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Dave Ross: Why Referees get abused

(Thursday, December 11, 1997) -- "Come on, ref! There are two teams on the field. Call it both ways!"


Variations on a theme. And the theme is the verbal abuse of referees by players, coaches and team officials. Abuse is not too strong a word to use to describe the comments shouted at referees during and after matches.

In most jurisdictions, any survey of the reasons why referees drop out would have verbal harassment at the top of the list. As more than one official has said, "I have better things to do with my life than put up with that nonsense."

Why do players, coaches and team officials insist on berating referees? (Fans, too, verbally abuse referees, but that is another topic.)

To oversimplify, there are probably three reasons. The first is the frustration that arises during the heat of battle. This can usually be handled easily by the referee, either by ignoring the comments or by having quiet word with the offender. The shouts of "What was that, referee?" and "Open your eyes, ref!" may in the context of a physical sport have no significance beyond the incident that provoked the spontaneous outburst. Nonetheless, such comments must be monitored, to prevent them from becoming an epidemic.

The second reason for verbally abusing game officials is gamesmanship. Here the intention may range from intimidation of the referee to getting the next call to trying to direct the referee's attention to things that one team thinks will help it. "That's the third time he's done that, referee!" and "Watch that No. 10, he keeps going in from behind." These are examples of gamesmanship. It is something that referees must be aware of and must be prepared to deal with quickly.

The third reason for referee abuse, paradoxically, has little to do with the actual officiating. Rather, directing criticism at the referee becomes a means of organizational self-preservation. A loss, for example, can call into question organizational (team) objectives, task performance, perceived superiority or individual and team skills. When such questions arise, team cohesion can be threatened. If the team is to continue as a unified body with a strong sense of identity, it must look for some outside cause for its setbacks. (This is no different than what happens in society, where blame for social or economic problems is placed on some other identifiable group.) It is a lot easier to externalize problems - to blame things on the referee -- than to look within oneself to the true causes of defeat.

Much of the responsibility for abuse of game officials must rest with those who manage and run soccer teams. Even if anger is the dominant response, abuse of officials need not be the automatic reaction unless that kind of behavior is encouraged by the immediate environment, an environment in which the coaching staff plays a vital role. By the same token, coaches who encourage a "win at all costs" mentality are much more likely to use, to encourage and to condone gamesmanship, including attempting to influence or sway the referee in favor of their teams. Given the trust and respect that most coaches enjoy, these attitudes are quickly communicated to the players.

Finally, attempting to maintain organizational cohesion does not excuse sideline behavior that deflects responsibility. Coaches and players need to appreciate the fact that the referee is an integral part of the game, as is a winger, a goalkeeper or an assistant coach, and that the referee's role needs to be respected.

They also need to understand that even the best teams do not have things go their way all the time. By recognizing that setbacks can occur, by emphasizing longer-term goals and gradual improvements (so that no one loss is seen as a threat to team stability) and by channeling consistent, corrective action in a positive manner, coaches, team officials and players can work for the benefit of the game, without the need to search for scapegoats.

David Ross lives in Canada and edits the Canadian Soccer Referee magazine. He has officiated in Canada, the U.S., Cuba and El Salvador. This article originally appeared in Soccer America in October, 1992, and was reprinted with permission from the November/December issue of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's Soccer Journal, a bimonthly magazine dedicated to coaching education. For additional information on the NSCAA, call 800-458-0678.

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