Editorial: Sorry Everyone, but it’s Time to Respect Referees (and do it publicly)



We make the argument that each side should appoint one player whose job it is to communicate with the referee. Some choices would be better than others.

We make the argument that each side should appoint one player whose job it is to communicate with the referee. Some choices would be better than others.

Let’s face it everyone hates referees.

Supporters only notice them when calls go against their side. The abuse referees take for those decisions is in no way comparable to any praise they may receive for awarding the same team a glut of penalties or sending off a succession of opponents.

Besides, it is not even the core mission of the referee to assist one side’s bid for victory but to interpret and apply the laws of the game. All too frequently however, we have seen verbal assaults on referees, even where they applied those rules absolutely correctly.

Fans are of course entitled both to their opinion and to voice it. They may object to receiving the same amount of abuse in their own workplace but they have no overriding obligation to the facts, or the good of the game. Nor have they any obligation to sit quietly at a match.

A higher standard applies to those involved in the game in a playing, coaching or ownership capacity.

The recent appalling events in the Netherlands are an extreme example. Four teenagers have been charged with manslaughter after a vicious assault on a linesman at a youth league game.

The full facts are not yet known about that incident and it may be more symbolic of a traditional lack of respect for authority in Dutch culture, or  a clutch of other matters. There was a far higher profile case recently in the English Premier League.

In a very tempestuous match between Chelsea and Manchester United, referee Mark Clattenburg sent off two Chelsea players. In the officials’ locker room after the match, Chelsea midfielder Jon Obi Mikel apparently threatened Clattenburg, for which he received a three match ban.

Chelsea publicly accused Clattemburg of making racist remarks against Mikel, accusations which very soon proved to be totally unfounded. Yet, despite Clattenburg’s obvious innocence in the matter, he missed four weeks of refereeing while the truth eventually surfaced.

MLS PRO General Manager Peter Walton in an interview with Prost Amerika cautions against drawing the wrong conclusions from recent events:

“What has shocked here is that you got two isolated incidents that have attracted far more media attention than they really should do. What we are endangering ourselves of doing is suggesting that we have an issue where an issue doesn’t exist.

You do have an undercurrent of respect and that’s important. But in terms of taking those two isolated incidents, it’s just a coincidence as far as I am concerned which perhaps the media have built up more than they should have done.”

Others will claim that the Clattenburg incident is more a testament to the spoilt nature of the EPL’s big clubs, this being far from Chelsea’s first offence.

Didier Drogba was fined for his post match outburst against Norwegian referee Tom Ovrebo after a series of highly contentious non calls against Barcelona in a UEFA Champions League semi final.

That his outburst was captured on video and seen by a global audience cannot have helped his case.

In that case, Drogba was overcome with emotion and could argue that he had lost the ability to calmly discern what was appropriate behaviour.

It also helps his case that Ovrebro was a hopelessly over promoted referee who later demonstrated the same fecklessness at the same level in a Bayern Munich match against Fiorentina.

Older EPL fans will remember the shameless hounding of referee Andy D’Urso in 2000 by Manchester United’s Roy Keane and his colleagues including a young David Beckham forcing D’Urso to retreat or be barged over.

Mikel received a three game ban for threatening ClattenburgPhoto: Scott Marsh

Mikel received a three game ban for threatening Clattenburg
Photo: Scott Marsh

In other cases it appears premeditated. 1980 and 90s Arsenal coach George Graham is now widely accepted to have encouraged his players to surround the referee after every adverse decision, whether right or wrong.

Sir Alex Ferguson was working along the same lines in Aberdeen in the same era north of Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps the Scots are to blame.

Nowadays, it seems universally accepted that you may surround the referee to attempt to influence his decision using whatever physical presence or words that will influence him. To do so is to attempt to dissuade him out of using his judgment on the facts alone as a criterion.

Football stands alone in this respect.

What is acceptable on the football field is completely unacceptable elsewhere – try surrounding the judge’s bench with several bodies, yelling loudly, in a court of law or even at a workplace administrative tribunal, where far more important decisions than who gets a free kick are decided.

It isn’t even acceptable in other sports.

Rugby Union has a clear rule that only the captain and the scrum leader may approach the referee to inquire as to the thinking behind a decision.

