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  • Writer's picturePaul Struthers

The whip, the BBC, the ECB, the NFL and Refereeing Tales

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

A variety of topics in my latest blog, and a bumper read as a result. You can click on the links below to skip to each section.

BHA whip crisis blowing over?


Despite no major news, there have been interesting developments on the BHA’s new whip rules.


The first week of the new rules saw 20 suspensions totalling 134 days and a disqualification. Week two saw 12 suspensions totalling 92 days and another disqualification. Last week we received the latest weekly figures, with 9 suspensions totalling 39 days.


Those latest figures represent a 55% reduction in offences and 71% reduction in suspension days, a massive improvement in a very short period time. That improvement suggests jockeys are adapting very quickly indeed, and much more quickly than then did in 2011 when there was the last major overhaul of the rules.


Back in 2011, there were 117 days of suspensions in week one, 121 days of suspensions in week 2 and in week 3 that figure rose again to 131. So whereas now we have an improving situation, back in 2011 the situation was not improving over time and was getting marginally worse every week.


That impression is born out by the eye test, as it is obvious from watching races that jockeys are trying exceptionally hard to ride within the rules, to the point they appear to be very much erring on side of caution, rarely even getting close to the permitted level of seven uses.


With the window for suspensions falling during Cheltenham week long since passed, this ‘erring’ looks entirely genuine, and jockeys deserve an enormous amount of credit.


It is important to remember that, for the most part, jockeys are riding in predominantly small fields, for modest prizes in front of small crowds, which is a world away to Cheltenham this week, with large, competitive, tightly packed fields, high pressure due to the stakes involved and a huge, loud crowd.


It is worth noting that in three weeks we’ve seen 265 days of suspensions handed down by the Whip Review Committee. In the first three weeks of the new rules in 2011, there were 370 days suspensions issued, but this included both codes as the rules came into force at the same time for Flat and Jump racing. Had the rules been implemented for both codes at the same time as they were before I don't think it's unrealistic to assume we'd have outstripped that 370 day number.

For context, in the same period last year there were 69 days of suspensions.

To these eyes I’ve certainly watched races where the result would have been different had the second jockey not been so cautious. I know the argument goes that there was still a winner so who cares, but I strongly suspect there have been times when the owner, trainer and backers of the second cared.


One particularly notable difference between the 2011/12 changes and these latest ones is that the jockeys are far less vocal in their criticism and appear much more accepting of the changes, despite the new rules containing a significant increase to even more disproportionate penalties.


Does that reflect a genuine contentment with the rules and penalties? Are they under a three-line-whip to keep the peace? Or is it that jump jockeys are more inclined than their flat counterparts to tolerate it?


Only time will provide those answers.


We have also been told that this time around jockeys asked for increased penalties, a point reinforced by BHA Chief Executive Julie Harrington when she appeared on Luck on Sunday.



On the one hand that's surprising, as I wrote the PJA's initial submission. 24 senior riders were directly involved in producing that submission, with a further 106 reading it (hopefully!) and agreeing to put their name to it.


Whilst that submission was open to increased penalties for "technical" offences (using the whip when out of contention, clearly winning and with excessive force), it couldn't have been clearer on a more general increase in penalties, as it "Strongly Agreed" that the current penalties for use above the permitted level were appropriate to the rule breach and that racing's whip rules and penalties were appropriate. Amongst many other comments, that submission couldn't have been clearer:

"A jockey who is suspended for any breach of the whip rules is prevented from earning their living for a minimum of two days, even though the sport accepts (in the absence of wealing, of which there was not a single example in 2020 and hardly any examples full stop since the advent of the current rules) it is not a welfare issue.
"The problem, if there is one, isn’t that the penalties are not a sufficient deterrent or punishment and the evidence is completely to the contrary. There were 7874 races run in 2020 and 73,843 runners, yet just 297 instances where a jockey was found in breach of the whip rules. This is an “offending rate” of just 3.77% of races (ie almost 97% of races have no whip breaches) or just 0.4% of rides.
"Given that not all recorded offences will be by the jockey who rode the winner of the race (and the BHA does not provide those figures for this consultation), it is safe to say that at least 98% of all winners are ridden by a jockey who has not broken the whip rules. That flies in the face of any suggestion that the current penalty structure is not a sufficient deterrent, especially when factoring in that over 68% of whip breaches were for one use over the permitted level.
"Anyone who has ridden a horse at racing pace in a packed field in front of a crowd will know that it is not easy to be certain of how often you have used your whip or crop given the speed, danger, adrenaline and other psychological factors."

I don't doubt something changed as. whilst in common with other governing bodies, the BHA are not averse to occasionally disingenuous stretching of the truth, there's no way Julie Harrington would lie about that.


