By Randy Vogt
Refereeing has not changed nearly as much as other pursuits since I first took up the whistle in 1978. After all, the rules are very similar to what they were 36 years ago, I still have to run up and down a soccer field and I still have to manage players and coaches. Chances are, what you and I do for a living have changed much more dramatically in the past couple of decades.
But what has truly changed with officiating is communication. I used to receive my assignments in the U.S. Mail but now all my games are received through the Internet and e-mail.
Communication among officials has changed as well with the introduction of electronic communication during the past several years. I have used the Ref Talk system in many of the Division 1 and Division 2 college matches that I have officiated. With Ref Talk, the lines are not continually open and the official must press a button to communicate with the other officials.
I’ve heard some very positive comments from people outside officiating at how great it is that officials can now discuss decisions without the ref needing to physically walk over to the assistant referee. This is obviously a positive step and Ref Talk as well as the other electronic systems in use bring value in certain situations such as:
• The referee does not see the assistant’s raised flag. This often happens when the ref is standing in the middle of the field, the AR raises the flag for offside on the left wing and the ref forgot to turn and look at the AR. In the past, the AR would have to yell the ref’s name to get his or her attention but now can simply inform the ref through the headset. I know that it’s very difficult for the ref to hear the AR when there’s a large crowd on hand without the headset.
• The referee does not understand the assistant’s signal or wonders if the AR saw something that the referee did not. The ref no longer has to walk over to the AR to discuss.
• The ball deflects off a player by the ref and then goes over the touchline by the AR. The AR is supposed to signal the direction of the throw but it puts the AR in a bad spot if the ref does not help the AR with direction. In the past, it could be a subtle signal from the ref but now the two can communicate electronically.
• The ref wants the AR’s to watch certain players, particularly off the ball while the ref’s back is turned.
• The referee verbally warns a player. In this case, the ref could put the communication device on so the AR’s hear what the ref is saying to the player.
Yet my biggest contribution in utilizing the headsets so far had nothing to do with any of the bulleted points above. In a college soccer game, a foul was committed and the player committing the foul was cautioned for unsporting behavior. The ref, assistant referee 1 (the AR by the benches) and the fourth official questioned through the electronic communication if the team could sub on a direct kick as that is generally not allowed under NCAA rules. They could, I told them from my position as AR2, if they are subbing for the cautioned player, which they were doing.
In Major League Soccer, the officials used Ref Talk but now use Vokkero, which is open mic. You might notice that the ref will still go over to the AR to talk over major decisions as the officials want to take the time to think and process and make certain that there is not any miscommunication between officials, which can happen no matter which communication system is used.
Thinking back through my games, I can think of instances where electronic communication would have helped but was not available yet. It should be used as a supplement to the signals between the ref and assistants, some of which are covered in the referee’s pre-game instructions.
It will be interesting to see if electronic communication filters down to the youth leagues in the next few years.
(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In his book, "Preventive Officiating," he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at www.preventiveofficiating.com/)