New players are instructed to act accordingly. Paul Horne of the Canadian Rugby Union wrote in his circular about how to captain a side:

“Do not irritate the referee, or allow the referee to irritate you. Don’t let your teammates speak to the referee.”

That system broadly works, yet highly paid footballers and their even better rewarded coaches in our sport have leeway to intimidate officials with impunity.

Even in cricket where appealing for a decision is part of the system, there are regulations and penalties for over appealing.

Major League Soccer has not escaped. Last season, all three Cascadian clubs were penalised for their own incidents regarding officials.

Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid was fined $2,000 and banned for a game for his live on air comments about referee Ricardo Salazar, Vancouver’s Barry Robson was suspended for launching the ball at a referee and missed a Cascadian derby for his troubles, but the biggest fine was levied on Portland owner Merritt Paulson for ‘inappropriate conduct directed at the officials, and through the use of social media, during and after the Timbers’ match against D.C. United on Sept 29, 2012‘.”

Paulson declined the opportunity to comment on the issue of respect for referees for this article. Schmid has used his press conference to attack referees more often than not when things don’t go his way, occasionally straying well over the line of arguing a decision was wrong into the area of a personal attack. Through the Sounders FC Press Office, he also declined to comment on the issue of respect for officials.

In our opinion both Cascadian clubs abrogated an opportunity to show leadership on this issue in the off season, after a year where they were both more than keen to publicly disrespect officials during it.

At the time of the Barry Robson ban, the club admitted the ban was deserved and they actually have a decent history in this respect.  Former coach Teitur Thordarsson refused to blame a referee after the club’s elimination from the USL in 2010 despite being invited to do so by a journalist.

Even in the case of the Robson suspension where they found out on the eve of an afternoon kick off, club President Bob Lenarduzzi refused to divert blame from their own performance on the timing of the news.

We also asked the Whitecaps for a quote on the issue and they were happy to point us to remarks Lenarduzzi made about officials at his sleep out for the homeless, where he affirmed his respect for what they do; and ask us to reaffirm them:

“Throughout my years, my playing days and my coaching days, it’s always been a love/hate relationship with the officials. I’ve always respected what they do.”

Vancouver were not the only club willing to encourage greater respect for officials. Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey did respond to a request for a quote for this article:

“I think we all need to treat the officials as human beings and respect them as people. Personally, I find that human beings respond to a kind word more often than they respond to a caustic insult, so I would be an advocate of treating the referees with a higher level of respect and decorum.”

Once in a while, it is acceptable for a club to put the good of the game above the short term interest of controlling and manipulating fan opinion.

We hope that as Paulson and Schmid chose not to speak on respect for referees for this article, they can perhaps at least be consistent and maintain that policy of silence on refereeing throughout next season.

Sadly, the inference is that the both wish to reserve the right to continue to scapegoat officials for poor results in 2013. Fans should be well aware of this tactic by now and need to be getting smarter when it happens.

One player from each side discusses a decision at a club rugby game in Oregon
Photo: Mark Murray


One recent case magnified the cynicism with which clubs do it.

The pillorying and vilification of Ricardo Salazar by Seattle fans continued online for days following Schmid’s comments. GM Adrian Hanauer stirred the pot further when he told Don Ruiz of the Tacoma News Tribune he had expressed unhappiness at Salazar’s appointment for the Salt Lake game.

That was public. Behind the scenes however, the club was apologising for Schmid’s comments. To have gone public with that apology would have helped de-escalate the situation immensely. Did they want the best of both worlds; an angry fan base blaming Salazar for a disappointing result, but also contemporaneously trying to lessen the likely punishment by apologising to the referee, hoping their fans would never find out?

Cynically one can conclude that keeping their fanbase once more feeling victimsed met their immediate needs better than encouraging respect for an official who, by and large, had made the right calls – at least on that day. If not, why make the apology privately?

But does it matter? There is one argument that the level of abuse referees take actually worsens the standard.

Dustin Edwards is a 16 year veteran of refereeing across the USA who now officiates in Seattle. He admits that abuse from the touchline makes the drop out rate after one year far higher than it need be:

“I get emails during the season daily from multiple assignors begging referees to come do this game or that game. Games not having referees, or referees being assigned at the last minute, or inexperienced referees being given games they cannot handle is a big problem simply because there are not enough referees.

