#53 – Bad Referees

How Would You Deal With a Bad Referee?

I had occasion to find out how I would deal with a bad referee this weekend. It didn't go as well as I would have liked What would you do if you were faced with a bad referee situation?  

What is a Bad Referee?

If you've been following this show for any real time, you know I usually side with the referee. They've got a really tough job and I think as a general rule, we put way too much pressure on yellow or green shirt-wearing officials. However, there are times and circumstances that call for our action. In this article, we will explore one that happened to me this past weekend. 

I think it's wise to start by defining "bad referee" a little. Being unclear about this point can get us into trouble. When I say "bad referee," I don't mean a referee who makes a call I don't agree with. I'm not a referee. I'm not qualified to judge the abilities of another referee. What little bit I've walked in the shoes of referees (mostly as an assistant referee running the sidelines or as an unofficial referee of a scrimmage game in my in-house league), I've learned I don't want the job. It's HARD!

The number of things a real referee needs to keep track of is amazing to me. They not only follow the rules, have to anticipate, position themselves at the correct angles, have to read a confluence of actions - but they have to do it all in seconds and make a call. Believe it or not, a lot of a referee's call is not merely about fairness, but also about safety. An event that might not draw a yellow in one context, might draw repeated yellows in another. When a ref senses that he or she needs cooler heads to prevail - or to slow a game's momentum, or to nip a growing problem in the bud before it blossoms into an injury later in a game - he or she uses judgement and experience to guide them and interpret the game in a way that results in not only a fair outcome, but a safe one. Safety on the field for a referee is a priority.

I suppose when I use the words "bad referee," I'm referring more to a bad set of circumstances that leads to ineffective referees. The calls they make are less important to me than the fact that they are making calls and keeping the game clean, within generally acceptable rule boundaries, and with good margin of safety for my players. As a coach and soccer parent, a string of injuries is a good indication that something is not working with the referee "system." A "referee system" in the context of this past weekend, refers to three referees in an 11v11 full sided HS aged game. 

What Happened to Inspire this Episode?

Injuries, as I mentioned earlier are my first and best clue that something is not working with the referee system. We left the field on Saturday with 4 player injuries. Most of them were from cleats leaving cuts and bruises on my players legs and, in one case, his mid-section. 

Injuries like the one you see to the right are pretty common in the game of soccer. They can be accidental (most of these are) or deliberate - this one likely was. You can see the marks from cleats showing where the offending players stomped the injured player's ankle. This one left a nice bruise. 

The difference between accidental and deliberate is one judgement a referee is called upon to make. When injuries like this end up on a player's mid section, there should be greater suspicion that deliberate aggression is going on. 


The next clue for me is bad behavior. Physically benign, but offensive behavior like cursing in a way that is hurtful or disrespectful to other players or officials raises my eyebrow. When I see cursing and injuries stacking up, my hair begins to bristle. This is stuff I expect referees to be on top of - and coaches to be on top of for their respective teams. 

Let's Add a Few More Ingredients

My team was playing in a High School band age group. This means kids can be anywhere from 14 to 18 years old. In this particular game, most of my players were 15 years old, while it appeared based on size difference alone, the players on the other team were older. They were certainly physically larger than my players - a sign I imagine would alert a more experienced referee team that they need to keep an eye out for aggressive behavior. 

I knew that this team had a reputation for playing dirty and it was obvious that these players were bigger than my players. I had warned my parents the night before that we would be in for a rough game, but that we would play our game and bring our character to the field. I addressed the referees before the game to alert them that I didn't want to see any injuries out there that day. No one wants to see injuries, but I thought by mentioning it in advance, they would know that my mind was on injury prevention. 

