeing “with immediate effect”.
“The county FA have neglected their duty in taking reasonable steps to ensure that sufficient information from other witnesses was made available,” he wrote “….and have [as] such let down myself and so many others in the fight against homophobia”.
A club spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the entire investigation took place via email, that no one from the FA came to see the club to discuss the situation. “The seriousness of the allegation is not reflected in investigating it all by email,” he said.
Instead of appealing, in January 2019, Dales made a complaint to the national FA body about how the local FA had dealt with the matter, accusing Leicestershire County FA of being “negligent” both in its investigation and in its support of him as a complainant. He further asked what action had been taken over the official admitting instead to calling a match official a pejorative that describes female genitalia.
Weeks later, a member of the FA’s senior disciplinary team at head office in London replied, defending the local FA panel’s investigation and conclusion as they were “unable to assist or provide any evidence in regards to the incident you have reported”, that there was a “misunderstanding” about how the word “fanny” had been used, and that instead of the FA failing to provide support, in fact the organisation gave Dales a “booklet” about the hearing.
Dales responded by invoking Greg Clarke, chair of the FA, who in 2017 told an all-party parliamentary group that “our job is to stamp down hard on that behaviour” in reference to anti-LGBT abuse, and a select committee report by the department of Culture, Media, and Sport which concluded, “the issue has not been addressed satisfactorily by the FA up to this point and immediate action is required”. Dales wrote, “there has been no culture change in the FA”.
Two months later, Dales had not received a response and was eventually informed that the staff member had left the FA. Dales wrote to Mark Ives, the head of judicial services, adding to his list of grievances that the caseload had not been passed onto him. A further two months followed. In June 2019, Ives agreed to speak to Dales on the phone. Later that day, on 18 June, Dales emailed Ives reiterating his concerns.
Over a month later, Ives had not responded, prompting Dales to email him one final time in an attempt to elicit a response. He did not receive one.
Dales, who is heterosexual, revealed that his motivation for persisting with his complaint is born of an anxiety that a weak response to bigotry means LGBT people are being excluded from the game. “By behaving like that,” he said of the FA’s handling of his case “they end up isolating and pushing out a huge section of society. That’s ultimately the concern. The fact I’m not gay doesn’t come into it. I’ve heard homophobic abuse [so] I’m going to report it, I’m going to pursue it.”
The association’s complaints system is “fundamentally skewed in favour of the person defending the complaint,” said Dales. “Homophobic abuse is not properly investigated, and victims are not sufficiently supported.” The attempts to appear to be tackling such issues, meanwhile, are only that: “They are saying one thing in front of the media, nationally, but actually the behaviour of the organisation is very different.”
The complaints system needs shaking up, he said, before there is a chance of kicking anti-LGBT prejudice out of the game. First, with the punishment process. “The penalty involves points deductions so you could see how other members of the football club might have an onus on defending their team members because they know if a punishment is given out they suffer as well,” he said.
Second, he took issue with the hearing itself, which he characterised as weak. “There’s no one there performing what I would call a prosecuting role… no one who was able to look at all the information overall and think, ‘what other information is needed here?’”
He also criticised the lack of transparency surrounding the protocols, the mechanics of the process, and the endless delays between his enquiries and the responses. “Simple requests have been completely ignored.”
What he believes was said that day still troubles him. “To have this shouted at you and the sniggering of people sat with the person...was quite worrying on a personal level and a societal level.”
Over the last seven years, the FA, along with the Premier League and other leagues below have supported the “Rainbow Laces” campaign run by Stonewall, the LGBT equality charity, which supplies players with multicoloured boot laces to wear during matches to signify LGBT inclusion. No premiership footballer has ever come out. The only prominent player to reveal his sexuality was Justin Fashanu, who later took his own life. Research by Stonewall found nearly three-quarters (72%) of fans have heard anti-LGBT chants.
Now, football has lost a devoted referee. “I thought, ‘Why do I want to waste my Saturday afternoons doing this when you do the right thing and it’s not dealt with?’” said Dales about his decision to quit.
“What’s even sadder is that the night of the tribunal [there] was a homophobia awareness night in the football league. So I came back and there was a game where they were wearing rainbow laces and I was thinking, ‘I have seen how they really behave, the real organisational behaviour’. They’re saying ‘We’ll campaign against homophobia’ but actually when the matter happens…they don’t do it’.”
A spokesperson for the club concerned said that it “cooperated fully with the FA by providing a number of witness statements,” and that as such “as far as [the club] understands the matter was fully investigated by the FA with the full cooperation from both clubs playing on the day.” He added that the club “takes complaints of such seriously and we do not condone homophobic abuse or abuse of any sort whether it be on the grounds of race, colour, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, age, disability or sexual orientation”.
An FA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “An independent disciplinary commission, which was convened on behalf of Leicestershire and Rutland County Football Association by The Football Association, found a charge of FA Rule E3 in relation to an official of [the club concerned] not proven on the balance of probabilities.
“The Football Association and Leicestershire and Rutland County Football Association strongly condemn all forms of discrimination and encourage any participants or spectators who believe that they have been the subject of, or witness to, discriminatory abuse to report it through the appropriate channels: The Football Association, County Football Association network or our partners at Kick It Out.”