The reason why their are not enough referees is because of abuse.

It’s the same story everywhere but I have something more specific because it’s hard to find numbers to these sorts of things. I have a referee friend who is an assignor and trainer in Minnesota.

Last year in Minnesota they trained in total 4000 referees, 1700 of which were brand new. The year before (2011) they had trained 4400, which means they had lost 2100 of their referee population from 2011 to 2012 and so they had 1700 referees on their very first games, and it goes on like that every year same story in every state.

Young referees leave because of abuse every year, it’s a constant problem which the older more experienced referees have to try and fix, but it’s getting hard.”

However another official who has progressed up the ranks to officiate in MLS was certain that abuse was part of the problem but cutting it out was not the complete solution. He spoke to us candidly on the condition of anonymity:

“Absolutely (abuse) contributes….some folks are not cut out for the job, others aren’t willing to put up with the BS, and others are lucky enough to either not have to deal with it. At at the youth level, I think there is a significant issue with adequate training.

Essentially, you are given a small amount of training, pass the test, and they cut you loose. I was fortunately enough to seek follow-up advice and happened to seek it from the right people.”

He advocated a two step process for stopping the high drop out rate:

“There are a lot of jerk coaches/parents out there and, when referees are sent into the trenches with no tools for dealing with out-of-control individuals, then the hobby is no longer fun and they find something else to do with their spare time.

I think it is 2-fold: coaches/players/parents/spectators not being put in check and referees not understanding the appropriate avenues for when they encounter those individuals.”

As part of our effort to improve the situation, we would endorse that and Walton’s ideas in the interview about better communication within the entire soccer community. Let’s see Supporters Groups invited to attend functions where referees and administrators like Mr Walton can discuss issues informally. We would also add that club officials keep in check the understandable temptation to whip up fans’ unhappiness with decisions and act with some sort of restraint.

And thirdly, and with the utmost respect, we would disagree with Peter Walton in one point in his interview with us.

Prost Amerika would like to advocate a trial policy for the Rugby Union rule where one player on each team is the “Designated Spokesman”. He does not have to be the captain but he alone is allowed to approach a referee and question the basis for a decision.

Scenes of players surrounding the referee set a bad example

Scenes of players surrounding the referee set a bad example


Under our experiment, no other player may encroach, yell or attempt to influence the referee including making fake gestures simulating showing a card to an opponent. To attempt to influence the official in this matter would be considered ‘ungentlemanly conduct’ and could be punished the same way as simulation. It’s the same thing; an attempt to influence an official into a bad decision.

In rugby, the referee just moves any free kick ten yards closer to the goal of the infringing player, but the sanction can also be a yellow card or a subsequent fine. The important thing is that the type of chaotic haranguing of the official ceases.

If MLS does not wish to pioneer, let’s try it in the earlier rounds of the Open Cup, or see if the USL, NASL or PDL are brave enough to be the testing ground.

Mr Walton believes that respect cascades down from players’ attitude to referees, all the way to spectators.

Dustin Edwards believe that young players are also influenced by the verbals MLS players are freely permitted to give to referees.

“When I see players on the biggest stages for our sport in the world acting like children it just justifies players at lower levels to replicate their behavior and I know I’ll see something like that next weekend. What do you do when you’re a child? You copy your idols, you don’t question them because they play the game you love at the level you could only dream of.”

We will never know how many good referees US soccer has lost already because they experienced abuse in year one. Seeing David Beckham do it, seeing parents do it, seeing coaches, seeing owners do it at the final whistle cannot help.

Edwards concludes that in his 16 years of refereeing, certain patterns are noticeable and there is most definitely a connection between the conduct of public figures and what he has to confront in the days after :

“What’s interesting about this kind of thing is that I’ve been reffing for a very long time, brawls have happened occasionally but their few and far between. I have noticed though that after a big nationally broadcast brawl even in a different sport like basketball in high school sports there’s always a few brawls that following week.”

These individuals who try and pin blame on referees may be making themselves feel better and may be courting popularity with the fans, but they also may want to consider the knock-on effect of those televised images and how many referees on the way up the system will be affected by their actions.

We are losing people who may have turned out to be the best referees.