The problem is jockeys, like many sportsmen and women, are prone to thinking in the now and not always seeing the bigger picture or intended consequences in order to secure an immediate change, in this case getting the BHA to relent on the backhand only rule.


Don't forget, in 2011 it was the jockeys themselves that told the BHA "give us a limit and we'll stick to it, and hammer us if we go over it." How did that go?


It may well be - and I certainly hope - that this turns out to be a storm in a teacup, and I expect another “quiet” week this week when the latest Whip Review Committee findings are published this evening or tomorrow morning.


However I firmly believe that with the Festival upon us that will change, despite the jockeys' collective best efforts. In the cauldron of Cheltenham the psychological factors make mistakes far more likely, particularly for Irish based and Amateur jockeys who aren’t as used to the rules as their professional British counterparts.


When that “blip” happens, we’ll still have to wait until the rules formally come into force in Flat racing from 27th March. Only then will we be able to reach final conclusions as to the success or otherwise of the new rules.


Crisis Management 101

This is a sports blog, but I feel I can stretch it to cover the bizarre handling by the BBC (and the Conservative Government) of Gary Lineker’s tweet about the Government’s proposed new Border Bill. I won’t recap it because if you’re reading my blog, you’re certainly aware of what happened.

Crisis management is stressful and intense, but like most things it isn’t rocket science. If you crisis plan and prepare properly, and have the correct processes in place, you should be in a good position to react. Areas of risk can be identified and prepared for well in advance, pre-agreed processes can ease the stress and make for better decision making, whilst having initial lines to take/drafts in place make life significantly easier when the merde Copyright www.matgreaves.com / Private Eye

eventually hits the fan.


In an organisation the size of the BBC, they certainly have a detailed crisis management plan and procedure, albeit in common with most media teams it seems under-resourced, with a Head of Press, two Heads of Communications, three Media Relations Managers and four Communications Officers. That sounds like a big team but for one of the highest profile media companies in the world with over 20,000 employees, it isn’t.


However, no amount of planning and preparation can make up for poor decisions. And when those poor decisions are open to serious questions of hypocrisy and go against the public’s view you’re no longer managing the crisis but have enflamed it and are then left fire fighting until you course correct. The BBC finally did so yesterday but the damage was done.

As for the Conservative Government, they simply can’t get out of their own way. Either that or they take us for fools. Probably both.


Everyone assumes the BBC was placed under pressure, either by the Government directly or indirectly through those with close links to Government who are now in positions of influence within the BBC, a view reinforced by some of the frankly tragic co-ordinated tweets from Tory MPs. Who's ever gone to the pub for last orders after watching Match of the Day???


People are tired of disingenuity and the days of getting away with it are numbered. The sooner those responsible for communications accept that the better off we’ll all be.


Fairness is vital


The last couple of weeks have been a fascinating insight into how Governing bodies operate, something I’ve experienced first-hand from both within and against.


First, details leaked about Ivan Toney’s impending case with the Football Association. Of course it is entirely possible that leaks can come from either side but there’s really no benefit for the leaks to have come from Toney or his team. He has demanded an investigation and rightly so, though that call is likely to fall on deaf ears and even if it doesn’t I wouldn’t expect a great deal if any transparency into how the leaks came about.


We’ve also been able to witness the ECB’s case against Michael Vaughan, another case that’s been subjected to significant leaks that resulted in a number of those charged refusing to co-operate further. Ivan Toney's post on Instagram as it appeared

on mirror.co.uk

The hearing was open to the media, who were able to report on proceedings as they happened, a rarity in sport. For example, the media have for many years been able to attend hearings heard by the British Horseracing Authority’s Judicial Panel, but are forbidden from live reporting and can only post updates during breaks in proceedings.


It is vital that governing bodies and regulators have the powers and will to investigate matters thoroughly and bring charges where the evidence warrants it, however difficult that is for those charged. However, with great power comes even greater responsibility, and regardless of the seriousness of the charge it is equally vital that the accused is subjected to a fair process.


Vaughan’s counsel was highly critical of the ECB’s process and investigation, alleging that the ECB did not set out to establish the facts but to prove their case. As part of this allegation, it was said that in failing to interview potentially key witness and suppressing evidence the ECB wasn’t interested in the truth, but in the result.


I have seen this countless times before in horseracing and know from my time at the Professional Players Federation it is a concern held across sport. It is of course the job of a prosecutor to present the strongest possible case and try to win, but Governing bodies have a duty of care that all too often plays a distant second fiddle to other considerations. These considerations might be media interest, public sentiment or simply the desire to win at all costs.


Ultimately their responsibility should be to get to the truth – or the closest they can get to it with the powers they have – instead of forming a hypothesis, trying to prove it at all costs and making life as difficult for the defence as possible through what can charitably described as unsatisfactory disclosure procedures.