In the context of the game, we had player injuries and cursing going on - larger players vs smaller ones. In the foreground the AR in this photo was clearly buds with the orange team we were playing against. He spent a lot of energy on activities that seemed more focused on maintaining relationships with player wearing orange jerseys than on keeping the game fair and safe. Here are a few examples: 

  • Hugs between this HS aged ref and players before and during the game
  • Fingers pointing out to players and from players back to the ref with "Ohhh!!" comments during the game showed familiarity
  • Sideline chats while the game was going on (like the one pictured here - which was right in front of my coach's bench, BTW) went on at several times throughout the game

In one case - the incident that finally broke my composure - the AR missed a call. He started to raise his flag in favor of my team - then looked out at his buds in orange on the field who signaled the play in their favor. He raised his flag in favor of orange. I watched this young man & saw clearly the split seconds he took to recognize that he missed the call, to start making the call in one direction, and then change his call in favor of his friends. 

This phenomenon of influence on a referee is not unusual, by the way. A referee has a lot on their plate. I've seen and heard stories about coaches taking advantage of newer referees by being loud about the way a call should go. The flood of input a referee can get from players pointing in one direction, coaches yelling in favor of a certain call, etc can overwhelm and bully a new referee. This is one reason that we as parents and coaches need to keep our mouths shut about calls as these calls are being made. A good ref will sort the issues out on their own and make a judgment. Even if they are wrong about the call, at least they will have made the call free from uninformed influence. 

Later in the day, I heard this referee calling himself "the king of self assigning" or something along these lines while talking with his friends from the Orange team. This lead me to believe this referee had assigned himself to this game - and possibly to other games where he thought his friends might be playing. I imagine there is a rule (and if there isn't, maybe there should be) against a referee reffing a game full of players he or she knows or plays with in another venue. There is more than enough for a referee to worry about without adding unduly familiar or off-the-pitch relationships into the mix. 

The final ingredient in this day's events had to do with the coach for the other team. He was nowhere to be found. I saw a HS aged kid in a gray hoodie who seemed to be rallying the team at half-time. I didn't see anyone who looked like an adult on the field. It looked as if we were playing one of those high school aged teams who self organized and self coached. We do have a few of those in the area where I play. I don't personally agree with it, but I know they exist. With no adult presence in sight, this to me looked like a lord-of-the-flies situation brewing where the AR was in on it and I had no recourse. 

What to Do About It

I clearly believe that at least one referee in this three-person referee team lost focus, was unduly influenced by players on the field, was missing some calls that could have made this game safer, and was not "all-in" during this game. I also believe that I (or anyone else) not bearing a license or wearing the yellow official uniform am not qualified or within my rights to challenge calls that are being made (or not being made) during a game. I can not imagine myself as "THAT" coach who yells at referees and tries to correct what I perceive as "bad" calls (more accurately classified as calls that don't go in my favor). 

So what to do? 

When the game is going on, we basically need to shut up and take it - unless we see a blatant safety issue on the field. With the injuries my team was sustaining, no visible coach on the field, at least one referee who didn't have his head in the game, and 50 minutes still on the clock, I considered, for the first time since 2010, either telling my team to take a knee and addressing the referee, or calling them all back to the bench for a walk-off forfeit. In retrospect, these thoughts were a little radical, but I didn't have a crystal ball and I was conflicted about whether or not my  team was at risk for a real injury. I was like a protective daddy bear with his hair standing on end who was trying to figure out how much danger his cubs were in. 

If I were sitting on the parents side of the field, I think my anxiety may have been higher. Parents have even less direct input than I had. What follows is what my calmer, more rational mind can offer. 

What did I Do?

When I saw the referee flip his call in favor of the other team, I came out of the coach's sideline area.

 My reaction was instinctual. It wasn't because I wanted to argue whether the ball was out on red or out on orange. It's because this to me was clear evidence that this referee was unduly influenced by orange players and was partially blinded to a fair game. If he was missing such a basic call as a ball out of play and (giving him the benefit of the doubt) he believed his buddies that the ball went the other way, then what else was he missing? Did he not see the high kick across the mid section of my player (that wasn't called)/ Did he not see the cleat to my player's leg (that wasn't called). Did he not hear the disrespectful, rude, and foul language directed at my players? Or was he and the center ref willing to overlook these things or too timid to make a call against the larger and more aggressive team of "buddies?" 