And the blame may partly lie with those moaning the loudest about the quality of those left.

Also See:

I am a referee and a Sounders fan – and this is my say

Meireles Banned for Eleven Games for Spitting at Referee

FA plot to end millionaire lynch mobs – Daily Telegraph 2008


About Author

Steve is the founder and owner of Prost Amerika. He covered the expansion of MLS soccer in Cascadia at first hand. As Editor in Chief of soccerly.com, he was accredited at the 2014 World Cup Final. He is the former President of the North American Soccer Reporters Association/ Originally from Glasgow, he is a supporter of the Great Glasgow Alternative, Partick Thistle.


  1. Fair but Honest on

    Good job Prost, way to be part of that “media have built up more than they should have done” .

    However, I do agree that only one player from each team should be allowed to talk with the referee. Anyone else should be yellow carded.

    • So you agreed with the one positive recommendation I made.

      And with due respect to Peter, the events in Holland were being discussed the world over and the KNVB halted the non league program.

      It wasn’t just the media.

      • Fair but Honest on

        Just because I don’t agree with the overall tone of your article doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the single good point.

        Who has the greatest influence on world opinion? The media.
        Who jumps on any story with controversy or tragedy to sensationalize it? The media.
        The media certainly plays its part in all negative aspects of our sport.

        • I don’t disagree totally with that. But the media are also the ones who hold the powerful accountable.

          Without the Panorama program and the Sunday Times, the corruption at FIFA would have never been exposed.

          Calling something ‘sensationalism’, is not a valid substitute for a cogently put disagreement.

  2. I’ve generally liked what you have written up till recently, but of late your posts have been baiting and antagonistic. I’ve decided I have better things to do with my eyeballs, so I’m dropping your site out of my RSS feed reader.

    Thanks for the work you’ve done, and I hope you’ll be getting back to talking soccer soon, but for now. See ya.

    • A nice twist on the ‘you just lost a reader’ comment.

      I’m sorry you think asking for more respect for officials is ‘antagonistic’.

      I can’t help but wonder whether you’d think that if you tried refereeing for a game or two.

      • If you read the whole thing I wrote, you’ll see that I am speaking to the content of your blog in recent weeks, not just the specific subject of refs.

        Like I said before, thanks for the work you’ve done, but I won’t be checking in anymore. Maybe when the season starts back up again.

        • Bizarrely the ‘you just lost a reader’ brigade always return to see if their posturing got any reaction.

          We change editorial line when we read a reasoned counter- argument.

          No-one has put a case for less respectful treatment for officials.

          • Fair but Honest on

            Perhaps no one reading this has a problem with respecting the referees more, but with the manner with which Prost approaches the subject.

      • Fair but Honest on

        Badger has a valid point, so many of the recent articles on this site have been focused on sensationalism.

        • Fair but Honest,

          You have contributed nothing to the debate other than repeated comments showing a grudge with Prost.

          To the article, it forgot to consider video evidence and perhaps put too much onus on players and coaches to stop pressurizing refs. If we want them to get it right, they should have access to replays.

          • Its true though, I have personally shared this same sentiment of discontent with the way prost articles push the reader. Lets take this article off the top. It calls supporters out when typically(at least in seattle) the supporters are the only ones to look at the situation for what it is. Sometimes they get it wrong but often they come back and say so becuase they record the matches and watch them later. I think the worse thing though is the fact that when readers make a comment of discontent prost actually responds to them and almost badgers them for their opinions. Its not enjoyable. The comment section should be for reader discussion, not editor replies. I think prost could do a lot of good, but sometimes it feels like this site gets caught up in an ego trip(for lack of a more respectful term). People are rarely happy with refs that’s a fact in sports. But one has to admit that the us refs are pretty awful and its caused by a poor pay scale and guarantees.

  3. Expecting FIFA to designate extra powers for the captaincy? Might be a reasonable idea, but I think there are far, far bigger fish to fry. Like all the corruption.

    Which means maybe they’d be all over this.

    You have my permission to go petition Sepp.

  4. Ricardo Salazar is a sad excuse for a referee. He has an unprofessional bias against Seattle. Sigi was right to blast him. Salazar’s self serving ego is detrimental to the game. It seems he is more about him than the game. Keep him away from the Sounders!

