Commentary

The lectures that referees give to players: Meaningless? Embarrassing? Childish? Farcical? Probably all of the above

I have been trying for quite a few years now to persuade referees to let me listen in on what they say to players during a game. Not live, a tape will do nicely.

I make it clear that what I’m interested in are those short scenes where a referee intervenes after some rough play and seems to be severely lecturing a player -- a lecture that is usually accompanied by stern looks and extravagantly dramatic arm gestures.

On the whole, my request receives a polite “Why not?” sort of answer. Cooperation seems assured ... in this technological age, everything is recorded and therefore available. And then nothing happens. I have yet to hear a single word from those lectures.

Frustrating of course. So, a recent development looked promising: the availability of a tape made during this year’s English Cup Final (won by Chelsea, 1-0 over Manchester United).

I’m still not sure whether the tape has been officially released by the English FA or whether it has leaked its way into daylight. I’m guessing it must be an official release because there’s nothing on it that reflects badly on referees -- rather the opposite, as referee Michael Oliver gets it right when awarding the decisive penalty kick to Chelsea, and is promptly backed up by the VAR. The rapid interchanges between Oliver and his AR and the VAR are almost exemplary in their precise clarity.

For my purposes, this tape is of limited interest. Most of the talk is between the officials. It sounds like a CB or police radio exchange, and is really, I suspect, a piece of VAR propaganda, showing off how the system works. As such, it does a good job.

There is a small amount of referee-to-player talk. What might be new to some listeners-in is the referee’s repeated use of first names when talking to players. I’ll admit to being bothered by this. It has a schoolmaster-ish tone to it. And it’s not an approach to refereeing that can always be used -- can Oliver rely on it if he has to referee a Japanese or a Ukrainian team, with first names he may not even know, let alone be able to pronounce?

I’m left still waiting to hear what referees say when they upbraid players. Back in 2012, while watching a telecast of Mexico beat Brazil in the Olympic final in London, I was irritated by the way the referee (England’s Mark Clattenburg) kept talking to the players. Not exactly holding up the game, but he repeatedly seemed to have something important to say to them. What was he telling them?

I am not a believer, never have been, in the idea that it is the referee’s obligation to explain the rules to players. Because it is surely the responsibility of a professional player to know the rules. If he doesn’t, if he acts outside the rules, he will be penalized. And that will be his own fault. A player can never plead ignorance of the rules to excuse his fouls.

A more likely scenario was that Clattenburg was dishing out verbal warnings. Telling players they were courting a caution, telling them that next time they’d see yellow -- stuff like that. But even that I find questionable. I find no mention of verbal warnings in the rules.

Maybe Clattenburg was being less specific, was simply telling players to behave themselves. One cannot escape the impression that all the finger-wagging and the melodramatic arm gestures indicating “No more of this!” that accompany these warnings are nothing more than grandstanding. They allow a referee to let everyone know that he’s being tough ... when in fact he is going out of his way to avoid giving a card.

There was another aspect to Clattenburg’s actions, the same one that I mentioned earlier when talking of referee Michael Oliver. Clattenburg was always one of the more talkative of English referees (he is now in charge of refereeing in Saudi Arabia) but, as with Oliver, this style becomes a liability when the players don’t all speak English.

In the Olympic final, Clattenburg was confronted with the Spanish-speaking Mexicans and the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Spanish would probably be understood by the Brazilians -- so was Clattenburg speaking Spanish? As I have met and conversed with scores of English referees in my time, and have never met even one who speaks Spanish, I’d feel safe saying that Clattenburg was using English. Leaving a minimal chance of either Brazilians or Mexicans understanding what he was saying.

A pretty farcical situation: referees explaining the rules and/or giving verbal cautions (neither of which, in my opinion, they should be doing) in a language unlikely to be understood by the players.

Yet these admonitory lectures that referees inflict on players are a regular feature of refereeing, and are seen as a good thing by those who stress the importance of “man management.” Possibly -- but that phrase “man management” is a worrying one. Especially if it needs to be achieved through little chats that are, I suspect, vapid in the extreme, just plain embarrassing.

If I’m right, if these lectures are as childish as I suspect, then referees should just stop delivering them. They can bring nothing but scorn to the profession. Or maybe worse: a suggestion that referees are patronizing players

Am I right? The tape of the FA Cup final conversations, while it did not directly concern this topic, produced at least one revealing observation. In the London Times, columnist Giles Smith called the tape “a genuinely fascinating and insightful document, not just for revealing the constant, almost kindergarten-level man-management practiced by referee Michael Oliver . . .”

The key words there are “kindergarten-level man management.”

11 comments about "The lectures that referees give to players: Meaningless? Embarrassing? Childish? Farcical? Probably all of the above".
  1. beautiful game, September 5, 2018 at 5:26 p.m.

