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Why Are Lessons in Humanity Forgotten When It Comes to Referees?

 “I can’t sleep on a Saturday night if I think I’ve got something wrong.”

That line is from a story written about what life is like as a referee in one of the most demanding locations in world football.


But I don't live there. I live here. I live right here in the United States.

And that line describes me last Saturday night.

One call I made as a referee changed the entire temperature of my match that afternoon and had me up all night replaying it in my mind.

Did I get it right? Did I get it wrong? What could I have done better?

It sucked.

Maybe it hits me differently than other referees because I hold myself to an incredibly high standard, but the fact remains that the terrible treatment referees receive, whether we perform good or bad, from people who know and understand little to nothing about the sport itself, is one of the most puzzling phenomena I've experienced in my life.

One big, big difference between youth soccer referees and pro soccer referees is the post-game analysis, discussion, and decompression. It simply doesn't exist in youth soccer. And it puts referees at a massive disadvantage for learning and developing into better referees.

I'll go further...

On most weekends, referees have about 15-minutes between the final whistle of one game and the kick-off of the next. Repeat that 3 or 4 times and that's a typical Saturday and/or Sunday. That time between games isn't a break. It's usually a quick sip of water and then right back out to the field for check-in of the next teams, a coin flip, and then boom, game time.

If there is a conversation between games, it's usually with a parent or coach standing over the referees or in such a manner that they have something to say and they are waiting to express their displeasure.

A simple, "Thank you, ref. Good game!" is becoming less and less common.

Replacing it is, at a more rapid pace than I have ever seen in my nineteen years of refereeing soccer, blame being thrown the referees way for the result of the game, as if we were the ones who kicked the ball in the net, or didn't complete the pass, or didn't prepare the team properly during the week leading up to the game.

But that's not all...

When it is our last game of the day, we're sometimes followed off of the field, sometimes all the way to our cars, and harassed by coaches and/or parents about things they disagreed with. For some reason, all lessons of humanity are forgotten in these moments and it becomes something like open season for verbal shots to be fired.

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To me, it seems like it's normal to these people to get these shots in. Actually, it seems like they feel as if it is their right to lob insults our way.

Maybe it's a privilege thing? Maybe they feel like their investment in their child's soccer team or club has earned them an opportunity to take their frustrations out on the referees because they don't know how to correct a single one of the hundred mistakes their team made during the match that actually led to their loss.

This will seem funny to some people because I'm absolutely guilty of this behavior I'm describing. In my early 20's, I stopped refereeing to make room for more coaching. My referee friends (and former players and teammates) reading this will laugh as they recall how many red cards I have received.

But, in all honesty, I've grown up and learned a lot since then. And being even more truthful, I've had some really, really scary experiences as a referee that helped open my eyes very, very wide. I now see how big and how bad this problem is.

I've been swung at, spit on, had my car swarmed, challenged to fights on and off the field, and I've been called every bad name imaginable in a number of different languages.

I want to help fix this problem. It doesn't belong in soccer, especially youth soccer, and I really hate seeing it getting worse by the season here in our local community.

Recently, a coach told me, "It seems like referees have a chip on their shoulder."

Let's start by asking, "Why?"

And then, let's do something, together, to fix it.

Related Links:

The Sideline Project

  • Great article. As a coach in Colorado who has refereed, I see this way too often. I try and behave, and ask my teams to behave, in a high standard when it comes to refs. Respect is truly a 2 way street. I liken it to a server who is treated badly on his first table, but shakes it off rather easily. Now that same server, at the end of a long shift who is being treated badly, is more tired and has less patience for the customers…same goes for a ref who is on 3rd, 4th, or 5th game of a long day. Especially after being harassed all day, how do you think a ref is gonna respond

    • Chris, You lead by example and we greatly appreciate that. Respect and common courtesy can be contagious. Let’s pass it on.


      Esse Baharmast

  • I’ve been on both sides of it now…having reffed, coached, and been a soccer parent. I think the ref abuse problem is a real problem but like in any bad marriage it usually takes 2 to tango. One, I think there’s been a decline in civility in our society…not much the soccer orgs can do about it except adopt strict rules regarding parent behavior. Two, I think there are refs out there who shouldn’t be reffing (they only care about the cash, or aren’t physically able to do the job and so find themselves out of position when a call is needed)….again given the ref shortage not sure there’s much the soccer orgs can be doing except maybe by implementing a ratings system. I think the biggest contention though is a result of the Laws themselves.

    Unlike other sports, the soccer Laws allow wide discretion in how things are to be called. For example, should the game end strictly when time runs out, or should a ref let things to play out? The soccer Laws talk about “must” for throwins, but some ref call violations and some don’t (letting players even run halfway up the field before a throw). But the most contentious area comes in the use of “trifling” (a definition which doesn’t even appear in the Laws themselves), and how refs differ in their use of it. Some refs have a very expansive definition of trifling (the so -called “let em play” school) and others call everything. The result is that from the sidelines, parents tend to see soccer as being very arbitrary, and particularly when player safety is involved and there are fouls happening right and left that go uncalled. This all undermines trust, which is what you need for an activity that involves children to function properly (since parents are placing the children in the care of the officials). If parents are told that the refs aren’t going to call anything, and futbol is going to be played like football…well, then they have only themselves to blame if something goes wrong because they went in with full knowledge of the situation….but when expectations vary on the sidelines, that’s when things can go really wrong, particularly if the ref doesn’t know how to manage a game and it begins to spin out of control.

    Other sports have referee problems too (including the same lack of civility) but it isn’t as bad as it is with soccer, and the problem there has to do with differing expectations that undermine trust. Every referee is going to get things wrong….I just blew an offside call this weekend when my AR flagged an offside for a throwin and I had my vision elsewhere…I let the coach know I knew I got the call wrong and had instructed the AR….the coach understood and appreciated the apology. No referee is going to get everything right, and soccer is such a fast moving game that it’s impossible for the ref (even a 3 person team…and how many don’t even have a 3 person team?) to see everything. But that requires both sides to trust each other and that isn’t going to happen so long as there is such wide discretion in the way things are handled. What can the soccer orgs do…aren’t the Laws purely in FIFA’s control? US Soccer could be more clear in its instructions to youth referees over how games should be called, as well as crowd expectations, by publishing more comprehensive guidance…guidance which would be accessible to coaches, parents and players so that everyone is on the same page and parents can make a meaningful choice. They have a right to know what my kid is playing today….checkers or chess, monopoly with free parking or not….soccer should not be like “Dungeons and Dragons” where the official has wide discretion, including to ignore certain rules as they see fit.

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    John Pranjic

    John Pranjic is an experienced youth coach and referee in Southern California. He is the host of the 3four3 podcast where he talks about problems in, and solutions for, American soccer at all levels, from youth to pro. www.343coaching.com/podcast