Soccer Mirrors Society

“Hey, Ref! How could you not see that?”
“You’re supposed to protect the players, Ref!”
“Hey Ref! Which car is yours?”
“I hope you’ve got business cards, sir!”
“You’ve got to be the worst referee in the sport!”
“I’ll make sure you never referee again!”

These are just a few of typical invectives hurled at soccer match officials. The last four are actual threats intended by bullies to intimidate the target, and are technically and legally considered “Referee Abuse.”

Abuse is not an isolated experience for soccer referees on every level of The Game. In other countries, things have gone so far beyond the level of abuse reflected in those six common “critiques.”

Last month a Dutch club-linesman died from his injuries accumulated by two players who had attacked him after a match that they allegedly felt or believed did not go their way. There appear to have been indictments, sanctions and bans against the perpetrators in the aftermath and a great show of support for the man’s family and for officials in general.

FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, weighed in on the debate about how such an attack could happen.

“Football is a mirror of society and sadly, the same ills that afflict society – in this case violence – also manifest themselves in our game,” Blatter said on Tuesday in a statement. “Nevertheless, I remain convinced that football – through the example set by the tireless efforts of people like Mr Nieuwenhuizen – is a force for good, and we must continue to use its positive example to educate people against these wrongs.”

It is interesting to me that Nieuwenhuizen was apparently a volunteer… I wonder if it was an AR role or Club Linesman role (ARs are neutral referees with the duty to indicate offside infractions among other things whereas a CL indicates only whether the ball has is in or out of play). If he was working his own kid’s game, it’s likely he was a CL rather than an AR, however, Dutch club football seems to be a little different than it is here in the US.

What I found important in the article was the Sepp Blatter quote about [association; i.e. “soccer”] football mirroring society. I do see that in my job everyday:

• people tend to respond emotionally to stimulus,
• people do it mostly out of ignorance of the LOTG (failing to: research and know relevant info, apprehend/comprehend what it means to the players fans are watching and for the officials managing them),
• people don’t know how to disagree with another human being (or a highly trained expert) without it being essentially adversarial (and hypercompetitively so),
• people lack discipline emotionally and socially,
• people are inherently violent when they experience frustration with intense emotional components.

It doesn’t take more than a few days on a typical working class job site in the US, a few minutes on US highways, notice of the latest gunmen-on-a-rampage event (we have far more of them than any other 1st world nation), or the pervasive and perpetual bullying problem in schools, and political & corporate corruption to know what kind of society Americans in the US actually live in. We pretty much totally suck at things like emotional literacy, cooperation, healthy competition, justice and fairness, and intellectual actualization despite the fact that we do profess to care deeply with a high standard in all those areas.

Like American society, so goes The Game in the US. As match officials we are on the sharpest end of it. Thankfully I haven’t had anyone hunt me down or commit battery against me. I HAVE had the ole abusive gem, “hey ref, which car is yours?” [I was tempted to ask, “why, you wanna buy me a new one? I sure could use it.”] And that was during a match where I and my crew made almost no technical mistakes and managed an exciting match the players clearly wanted and deserved. I’ve had my worst-nightmare match and learned from it despite that the experience nearly ended my career (every soccer referee has at least one of those). I do make mistakes that I am quick to recognize and endeavor to remedy right then and there on the pitch. Others have endured worse. But there is just no legitimate excuse for the abuse we are subjected to. Not ever.
Even if an official does make an error in applying the Laws to the match at hand—trust me, we know when we do and work very diligently and hard to avoid making such mistakes in the future; many of us are professionally assessed and take a methodical approach to minimizing errors in future matches—those human errors can never be justification for others to commit abuse against a match official, volunteer or professional. If players & coaches can screw up (and they sure do) and garner fan forgiveness, so should referees be ultimately given that same sort of pass.

Unfortunately the goal presented at the end of Mr. Blatter’s statement has yet to be fully realized at any level of The Game. The general fan public is woefully undereducated about The Game, and most criticism of officials stems from gross ignorance of The Laws of The Game (LOTG) and from officials being prohibited from speaking in public about their decisions post-match. In the match environment, even immediately post-match, explanations and teachable moments are truly rare and usually impossible given match schedules and the emotional tensions lingering from the incidents that led up to the abuse committed.

As a Referee Instructor and Assessor (AYSO) and a paid match official (USSF & NFHS—my “day-job”), I find this failure to educate extremely frustrating. Almost every disagreement with match officials by fans and coaches alike stems from ignorance. The worst part for me is, it just doesn’t need to be that way.

Fans and coaches (and some players) do have resources to educate themselves, they can and should work on their emotional literacy and social skills, and many could use a little anger management education and practice. Unfortunately no one, with the exception of coaches (and players), can make fans do any of these things. Those are often subject to cultural elements that support or denigrate (de-motivate) such efforts. Unfortunately in the US, cultural elements conspire to denigrate such efforts to a wide and varied degree.

As match officials, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing and work to inspire our institutions to upgrade our processes and protocols. In the meantime we continue our formal and informal training on and off the pitch to the very best of our ability. My experience and that of my more senior colleagues, things aren’t going to change any time soon, so we keep up with skill sets that deal with the problems in the best way we know how.

What does this have to do with art or writing?
A lot actually. But that’s something for another post.