    The referee 's mission is to enforce LOTG and make consistent decisions on the pitch. This "talking to players" referenced by Mr. Gardner is a waste of time and serves no purpose. A good referee will instruct team captains what he will not tolerate, and when that "no-toleration boundary" is perpetrated the caution must come out. Players respond to referees actions, and those referees that don't respond to players that flagrantly violate the LOTG have no business on the pitch.  Same goes for selective fouls not whistled by referees; players already know that the "oratory" comes next. Too many referees are being conned by player's actions and most of them are derelict in their duty to respond with proper measure. 

  2. R2 Dad replied, September 6, 2018 at 1:35 a.m.

    You talk about flagrant violation, but for the most part the talking to players is in regard to contact that is almost a foul, a foul that is almost a card. Education, even at higher level matches, is necessary especially as it relates to the concussion protocol and what might have been OK 2 years ago is not any longer. The shades of grey in the game make this a balancing act. Good officials keep the match moving, under control, and with the minimum of drama.

  3. Kent James, September 5, 2018 at 7:27 p.m.

    I refereed for more than 20 years (mostly college and lower level pro), and while I do think a game needs to be managed (letting it flow where you can, clamping down when you need to), I completely agree with PG that the grand gestures (grandly doing the "safe" call in baseball) are an excuse not to give a card; the card is designed to let the players know that sort of behavior will not be tolerated, no grand gestures needed.  I do think a quick word with a player (telling them that may that foul was borderline yellow, and anything close to that again will get the yellow) can be helpful, and being personable can be helpful (though you can't let players abuse it).  No one likes a machine (though if you're going to err, better to err on the side of not talking much rather than talking too much). I've often wondered what language players at the international level use (when they're from 3 different countries, e.g.), but it is important that a ref not only be fair and impartial, but seem to be fair and impartial.  That being the case, if the ref only speaks a language only one team understands, the ref needs to limit communicating with that one team to make sure the other team does not think he's partial to the first team. 

  4. Wooden Ships, September 5, 2018 at 9:16 p.m.

    This is much ado about nothing. Referees have different personalities and styles, don’t discourage that. Players don’t have to speak the language to understand a referee. I understand for you Paul and maybe others, this is of concern, but for players this isn’t worth the ink. Why do you care what is said? 

  5. Ric Fonseca, September 5, 2018 at 9:55 p.m.

    Wow, rightly said WS, but I am baffled by PG's assertion or is it an ignorant admission that he's supposedly never met a referee that spoke spanish, wowozers, I wonder why not, or maybe the refes he's met do/did NOT want him to know they spoke Spanish...? 

  6. Bob Ashpole, September 5, 2018 at 10:10 p.m.

    I am with WS and Ric. I have seen a lot of rising grade 8s and 7s over the years. They were fine. And most Spanish speakers speak English to you unless you speak Spanish to them first. This includes Spanish speakers on my own adult teams, some of whom were also officials. Nuff said.

  7. James Madison, September 5, 2018 at 11:04 p.m.

    Although this column is pretty close to the mark, as kent James has commented, there's a lot Paul doesn't know about officiating.  One thing he doesn't know is that well-prepared referees of matches involving teams with players whose first language is not English arm themselves with enough linguistic understanding to communicate essentials to players and to understand when players are using "foul or abusive" language.

  8. Bill Riviere, September 6, 2018 at 8:59 a.m.

    Language issues aside, there are plenty of reasons to manage a game with gestures and speaking to players.  A referee's number one job is player safety, so if a player fouls but without great force, etc. (thus likely avoiding a yellow), at some point he will probably foul in a reckless manner and injure a player.  Letting him know right away and early in a match that you are watching for his next foul is a smart move and could keep him from injuring an opponent. Speaking and gesturing also lets all players and coaches know what won't be tolerated.


  9. frank schoon, September 6, 2018 at 9:52 a.m.

    Paul, no slight to you for I always like reading your column, but I just can get into this garbage of this particular issue...so minor when you look at what is going on here. Write a column about what is really going on with the USSF and the MNT coaching situation and this Cordeiro character....

  10. uffe gustafsson, September 6, 2018 at 5:05 p.m.

    Hand gesture is an important part of referring as in indirect kick, what direction the foul is going, so if a referee chooses to use hand gesture to a player to calm down that is a proper use of hand gesture.
    but my real point is the captain, he/she are the contact player for the referee to communicate too.
    but now a days it’s no longer how it works.
    any player run up to referee to complain.
    the only time you see the captains interact one on one  with the referee is at the coin toss. 
    Captain is no longer the spokesman for the team only a ceremonial title.

  11. Wooden Ships replied, September 8, 2018 at 10:49 a.m.

    So right Uffe. Referees would do us all a favor if they reinstituted only allowing the Captain to address a grievance-concern. It would provide the much needed example for all youth players, not just the pro’s. I’m a huge supporter of referees and the difficult role they fill, this needs to be a big point of emphasis.

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