With sports tribunals traditionally loathe to criticise the governing bodies whose prosecutions they sit in judgement of, I doubt we'll ever get the truth, which more often than not lies in the grey areas between black and white (more on that later).


Whatever the outcome, it really doesn’t need to be this way.


The Art of Communication


I love American Football and follow it closely, both the playing and business side. Last week news broke that the Baltimore Ravens were placing what’s known as the Franchise Tag on their Quarterback Lamar Jackson, one of the biggest stars of the sport.


The Franchise tag is a one year, full guaranteed deal that is a way for teams to retain a player they can’t reach or don’t want a long term deal with. There are two ways to ‘franchise’ a player – exclusive and non-exclusive.


The exclusive tag doesn’t allow the player in question to negotiate with any other team and the player either has to sign the contract (the tag) or he can choose to not play, but if he chooses to not play he can’t play for anyone else and is then left in limbo until he’s traded to another team or eventually relents and signs the contract. It is more expensive than the non-exclusive tag, as the value is the average of the top five salaries at the player's position for the year the tag would apply, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. In Jackson’s case that would have amounted to a one year contract, fully guaranteed, worth approximately $45m.


The non-exclusive tag pays the average of the top five salaries at the player's position for the previous five years or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. For Jackson, that figure is just over $32m.


Under this tag, he can negotiate with other NFL teams but the Ravens have the right to match the offer and if it does the player must sign with them. If the don’t match the offer the receive two first-round draft picks from his new team as compensation.


The Ravens issued a statement via their social media teams. It was a smart statement in that it was timely and transparent (issued right after the 4pm deadline to confirm Franchise Tagged players), it was positive and sympathetically written and avoided antagonism, and confirmed that they wanted to keep Jackson and hoped to sign a long-term deal.


It was a wise statement and, more generally, a sensible course of action.



Baltimore clearly wants to keep Jackson but he obviously think what they’re offering him isn’t a fair deal for him. He also doesn't have an agent and represents himself, which complicates matters. By going down the route they have, Jackson can negotiate with other teams and I’m sure Baltimore feel that once he does, he’ll realise the value of their offer and sign a deal with them, or at least get a deal from another team that Baltimore can match.


It was also clever in that by saying they wanted a deal that was “fair to both Lamar and the team” they were pre-emptively attempting to pacify their fanbase if Jackson ends up leaving.


I believe Baltimore has handled this situation well and it makes perfect sense from a business perspective. However, in the immediate aftermatch a number of quarterback needy teams immediately distanced themselves from being interested in signing him, which then fuelled a wider and long held narrative as the story took a twist.


Unlike other US sports, most NFL players contracts are not fully guaranteed. In laymans terms, what that means is that a player might sign a five year contract for $100m, but only $40m of that is guaranteed and they can but released after a certain number of years without ever receiving the full value of the contract.


When the Cleveland Browns traded for disgraced Houston Texans quarteback Deshaun Watson, the gave him a fully guaranteed contract for $250m. Word is the other NFL owners were fuming at this and there has been widespread speculation that the other owners don't want that contract to set a precedent. For some, Baltimore's decision and other teams apparent disinterest was further evidence of this, even though it would make no business sense for a team that WAS interested in acquiring Jackson to express their interest publicly, quite the reverse.


It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it is true that the owners are colluding to avoid massive, fully guaranteed contracts becoming the norm. I know I credit the NFL for some of its steps at transparency with officiating, but outside of that the NFL has a terrible track record when it comes to transparency and dodgy dealings (see Colin Kapernick, Dan Snyder et al).


What this goes to show that a) even well executed communications can have unintended consequences in a world where the acceptance of nuance and shades of grey – the place where most truth lies – is in ever short supply and b) bad reputations always come back to haunt you.


Refereeing Tales Part 1


The travails of grassroots referees in football is an ongoing storyline, with news emerging this weekend of more referees being assaulted. Like many others, whilst I accept there will always be the occasional bad apples, I am convinced that the issue stems from the treatment of referees in the professional game, which filters down to grassroots. Until the FA, FIFA, IFAB and the PGMOL get serious about the behaviour towards referees from players and managers, all other initiaitives (whether silent weekends, respect campaigns or bodycam trials) are sticking plasters.


If you don’t agree with me watch rugby, whether the professional game or at your local grassroots club, and then come back to me.


I appreciate I’ve criticised VAR in this very blog and therefore thought I should begin to document my own experiences refereeing at grassroots level.


I only qualified as a referee in October last year, though had been reffing U9s to U12s as a coach/parent for years. Since I qualified, I’ve probably reffed 30 or more games at U11 or U12, all 9 v 9, and ran the line as a volunteer at many more.


