Commentary

Should referee calls be swayed by player reputations?

For some decades now, I have been asking referees -- at all levels -- a certain question. At least one hundred referees, I’d say, have given me an answer to this question:

Do you hand out quicker and harsher punishment if a player committing a foul is known to you for his physical play?

I have received 100 answers. All of them the same, all of them a resounding NO!. All the referees I have spoken with insist that they treat all players alike and that their job is to punish only what they see happening in front of them. A player’s past record is not part of the process.

(Slang is useful here -- which uses “priors,” as a plural noun. A person who “has priors” (the English say “has previous”) is someone with a police record, of previous convictions. I shall use “priors” in that sense, meaning, with a soccer slant, a player with a reputation for fouling).

In many ways this NO! is a satisfactory, even an exemplary, answer. It conforms with legal practice, under which, if an accused has priors, that cannot be raised during a trial. Priors become a factor only at the sentencing stage, after the accused has been found guilty.

Nevertheless, the parallel is not exact. In law (I mean real law, not the inanely titled soccer laws) you have a cop who arrests a suspect, a jury that decides whether the suspect is guilty, and -- if he is so found -- you have a judge, who can then review the culprit’s priors before sentencing him.

In soccer, a referee is automatically both cop and jury, and is also allowed some of a judge’s discretion in allotting punishment (e.g. in deciding whether to card an offender). There is also the “second yellow” call when a referee very obviously does consider a player’s immediate previous -- in that game.

Referees have insisted to me that “it’s not our job to assess extra punishment, that’s for the disciplinary panel.” True enough, in pro leagues there is an extra level -- two levels, actually -- of punishment. Players collecting more than a specified number of cards are automatically suspended, while a panel has the power to increase suspensions and to levy fines.

Nowadays, all that is overshadowed by the certainty that the referee will be fully aware of a player’s priors -- i.e. whether or not he is a serial fouler. In this age of informational overload, a referee would have to shut himself away, not read newspapers, and shun the internet if he believes he should not know anything about the players he has to deal with.

Which does not happen. Indeed, rather the opposite, as one learns of referees who study videos of the teams they will referee. But a referee doesn’t really have to go looking for news about a player’s reputation -- it will come to him, unbidden, a part of the atmosphere that all involved in soccer breathe.

To return to the main question: if a known serial fouler commits a physical foul should he be more likely to get carded than a normally quiet player who commits an equivalent foul? Referees have consistently told me NO.

Until comparatively recently, I would have sided with the referees and given a NO answer. Somewhat reluctantly, I admit, for it does seem unfair to judge known recidivists with the same leniency that should surely be granted to normally law-abiding players.

But another factor has come upon the scene within the past few years which has forced me into a rethink. Diving. A topic brought to the fore mainly by the Brits, and ill-advisedly taken up in the USA. Indeed, one wonders what the MLS Disciplinary Committee would do with its time were it not for the cases it regularly discovers of “simulation/embellishment” (an offense that, incidentally, does not feature in the FIFA rule book).

Here we have a situation that looks deeply suspicious. Certain players are openly spoken of as serial divers -- serial cheats is the preferred term -- they go down too easily, they’re always trying to con the referee, and so on. TV commentators make no bones about it, commenting that the reputation of these players is likely to influence referees.

A case of giving a dog a bad name ... I think referees do, in this case, make calls (frequently bad calls) based on a player’s priors. That being the case, consistency demands that they should also punish more swiftly and more harshly the serial foulers.

Surely the best way -- probably the only way -- to resolve this dilemma is to go back to what referees have always told me they do: rely on the judgment of the referee to accurately call fouls, regardless of who commits them, and then rely on the subsequent decisions of a review panel to increase penalties where necessary.

Unfortunately, that option has been severely compromised by the way in which players thought to be guilty of diving are treated. A high proportion of yellow cards given for diving calls are flat out wrong -- yet there can be no rescinding a yellow card. The call stands and the player is on his way to being branded as a diver, unlikely to be treated fairly. An ugly blot on the referees’ escutcheon, something that cries out for correction.

3 comments about "Should referee calls be swayed by player reputations?".
  1. beautiful game, June 7, 2018 at 6:04 p.m.

    I'm sure that FIFA kahuna Infantino etal has watched enough soccer games to have an idea of what rules need to be added to LOTG. On the other hand, as Infantino remains clueless and delinquent in clearifying LOTG to the point that referees with common sense must enforce these laws and protect the well being of players. There should be no grey area for interpretation in many LOTG instances. The bleeding of the beautiful game starts at the top; and it needs to be stopped immediatetly. 

  2. uffe gustafsson, June 8, 2018 at 7:31 p.m.

    I think when referees say they don’t have prejudice towards players known to hacks or diving, I think they know who they are and should know them as well.
    but that don’t mean you penalize unless fouls are made. Think that’s a difference.
    i know in youth leagues teams that are taught to be overly physical and it’s my job to know it and ref accordingly or game can get out of hand.
    its our job to protect players, and that’s for proffetional leagues as well. How often do you see talented players getting chopped down over and over.
    the diving is a seperate issue and I’m sure Suarez have refs really looking at his falls with scrutiny.
    he made that all by himself.

  3. R2 Dad, June 11, 2018 at 8 p.m.

    I'd say serial offenders are looked for more often, especially around the 18. If someone is going to be on the ground, I need to be as close as possible so I do key on activity around these players. But I wouldn't say I'm looking for them to sin.

    RE diving, I find no-calls a better way to deal with it--have never issued a card for diving.

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