    • I believe that you do not know much of what you’re talking about, you simply bought into the propaganda.

  5. A counterpoint would be in baseball, where umpires have overturned their calls based on managers arguing with them, such as if a fan interfered with a player for a ball. That sort of situation is only in cut-and-dried instances (ground rules, verifying the count, etc.) and not on judgement decisions like balls and strikes calls (an automatic ejection).

    Also, coaches in all sports complain about the officiating as a way to show support for their players, that they’ve for their backs, and they’ll take the suspension in exchange for rousing the troops. It must work quite often, or otherwise it wouldn’t happen as much. I think that’s who Schmid et al. Carp as much, to show how far they’ll go to support their players.

  6. I run the line at high school level and the comments from parents are terrible. Thank you for writing this. It’s time someone spoke out for referees and ARs against the bullies.

  7. Good article on a subject that’s long overdue for being addressed. If we want good referees, we need to give them a chance to succeed and part of that is respecting the people who take up the task to referee our games, from the top right down to U-littles.

  8. I think one way we can show respect to referees is to give them the tools to do their jobs better. Soccer referees are given the hardest job in sports and are given the least amount of resources to do it. We need more referees on the field, instant replay, and goalline technology.

    I agree that players need to be put back in their place. The NBA has recently adopted a rule that essentially any outburst results in a technical foul. Any outburst aimed at undermining the referee should be a yellow card. I believe the infringing player should be able to calmly ask for clarification but only in a respectful manner.

    • That may help the top level but it won’t help the vast majority of games which are played at the lower levels. Referees are mistreated and abused and quit in their first year.

    • Fair enough. I feel it would have been a diversion from the core of the article and it was long enough, but you’re right. It should be part of the mix.

      Interesting idea from the NBA. How’s it working out?

      • I don’t follow the NBA as much as I used to for obvious reasons but as far as I can tell its working out like you would expect. People freaked out at first over the extra technical’s but the players seem to be learning the new line. A lot of pundits didn’t like it because its “an emotional game” and players “aren’t robots” yada yada.

        However, i think its was a positive change. I see more rational discussions with referee’s about the call now instead of straight up disrespect. I have no problem with a player asking for an explanation for why he was called for a foul. the problem comes when its constant whining instead of a discourse so you as a player can avoid making a foul the next time.

  9. Rehashing, again, the ‘how not to be a ***** supporter debate’ may have been grasping a little for site hits in the off season, but promoting an honest discussion about refs outside of an emotionally charged in-season environment hardly seems like sensationalizing. Also, unless this is the first Prost article you’ve ever read, you should be familiar with their tone of “we are pushing you to think outside of your predetermined assumptions” whether or not we/you are correct. I for one appreciate the challenge.

    “A higher standard applies to those involved in the game in a playing, coaching or ownership capacity.”

    Agreed. I have no problem with irrational fans. Fans don’t need to save their energy for planning strategy and running around for 90 min. More to the point, if fans were objective, home field advantage would not exist.

    One final point of sympathy for refs; I thank god for police as a general rule, but I’m not exactly singing their praises. Sometimes positions of authority get a bad rep and then only the power hungry and insane will be willing to carry the mantle. I try to stifle my disdain for police and refs, but a few pints of beer and the anonymity of the internet aren’t exactly tempering my emotions.

      • Yeah, because humans are known for their objectivity and self reflection. Give me a break. When it comes to self improvement, be it sports or intellectual pursuits, nothing will substitute for the pressure and critical evaluation of others. The reality is that humans have a limited perspective and those of us who would like to be stronger/smarter tomorrow than we are today are aware of the humility and assumption reassessments required.

        Personal anecdote: I went to a college where everyone was a Democrat. I work in a place where few are. The Democrats here are better at articulating their reasons for being democrats BECAUSE they are constantly challenged and have to have good well thought out arguments.

        Feel free to stick to your rhetoric and self assuredness if it comforts you. I prefer to be challenged by the media, my wife, my coworkers, my snowboarding friends, and anyone else who can push me out of my comfort zone, even you.

        Qualifier – As someone with a master’s degree in physics who works in the field, I may bristle slightly at the suggestion that objective critical thinking is outside of my skill set, and apologize if I come off preachy, but it is something I know a little about.

