A close-up of the grass on a football pitch.

Strength, hope and football: A Black referee’s story

There are so many ways a person can be strong. Physical power immediately springs to mind, but strength manifests itself in our feelings, resilience, resistance and endurance. It shows itself through courage and determination, but equally through love and the way we care for others. When Aji Ajibola is on the pitch, you might be impressed by his physical strength and endurance, but what you cannot see is that his strength runs far deeper.

His days begin early. Many hours before he even thinks about his role as a Senior Account Manager at Canon UK Business Solutions, he is up and training for his “other job” as a National League football referee. A lifelong football player and fan, he thinks nothing of his regular 5am training sessions in his home gym. “It’s a lifestyle,” he explains. “I can be done by six thirty, before anyone gets out of bed and still get into a normal daily routine”. This is Aji all over. He never wastes a moment. “You just have to come to terms with the fact that you’re never going to live to be 300 – that every second is precious.” This is a lesson that he learnt at a painfully young age. Aji was only 16 when he lost his mother and was suddenly thrust into a world where he was the only one who had his back. He understood that he had a choice, and he chose to honour her. “The fact she left so early made me want to prove her right – that I can be what I want to be in life.” It’s fair to say that his mother was absolutely correct and Aji found his strength, working hard to fund himself through college, university and a master’s degree. He now has a successful career and is a devoted family man. But among this he has a second lifelong love – football. And it is through football that a vulnerable young man became a strong Black leader.

Two men running on a football pitch. The man on the left is wearing a bright blue strip with white trim. On the right, the referee wears a magenta t-shirt, black shorts and matching socks. Behind them sit player in the dugout.
“If we see more Black and brown people in leadership roles, then it mobilises the community to think and believe we can do it.”

Out of over 2000 referees in the United Kingdom, Aji is one of only four who are Black or Asian. And there have only been nine Black or Asian referees in the 150-year history of British football. A place in British footballing history wasn’t part of Aji’s plan, but injuries have a habit of derailing even the strongest players. While playing County Football, he sustained multiple fractures from what he describes as a “foolhardy tackle” (“I played football the way I approach life – you play to win, that’s probably why I ended up in sales,” he laughs). It forced him onto the side-lines for six months and when he returned to play, he just wasn’t the same. “I went from being the player everyone feared because they didn’t want to get injured, to the player who feared everyone because I didn’t want them to tackle me,” he admits. He quickly dropped down from Captain to bench, too young to understand that his injury didn’t just affect him physically, but mentally too. “I guess I had, what I might describe now in my later years, mental scarring from that injury. The player I was wasn’t the player I wanted to be.” It was through sheer coincidental timing that the football league mandated a trained referee at every club. Aji was a smart young man, studying at university and committed to the team, so he was the natural choice to go on the course. Once qualified, he was surprised to receive calls asking him to referee other matches – paid! For nineteen-year-old Aji, it opened a door, and he found a way to be on the pitch that meant he wasn’t at risk of a bad tackle. But, moreover, he found that it gave him a sense of control in a world where nothing came easy.

“I always feel I’m in control of players, management and staff because as a Black man in the room, I am the figure of authority, whether they like it or not. And some won’t like it. But they’ll get honesty, clarity, and the laws of the game. That’s what I’m there to do.” That’s not to say that racism doesn’t rear its ugly head within the rigid structures of the leagues – it’s just significantly less overt than that which he experiences as he walks onto the pitch. “Basically, there aren’t enough people who look like me in refereeing,” he states, matter of factly. “As a consequence, actions and decisions that I take stick in people’s minds. And they remember me for a long time.” Booing and jeering are commonplace, but Aji holds his head high. “The referee is always the pantomime villain and people say, ‘they’re having a go at the uniform, not you personally, Aji’, but I hear the language they use. So, you tend to grow an additional layer of thick skin, as a Black referee, to deal with it.”

Right: A man in a black referee’s uniform stands with his right arm outstretched. To his left and rear is a footballer wearing a yellow top and blue shorts. On the left a quote that reads: “I am the figure of authority, whether they like it or not. And some won’t like it. But they’ll get honesty, clarity, and the laws of the game. That’s what I’m there to do.”

Aji is also a Canon Mental Health Champion, which brings with it an understanding of how dangerous it can be to adopt self-defeating mindsets and to not challenge thoughts that might otherwise take you into troubling and unhealthy places. “You’re embarrassed about not calling certain things out, not being your true authentic self… hiding things.” But he acknowledges how hard it can be when so much is expected of you. After all, Aji’s white contemporaries largely are not expected to shoulder the responsibilities of the job as well as being a ‘community role model’ in the same way he and his few Black colleagues are. “As a Black man I don’t have a choice,” he explains. “My life is what it is, and I am who I am. Whilst I am proud of who I am, I don’t have the choice but to try to make it a better place, not just for me, but for my community.” For Aji, this means a role as Vice Chair of the BAME Referee Support Group, as well as sitting on the FA Council representing National Game Communities. He also co-founded the Canon UK BAME Steering Group, who work alongside Human Resources to educate, support and guide the business. “If we see more Black and brown people in leadership roles, then it mobilises the community to think and believe we can do it,” he says. “You also take the opportunity to educate all those around you, as a leader. That becomes the standard thing to do.”

A bespectacled man in a suit jacket and open necked white shirt sits in front of a window, through which you can see a lush green lawn.
From business suit…
A man in a black referee’s uniform stands on a football pitch with his right arm outstretched. To his left and rear is a footballer wearing a yellow top, blue shorts and matching socks. There are blurred figures in the background who appear to be sat in the players dugout. Behind them are the crowd, who are watching the match.
To referee’s kit.

Anyone who has met Aji will be familiar with his optimism, positive energy and the way he empathises with others. His lived experience helps him to see the lights of progress flickering. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, but there are far more allies and far more people in positions of power and authority who are willing to adopt zero tolerance,” he reports. “There are a lot of platforms for education now as well – for people trying to educate themselves and learn how we came to be where we are, particularly how Black people arrived at where we are in society today.” He looks to women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as wider intersectionality, to inform the way he thinks about identity, and uses this in everything he does. “It all creates better allyship, an inclusive culture and a better way of working in a sporting context,” he says. “So, for me that’s a positive that I work to and look forward to because it enables me to go to work – I call it work because it’s like a second job, really – looking forward to new experiences and the new positive energy I’m going to derive from them.” 

Aji is a man who is physically capable of running the length and width of a football pitch, dozens of times over ninety minutes. He is also a man who has endured the pain of loss, challenged the expectations of others, supported his friends and community, succeeded against the odds and carries the hopes and aspirations of others with him wherever he goes. And these, above all, are the measure of true strength.

Written by Lucy Sheppard, Internal Communications, Canon UK