Thankfully, I’m yet to experience any egregiously bad behaviour as a referee and have not issued any cautions or red cards. The latter is no doubt due in no small part to officiating largely developmental games, including the highly competitive Junior Premier League, and a general belief I have (that I know not everyone agrees with) that you should referee younger players differently, whilst still ensuring a safe playing and learning environment.


I’ve certainly had to have a stern enough word with a couple of coaches, and a less stern word with some players, but more often than not the coaches are great and play a vital role in helping to manage some of the more emotional younger players, which is the way it should be.


All that said, I have witnessed some occasionally appalling behaviour, one incident resulting in me (and several others) reporting a coach to our local FA for his treatment of a young referee and his general behaviour. I'm pleased to say our local FA acted swiftly and issued some disciplinary action, and it will be interesting to see if this coach's behaviour has improved when I next come across him.


This weekend I had my first 11 v 11 game, a JPL Cup Match between Aldershot Town U15s and SOCCA U15s. I’m only a Level 7 referee – the lowest level there is and one I have no hope of moving up from as I’ve got no interest in refereeing adult football, not at the moment anyway.


I always take a few minutes speaking to both teams beforehand after doing a boot and jewellery check, as I believe its important and helpful to all sides to set expectations beforehand, explain the key Laws, my areas of particular focus and to at least start to build up a rapport. My life as a referee is much easier if the captain and coach can manage their team rather than me having to, and their life is easier if they know how I’m likely to officiate the game, as no two referees are the same and whilst the Laws of the Game are clear, so much of their interpretation is subjective. If you're interested, my pre-match briefing notes are below.

Referee Briefing Notes
.pdf
Download PDF • 100KB

It was a brilliant match and closely fought until Aldershot scored three late goals and won 5-0. The boys (I say boys, but some of them were HUGE!) and coaches were fantastic, with barely a word of complaint about any decision (despite awarding two penalties and waving away another claim), with the exception of a couple of decisions where a very minimal and completely acceptable level of frustration was expressed.


It's always important to reflect on your performance afterwards and I’m confident I got the vast majority of decisions right, though I know there were two that I may have got wrong.


In the first period I awarded a penalty to Aldershot. There was a lot going on as Aldershot had played a through ball but massively overhit it. The attacker was in an offside position at first and the Assistant Referee (a parent of one of the SOCCA players, not a neutral) thought about raising their flag for offside, but the attacker stopped chasing the ball, so the AR didn’t flag for offside.


The defender took it easy getting to the ball, and by the time it was in playing distance the same attacker was now within about five yards. The defender tried to turn away but mis-controlled the ball, lost it to the attacker and fouled him trying to win it back. This occurred about half way into the penalty area, about 8 yards from the goal-line in line with the edge of the six yard box. I was well up with play with a clear view and it was an obvious penalty, with no arguments at all. SOCCA’s keeper made a great save and on we played.


It was only at halftime that I realised it had never even crossed my mind on whether or not the foul constituted the denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity (or DOGSO in refereeing parlance). In hindsight, it could have done although it was a genuine attempt by the defender to play the ball so would only have been a caution (yellow card).


What was interesting though was not a single Aldershot player, parent or coach said a word, so maybe it wasn’t a DOGSO offence after all, or maybe they were all so well behaved they never thought to complain. Either way, no harm done.


I awarded a second penalty to Aldershot in the third period, an incident I had another clear view of and at least this time there was no suggestion of DOGSO as it was towards the edge of a crowded box.


Aldershot had a third penalty claim towards full time. I was by the ‘D’ and the winger was just inside the 18 yard box by the goal line when he tried to go round the defender and went down under a tackle. I had a reasonable but not great view of it anda whilst I thought the defender had got the ball and the man, I wasn't certain so in a split second consciously thought to myself "they've won the game and there's a minute left, so that's a corner." Bad refereeing or the right call? I'm still not sure, but at least I can justify it.


It was back to U12s 9 v 9 on Sunday with Whites away to Greens, and an incredibly rare 0-0 draw. On reflection I’m not sure I’ve watched, coached or refereed a 0-0 before in kids/youth football so it was probably unique!


It was a very competitive game but pretty much incident free. It was quite a physical game but nothing untoward or even close to warranting a caution, even with the higher bar that I set on that requirement at that level. A couple of frustrated Whites players who needed a very quiet, gentle word but nothing worse than that, and some genuinely comical comments from the coaches of both teams, that are always a sign that a) the coaches are relaxed and in control of their own emotions and b) they’re generally happy with how you’re managing the game.


As I said before, I’ve yet to have a “bad” experience as a referee, but I know if every match was like the two I refereed this weekend we wouldn’t be short of grassroots referees at all.



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