Children's and grassroots sport remain a hotbed of racist abuse, according to a major Herald on Sunday survey. New Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says it's time to take a stand

The Race Relations Commissioner has condemned racism at junior sports events, as a new survey reveals high levels of racial abuse on the sidelines.

The Herald on Sunday this week polled referees, umpires, coaches and other sports officials to assess what behaviour, good and bad, they have witnessed on their sidelines - and, more importantly, what behaviour they would like to see.

The paper received 1,068 responses. Dame Susan Devoy, who has just become commissioner, is "disappointed but not surprised" 19 per cent of those polled reported seeing and hearing racial comments from supporters and parents.

"In the heat of the moment it is too easy to attack people because of their race or colour."


Dame Susan backed this newspaper's Sideline Champs campaign, aimed at encouraging good behaviour at winter sports. She wants people to hold abusers to account.

"You can't stand around and be an innocent spectator if this behaviour is going on around you," she adds. "If more people find the courage to tell people to stop racial abuse, then slowly we might begin to see a change in attitude. Let the kids know racial abuse is not right."

In recent weeks, there has been a rash of bad behaviour around the country, both on and off-field.

Last week, the Herald on Sunday revealed how stand-in referee Ronan Hallahan was headbutted by a coach during an under-7 Rippa Rugby match in Helensville; on Friday, the Herald interviewed an enraged father who dragged his son across a rugby league field at an under-9s game in Auckland and urged him to punch another boy in the face.

Our survey revealed many officials reporting high levels of positive cheering from fans and indicated a lot of supporters intervene constructively to help players and referees.

However, respondents also reported high levels of swearing, threats, abuse and ridicule.

Worryingly, almost 10 per cent said they had seen a person being punched and more than 5 per cent witnessed people being spat at. About 18 per cent also reported seeing inappropriate consumption of drugs or alcohol on the sidelines.

Officials condemned the incidents witnessed. One said: "Most poor behaviour comes via the coaches venting their frustration for their team's poor performance on the officials. This is often followed by the losing supporters joining the abuse, mostly after the game."

Another had observed an "opposition coach intimidating the ref and also making a junior player cry".

Simon Walters, a senior lecturer at the School of Sport and Recreation at AUT University, has published studies into sideline behaviour by coaches at kids' sports. He is heartened by the 80 per cent of officials who report fans supporting both teams, but he believes codes of conduct do not work and more of a focus on athlete development is required.

"The responses relating to threatening behaviour and racial abuse in the survey are concerning. People resent being 'told' what to do. They have to believe in something. If they do, better behaviour will follow. Education has to be the way forward."