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.
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 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.
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.
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