    • FF,

      Some very good points which I’d like to respond to.

      “Rehashing, again, the ‘how not to be a ***** supporter debate’ may have been grasping a little for site hits in the off season, but promoting an honest discussion about refs outside of an emotionally charged in-season environment hardly seems like sensationalizing. “

      A linesman in Holland was murdered. A top EPL ref threatened in his changing room. I’m not sure how an article talking about respect is sensationalising anything. Someone died. The logic of why something so tragic should be allow to pass without concern mystifies me. On the contrary, the incidents demand attention from those in positions to start discussion. I take your point re the first article. With no MLS matches, of course we have to be a little more inventive to keep people engaged.


      Also, unless this is the first Prost article you’ve ever read, you should be familiar with their tone of “we are pushing you to think outside of your predetermined assumptions” whether or not we/you are correct. I for one appreciate the challenge.

      Exactly. You get it. It would be easy to churn out the bland, unchallenging gush that tells everyone how marvelous we all are, and how well we are doing. If you want constant uncritical praise just for being a Sounders fan, then this is not the right site for you. If we lead fans to think and talk about new things, then we have achieved our mission. Our mission is not to be safe just to accumulate praise and gratitude from the establishment. The San Francisco Chronicle called Prost, ‘the thinking man’s soccer site’. I hope never to let that monicker down. Always keep thinking.


      Fans don’t need to save their energy for planning strategy and running around for 90 min. More to the point, if fans were objective, home field advantage would not exist.

      I was careful right at the start to exempt fans from this. They should be allowed to call officials whatever they want within the bounds of current rules about racism, homophobia and sexism. Maybe even stoutism. However, those in the game should act responsibly in deliberately exacerbating genuine angst after the matches are over.

      I thank god for police as a general rule, but I’m not exactly singing their praises.

      That’ll change when your house is robbed! It always does.

      Last point is that I too like to be challenged by my readers. And have been over the years and have regularly changed my mind because of it.

      • “That’ll change when your house is robbed! It always does.”

        Yeah, funny how that works, eh? I’ve only claimed to strive for perfection. I’ve never claimed to approach it!

      • Fair but Honest on

        You Prost people really do assume everyone who call you out on your poor journalism is a Sounders fan.

        “The logic of why something so tragic should be allow to pass without concern mystifies me.”

        Of course it mystifies you, you are part of the media. You see it as a great opportunity to do what you do best, sensationalize death and tragedy.

  10. A good thoughtful article. Just as club youth players imitate their professional favorites, so also do young refs. I feel way too many fouls are not called at the pro level. I know the different level of play and all that, but too much goes uncalled. At the youth level, parents and players expect everything to be called perfectly. This is where the trouble starts. I like the one person only be allowed to talk to the ref. Merry Christmas!

    • Thank mykeeb,

      You’ll notice I never said our referees were perfect or that their performance couldn’t be better. I even took to task one referee who I though was overpromoted.

      Saying that the refs are great and thinking you have contributed, is no better than saying the opposite and thinking you have helped.

    • This is a problem. I’ve instructed referees to not watch the MLS for refereeing tips or examples. It may be good for some discussion, but if you’re a new referee it might really mess you up.

  11. Terrible journalism.

    What it made up for in identifying the problem, examples, experts quoted, new information, a conclusion, recommendations and photographs, it totally lacked in sucking off the Sounders Front Office.

    Which as we all know is the definition of good journalism in ****tle.

  12. I’ve always wondered why the refs in MLS matches don’t just wave everyone away and just talk to one person. Even though there isn’t currently a specific rule about one person, maybe the ref can inform the benches before the match starts that he will allow only the team captain from each team to “discuss” things with him. Any others could be yellow carded for “Dissent”, since the ref made it clear from the beginning what his expectations were.

    I found this a while back which was refreshing, it may have even been an article I read on this site that pointed me to them, Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediye Spor Kulübü, the fans of which have a slogan “Hakem haklı beyler!” (The referee is correct gentleman).

  13. Not that I necessarily agree with that view, but in the tribal culture of the locker room, the players do get fired up when they see the coach stand up for them in the face of (alleged) bad calls. If the coach doesn’t, it’s like he’s throwing the players under the bus, and he’ll lose the locker room.