Monday, October 20, 2008
I was watching the World Cup qualifying match between England and Kazakhstan at Wembley Stadium when something flashed along the advertising board on the sidelines: "7,000 referees quit every season." I'm assuming that this was in Great Britain or perhaps even just in England proper. Either way, it is a disturbing statistic. Every referee that quits has to be replaced by a new referee who won't be as experienced as the referee he or she took the place of. Replacing 7,000 referees seems almost impossible. Each person has to be trained, tested, apprenticed, and certified before taking on games. And even then, the instincts that time and experience can hone won't have developed yet. Bad refereeing frustrates coaches, players, and fans, but novice refs can't hope to be excellent referees immediately.
When families are just learning about soccer and have only watched their own children's games, they may not have the expertise and context in which to judge the competency of referees. But naturally that doesn't stop sideline second guessing. Add to the mix that referees of youth games are usually the youngest and least experienced refs, and you end up with a volatile mix for sideline conflict. At one of Bryce's Under-10 games, the referee made a player do her throw in three times, declaring that each time the player had lifted her back foot. On the fourth attempt the girl planted both her feet firmly on the ground, threw the ball, and another whistle blew. Several parents exclaimed, "Not again!" at which point the referee turned and threw out most of the parents within listening range. This was a young ref who was trying to operate completely within the rules. It was a bitter cold day, but she made the players take off their warm-up pants and put on their shorts because the rule book didn't allow for warm-ups. She didn't yet have the experience to be comfortable with some common sense adjustment of the rules and the parents only saw her as the enemy.
I've often wondered what happened to that referee. Her dedication to the rules and decorum of the game were commendable if not misplaced. But she needed to learn how to adapt to the situations that weather, parents, fields, and equipment create. With time and mentoring she would have probably made a good referee, but I'm not sure she could survive her various trials by fire. If she didn't, she quit, and then she had to be replaced by another younger, untrained referee. Inexperienced referees with inexperienced fans makes for an unpleasant situation, which taxes everyone. But it's the only way everyone learns.
Two weekends ago Robbie played in a tournament outside St. Louis which featured some of the top high schools in the country. The competitive level rivaled some of the club teams Robbie has faced, which makes sense since many of the players came from top club teams in the nation. The sponsors understood their responsibility to provide good refs knowing that coaches, players, and fans had the experience to recognize the difference between good refereeing and mediocre. Nevertheless, some of the refereeing was excellent – fair, appropriate, and by the book and some was actually terrible – rookie mistakes, unbalanced application of fouls, and laziness. All of which I think speaks to the difficulty in locating sufficient referees having both experience and excellence. At the adult level, with expectations so high and the importance of winning even higher, coaches, fans, and players won't tolerate faulty refs. This results in even bolder attacks.
I have personally witnessed three physical attacks on referees and we hear of them on the news. Then there are the bottles, stones, spittle, and verbal harangues which referees have to endure during upper level games. So it is not surprising that after years of experience referees say to everyone, "Be careful what you wish for" and quit. If they aren't berated out of the sport, they may be unable to keep up. The most experienced referees are usually the oldest, and some of these aren't fit enough to keep up with the action. It's difficult to call offside when you are twenty yards behind the play. Once the fitness goes, their ability to be excellent referees diminishes. So they may quit or they may be asked to quit. Once again the system suffers the loss of experience that has to be replaced by a new referee.
It's difficult to expect anyone to continue in a job where he or she receives constant abuse. Yet we have all been to games that were played with only one or two referees because there weren't enough available referees. We have also been to games where referees never showed up, which is also not surprising. Given the option of snowboarding with friends and earning less than $20 while being criticized, a teenager might well select the former over the latter. This situation has led to more and more games for the youngest ages being played without benefit of referees. That's sad on two counts. First it means that games don't have the proper neutral supervision leaving coaches and parents to work out conflicts. Second it means that the first step in becoming an experienced referee has been eliminated, moving new refs into higher level games with more at stake for everyone.
I agree that bad refereeing can ruin a game, although I am of the belief that no loss can be totally blamed on the officiating. I also know that if teams were left to compete without benefit of refereeing, even bad refereeing, there would be chaos. Based on the variety of interpretations on things as simple as out of bound balls, I can't imagine most infractions would be resolved quickly and amicably without a referee. In effect, referees are the people we love to hate, and no matter their qualifications we call their decisions into question whenever they go against our team. So I guess what I am asking is for each of us to try and limit our criticism of the referees during games to just one or two well justified cat-calls. We need to trust our coaches and the captains of our soccer teams to handle what they feel are the most egregious mistakes of referees and settle for grumbling amongst ourselves on the sidelines. Otherwise we'll be adding scores of zeros to that 7,000 number and running out of replacements. The rest of the banner at Wembley Stadium read: "No respect, no referee, no game." No one wants that to come true.