Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 3)

By Paul Gardner

The Vice President of Competition at Major League Soccer is former national team player Jeff Agoos. One of his responsibilities is to oversee the formation and the functioning of the MLS Disciplinary Committee.

The DisCo’s stated aims -- “to preserve the integrity and reputation of the game and Major League Soccer and to assist in ensuring player safety” are splendid. In practice things are less agreeable. DisCo acts mainly to punish players who, it feels, got off lightly for foul play (e.g. got a yellow when DisCo thinks it should have been a red) or whose transgressions were not caught by the referee.

Those judgments must entail a criticism of the referees. I think it would be transparent -- even democratic -- for the DisCo to conduct its affairs openly. Or maybe it’s nothing more complicated than simply being fair: The referees should be allowed to know who is criticizing them. To put it more dramatically, they should know who their accusers are.

So who are the members of DisCo? The answer from Agoos is “I cannot tell you that.” It is an answer that will crop up several times during my talk with Agoos. I assume these guys are paid? “Yes,” says Agoos, “they get a stipend.” How much? I ask. “I cannot tell you.” This silence is not, of course, because Agoos doesn’t know the answers. He does. But the pervasive official omerta of the refereeing world keeps his mouth shut.

Agoos makes the MLS case thoughtfully and non-dogmatically: “As a league, we’re not at a point to be sure enough we would want that [the names of the DisCo members] exposed. We have owners and coaches that may influence the [DisCo] decisions. We’re trying to keep those decisions as unbiased as possible.”

An answer that has merit, but one that also ensures the presence of all the negative aspects that secrecy entails. Here we have a secret body handing down punishments to players and, indirectly, criticizing referees. We know DisCo has five members, we know they are three ex-MLS players, one ex-MLS coach and one ex-MLS referee. And that’s about it on the transparency front. Those famous lines about justice “being not only done, but being seen to be done” do not get a look in here.

There is more information that the DisCo ought to reveal, but does not. We know about the cases where it has taken action, But we should also be told about the incidents it looked into but chose not to act, and it should tell us why.

Again, Agoos has a reasonable answer (that people might come to expect a rigid consistency with apparently similar cases, where the DisCo wants to treat each case on its own merits). But we’re still left in the dark.

I am not suggesting that the DisCo is an insidious conspiracy working against the interests of certain clubs, or that it harbors vendettas against certain players. I’m fully satisfied that it is an honorable body. But unless we know who sits on the DisCo, and how its decisions are made, there is room for suspicions to breed. Secrecy breeds suspicion.

Exactly the same considerations apply when a club makes an appeal against a referee decision -- a red card. That appeal goes to another body, the so-called Independent Review Panel. That has three members -- one representative each from the U.S. Soccer Federation, from the Canadian Soccer Association, and one from PRO, the Professional Referees Organization.

Again, Agoos replies “I cannot tell you” when I ask for names. So, more secrecy. And some deception here, I fear: that word “Independent” in the IRP’s title needs scrutiny, given that one of its members is from PRO -- an organization that is partly financed by, and shares office space with, MLS.

Agoos’s position on these matters is, of course, strictly MLS party-line. But do I detect a tinge of regret hanging over those repeated “I cannot tell you” answers? On the naming of DisCo members, he does admit that things might change: “Never say never. We could revamp.”

For the moment, the core of the MLS argument against transparency is that it is a young league, uncertain that it has the vigor to withstand the hurly-burly of open discussions and arguments that full disclosure would undoubtedly bring.

It is not much of an argument. MLS is claiming that it is not yet mature enough for transparency, whereas the better argument is that embracing transparency from the start is a sharp indication of mature thinking.

Let me repeat my feeling that this is an area where the USA can -- should -- set an example for the sport. It should not be defending a policy of secret trials.

On that matter -- of setting an example for the sport -- there is the topic with which I began this Part 2 of this series: Referee signals, and Sir Stanley Rous’ fear of windmills.

The USA is ideally positioned to make a move here. This is a country where clear referee signals are an automatic part of other pro sports. Beyond that, we have the unique situation of college soccer leading the way, having devised a perfectly workable set of official signals.

If it is agreed -- obviously, I think it must be -- that pro soccer needs a set of signals, who better to provide it than the Americans?

The current FIFA rulebook is half-hearted -- pathetic, really -- on the matter, publishing just five banal illustrations of approved signals. Consider: There is no agreed, official, signal for one of the game’s most frequent calls -- offside. How can that be?

Take a look at page 95 of the rulebook. Here we have the dreaded word “Gestures” used as a heading. But the instructions conveyed are immediately anti-gesture: “As a general rule, the assistant referee must give no obvious hand signals. However, in some instances, a discreet hand signal may give valuable support to the referee. The hand signal should have a clear meaning.” Given that there are no official signals that would comply with this instruction, the rules then tell the AR’s to improvise: “The meaning [of the hand signal] should have been discussed and agreed upon in the pre-match discussion.”

This is 2014. The era of goal line technology. And soccer’s rulebook is telling officials to concoct furtive -- or “discreet” -- hand signals. Why furtive? Who knows? Maybe because a player or a fan or a journalist might see the signal, and might understand what was going on -- and then where would we be? Or, more likely, simply because secrecy has become such an automatic part of the refereeing mentality.

Does it need stressing that the secrecy mentality, which can give refereeing the atmosphere of a John le Carre espionage novel, is not a good idea?

How difficult would it be for U.S. Soccer and MLS to set up a joint task force to look into this topic, and to create a set of signals? The signals could then be used, experimentally, in any league in the USA, including MLS. As they do not affect the rules of the game, I do not believe that FIFA’s permission is necessary.

