In an emotional blog post on New Year’s Eve, the former Premier League referee Bobby Madley detailed how his career was finished in one moment 18 months ago. “Please don’t think bad of me. I’m a human being who made one mistake, one that many many people have done themselves and not lost everything for.”
It is a story that only fits in the 2010s – one of smartphones, social media pile-ons and a complete absence of forgiveness – one that highlights the disproportionality between someone’s mistake and the impact on their lives. It couldn’t really have happened before the last decade, but will almost certainly repeat itself in this one.
Referee Bobby Madley reveals ‘dark joke’ that led to Premier League sack
“I started refereeing at 16, my career was over at 32,” Madley wrote. “I had my dream job, a well-paid and incredibly enjoyable job that I loved every single minute of. The footballs and medals are now all I have to remember those years of dedication and hard work.”
As Madley explains with understandable contrition – he filmed a disabled man walking in front of his car and sent it to a mate, suggesting he would be able to beat him in a race. On the face of it, and without context, not a pleasant thing to do. He acknowledges this repeatedly. But context matters. It was his daughter’s school sports day. He had “joked with parents about not taking part in a parents race ... claims back at me that I was scared of losing. All good banter”. This was after Mark Halsey had written a newspaper article saying he was making mistakes because he was too fat.
He wrote: “F**k me I have a chance of winning the parents race this year.” It was self-deprecating. He sent it to one person. It does not make him beyond criticism, or beyond sanction. But did he really deserve to lose his job? After falling out with that friend regarding a “family issue” Madley says the friend, in a bizarre act of retribution, sent the video on a USB stick to the Professional Game Match Officials Board. He was called to a meeting and dismissed “with immediate effect for gross misconduct”.
“At that point my world fell apart,” he says. What followed were a series of spurious rumours on social media and in the press – including one suggesting he had been filmed having sex with a dog. He ended up being given police protection following threats from people purporting to be animal rights activists. Now, 18 months later, he lives and referees in Norway. “People have no idea the reputational damage something like that can do, never mind the mental issues it can cause.”
If we take Madley’s words at face value, it is hard not to feel huge sympathy. And it does feel that the PGMOL were too hasty in letting him go. But while it’s easier to forgive Madley once you understand the context of his misdemeanour – his sacking makes more sense when you consider what would have happened if the video had got out and they hadn’t fired him. In the press, on social media, on the pitch?
Social media would go into meltdown – for a while at least. The dog story trended worldwide. Faceless Twitter handles would determine that they knew “the real Bobby Madley” from a seven-second video. Madley says he produced evidence that he worked for disabled children’s charities at the formal disciplinary hearing two weeks after he was dismissed. He also points out that his father suffered from a disability which had a huge impact on his upbringing.
The PGMOL must have sat in a room and decided it wouldn’t have been worth the effort to stick by him – to weather the storm until another story became more interesting – another name to go in between “#” and “out” for a few weeks.
The author Jon Ronson has written an excellent book on this subject, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It begins with the story of a woman posting a bad‑taste joke on Twitter before flying to South Africa to do some work and losing her job by the time she lands. All the while she is oblivious – 36,000 feet in the wifi-less air. Eleven hours of a social media backlash cost her her career. Interestingly that is something Madley doesn’t want to happen to the friend with the USB stick. “All that serves to do is to direct hate and abuse their way and that’s what I suffered myself. I don’t wish that on anyone.”
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Perhaps there is an irony in a referee asking for consistency but, as Madley explains: “The decision to this day still stuns me. The same week that a politician referred to Muslim women as letterboxes and made no apology. That man now leads the country as PM. Whilst my actions were badly misjudged, it was a joke.”
Madley may not have posted his video on the internet. But his is a salutory lesson in what could happen to any of us. There will be those who believe he got what he deserved. Forgiveness – particularly online – seems in short supply and it’s often partisan and inconsistent.
“I am proud that I have kept my dignity and integrity and hopefully I can move forward on and off the pitch and learn from my own mistakes, maybe I can use that to help others and make sure they don’t make the same mistake I did that lost me everything.”
Bobby Madley is looking forward. And while Mike Riley and the PGMOL have a lot of decisions to make on the pitch in the new few months – perhaps one of their first could be to open the door for their former employee to get back on it if he ever returns to this country.