I heard the words "REF?!" come out of my mouth and still walking towards him. I stopped short when I realized I was being THAT coach and was expected to set a good example for all of the players - not just my own. Instead of saying what I really wanted to say - something that would have landed on the field like a hand grenade and probably gotten myself sent off - I stopped.

At 6'2", I'm not a small guy. I already had the players setting up for a throw in on both teams and a referee looking at me in surprise. I could hear my own team behind me gasp - they've never seen their coach make a beeline at a referee. I stopped. 

I stood there for a second and said "I'll talk with you after the game." I returned to my sideline and benched myself.

It took a few minutes for me to collect my thoughts and decide what to do. I'd been in rough games as a kid and survived. My kids would survive too. No one was sociopathic out there. They were just brutes and my kids would be okay. 

The AR and the Center Ref both took notice of my reaction. It seemed to change their dynamic. They both got more focused on calling the game. Perhaps, I thought, this was enough for now. A few moments later, they thankfully called a foul when an orange jersey literally broke the corner flag knocking on of my players down while his buddies laughed about it. 

I didn't care about the score or even know at the time what the score was. I wanted professionalism from those referees - and on that score, things had improved a little. 

After the Game

After the game, what's done is done. At this point, I held to my promise to that AR. We shook out the other team and the referees. We thanked them for a good game and I hung around for a minute while the players cleared the field. I asked the referee team if I could have a word. They agreed. The one AR wanted to address the issue in private, but I wasn't about to have a private chat with a teenaged referee. 

I first explained that I was not there to question the way they called the game or argue a specific call. I was there because I had a specific problem with what I perceived as undo familiarity with players on the part of the AR coach's side. Hugging during a game, exchanging commentary with players chatting on the sidelines when a game is in progress take focus away from where it needs to be - on the safety and fairness of the game being played. 

I told the referee team that I'm not against friendships or having fun with classmates from school on a soccer field, but when a licensed referee dons that yellow uniform, I do expect professionalism. All the personal stuff can happen before or after a game, but when a game is in progress, I expect their attention will be on the things they are getting paid to focus on. 

I asked the entire team if they felt my request was fair and reasonable. They all nodded. I thanked them for giving me a minute and returned to my team. 

20/20 Hindsight

I'd like to say we should all be perfect and know exactly how to react to situations like this, but I'd be feeding you nonsense. I wish I hadn't come so close to disrupting the game.

Looking back I wish I had been a little more clear with who I am as a coach and what I expect from referees when I shake their hands pre-game. Good referees do this with coaches and some do it with players. I see no good reason why I should not be clear about what I expect from the referee in a game. 

I expect professionalism from the men and women wearing that referee badge. I don't mind saying that to me, our primary collective goal is to keep our games safe and fair & to let our kids play. 

The Referee Chain of Command

In this instance, I took my issues back to our Assignor the night of the game. Assignors are the people who give referees their schedules. In our area, they act a little like supervisors. They pull referees who are consistently late or otherwise disrupt games. They make sure that officials who don't meet the minimum standards for a game or who need to be benched for disciplinary reasons are properly managed. 

If I were a parent and had concerns about a referee not acting professionally, I would first approach my coach and/or league official. Chances are league officials like me (I'm also President of my soccer Club) will have good working relationships with assignors who provide referees. I happen to know that the assignor who assigns referees for me is on top of her game and her referees. She doesn't take any nonsense from anyone and if she tells me she's handling an issue, I believe her. 

If there's a problem and you don't get any satisfaction from your coach or league officials, you should have a state referee organization that should be able to help. Everyone wants safe and fair soccer games. 

The Exception, Not the Rule

In the past 8 years of being on soccer fields, the last three being intensely on the field as Director of Recreation, a Coach, and Club President, I've only had one incident that gave me the kind of cause for concern I had this past weekend. The vast majority of referees (I'm guessing this is true of the crew I had this weekend too) are not only good and decent people, but they want to deliver competent and professional service to the field. 

Every so often, circumstances come together to make the job of being an effective referee even harder than it already is. Influence form friends on the field, age and maturity, size differential between teams, or sideline chats can all contribute to lower focus on the stuff that really matters - maintaining a safe environment and fair play. 

The Soccer Sidelines

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