Opposition is much more likely to come from within the USA. It is unfortunate that the most powerful refereeing figure in this country is PRO’s boss, Peter Walton. Who happens to be English, making him an unlikely leader of anything that threatens the traditional English conservative attitude to soccer officiating.

Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 1)

Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 2)
10 comments about "Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 3) ".
  1. Charles O'Cain, May 27, 2014 at 8:23 p.m.

    Here we have an ex-pat Brit demanding that we "The Americans" impose upon the rest of the world "our" version of "soccer morality", when we as a nation have yet to embrace football (as the world knows it ) as a part of our national culture. We have our Constitution, but we also have our NSA and Department of Homeland Security, and we do not always hold the moral high ground. Suppose the names of the DisCo or IRP were to be made known to Mr Gardner. Would he be capable of self-restraint, acknowledging that these individuals are acting in good faith? Or would he be tempted to attack positions at odds with his own ideas about "soccer morality"? As for signals in football, we have yellow cards for naughty actions and red cards for evil actions, and we can tell when the flag has been raised for offside violations, or waved for fouls (by the AR's), and indications for indirect free kicks, for goals and for corners, and for throw-ins, and for advantage play-ons. Exactly which infractions are puzzling Mr Gardner? And would he like some "TV Time-outs" as well?

  2. Webmaster, May 27, 2014 at 9:22 p.m.

    +1 ~ No "Secrets" in the Ken Aston Referee Society! ~ Join and or visit for FREE... See you on 'The Pitch'! CHEERS!!!

  3. Ramon Creager, May 28, 2014 at 10:03 a.m.

    Again, the issue of signals is really a non-issue. The mentioned example--offside--is a case in point. Who here has ever been confused by an offside call? But I'd like to specifically address the "discreet" signal issue. The signals of the AR to the referee are "discreet" not to maintain some form of super-duper secrecy, fool the players/fans and cover the referees ass, but because (apart from the clear duties of the AR) the ultimate decision maker is the referee. So the AR should not appear to be making the call, lest it cause confusion or influence play. Even if players see the "discreet" signal (and if the ref can see it they can too, so there's no secrecy there), that quality makes it clear that this is a communication, not a decision, and that the referee may choose to let play go on. The idea here is that the referee gets input from the AR(s) most able to help him or her, and then makes the decision. This is why I think the radios are a great idea.

  4. Ramon Creager, May 28, 2014 at 10:12 a.m.

    I'd also like to emphasize that a lot of these refereeing techniques are a result of the fast pace of this game. In American Football, for example, any official can throw the flag, and play continues. But once the play is over, the officials have time to confer (and this is not done publicly, we cannot hear the conference) and decide whether the flag stands or should be picked up (ultimately the referee's decision). If it stands the opposing team is given the option of accepting or declining the penalty (Football's version of the advantage rule). Finally the referee explains the decision (but not who arrived at it--it's assumed he has that responsibility). The soccer referee and his ARs must do all of this, in real time, without unduly interrupting play. There is precious little time for ceremony. Don't make more out of this than is warranted

  5. Allan Lindh, May 28, 2014 at 10:59 a.m.

    The disciplinary committee should be secret, and they should hand out a lot more punishment, until MLS begins to resemble more the beautiful game, and less the English 3rd division, or a high school Football game. Dirty mean-spirited play is the bane of MLS, and until that is rooted out, it will remain a third rate league. And yes, those charged with rooting it out do need anonymity, for their own safety -- this is the good old USA after all.

  6. Ron Beilstein, May 28, 2014 at 11:34 a.m.

    I'd like to see referees in the majority on the DisCo. I found most players hadn't read, and had only a general understanding of the rules.
    I'd prefer to have attacking players rather than defenders on the DisCo. We need more protection for creative players.

  7. Bill Lovern, May 28, 2014 at 4:13 p.m.

    I just unsubscribed from SoccerTalk. Is there really so little of importance in the world of soccer that we need three trivial diatribes about how referees manage their responsibilities during a match? I guess Paul Gardner is contracted to produce so many words a week...sad.

  8. Glenn Auve, May 28, 2014 at 5:54 p.m.

    I agree one million percent on the DisCo and issue. Their secrecy and lack of consistency make them a cruel joke of an organization. It is ultimately extraordinarily unfair to punish one player but not another for the same or very similar plays with no explanation why one deserved sanction but the other not

  9. R2 Dad, May 29, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.

    Bill, sorry to see you do not value the refereeing aspect of the game. It is, however, really important as it relates to the quality of play on the field and the level of fouling that is allowed. Consistency is the most important quality, game over game, and the most difficult to manage. I guarantee over the course of the next 6 weeks FIFA refereeing will have "an adjudication anomaly" that will send millions of fans gnashing their teeth and screaming for better refereeing. Maybe you'll care then?

  10. RAMON ZAPATA, June 1, 2014 at 3:42 p.m.

    No,no,and no, we, the restof the world are ok with FOOTBALL referee system. That's why it's not called SOCCER. America changed cricket to baseball and rugby to "football". I think you're trying to suggest the same: we Americans don't like a fluid game, we need referees to stop the games all the time, we love coaches to ask for replays; seen from another culture maybe it's just time to buy more beer and hot dogs. So maybe, if as you suggest, Americsns will be able to introduce changes to the referee system, you'll have your SOCCER and the rest of the world we'll be still playing our beautiful and fluid game of FOOTBALL.

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