Commentary

Refs improve in a meritocracy

It's the closing seconds of a tied basketball game and a timeout has been called. Sweat is pouring down the faces of the players as they stand around their coach holding a clipboard.

The coach says, "Who wants to take the last shot?" and the play is designed for the player who raises his hand first to take the last shot, no matter how good a shooter he or she is.

Basketball obviously doesn’t work this way as the coach designs a play for the team’s best shooter to get open and take the last shot, and has a Plan B designed for the team’s second-best shooter to do the same if the original play breaks down.

So I wonder why some assignors in soccer refereeing are giving games to the first refs who respond to them rather than their best refs. Refereeing has always struggled to be a meritocracy, defined as an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent (rather than on class privilege or wealth) or a system in which such persons are rewarded and advanced. An example of the second definition is “The dean believes the educational system should be a meritocracy.” The third and last definition of meritocracy is leadership by able and talented persons.

With the soccer ref shortage across the United States, assignors often have to find every warm body so they can cover all the games. In this space, I’ve written that the best refs are the ones who receive assignments on light weekends when there are very few games scheduled. Lately, I have found this not to necessarily be true as too many assignors have decided to assign games on light weekends or when they have a turnback for a game in a few days not by contacting the best official available but by sending out an e-mail to all officials and assigning based on a “first-come, first-serve” basis. So refs are receiving extra games based on whether they are on their smart phone or computer and not based on their ability.

My teenage cousin was playing in a game on a light weekend and he had a goal disallowed during a 2-0 loss for a foul he committed. I wasn’t there so I’ll assume the decision was correct but my father was at the game and he reported the ref was quite chubby and resided inside the kickoff circle and went with the AR’s flag on the foul to disallow the goal since the ref was 40 yards away. As the ref did not run the field, the assignment should have been given to a fit referee instead on that light weekend.

Now for good, young refs, they are spotted by the referee leadership and they have incentive to improve so they can make the pros one day. But the great majority of soccer refs in the United States are not good enough or young enough to be on anybody’s radar and are happy to ref youth soccer. So if assignments on light weekends are not always going to the best officials, what incentive do most have to improve other than their own personal pride in doing a good job?

It’s not the money. As a ref improves, they will go from being assigned mainly young kids’ games to the older kids’ games. A U-19 game pays a ref generally double that of an U-10 game yet a U-19 game takes 90 minutes to play and an U-10 game is 50 minutes long. So the ref is being paid just a little more per minute in the U-19 game.

Many of the best youth soccer refs leave officiating club games altogether and they go where the money is by reffing high school and college soccer and spend weekends the rest of the year with their families. I am not criticizing this approach as working a full-time job and then reffing on weekends throughout the year can be a real problem as the ref is seemingly never home and is a major reason why, by doing the same, I’ve never been married.

Going back to my original point, if assignors distribute games equally, there is absolutely no incentive for most refs to improve.

(Randy Vogt, the author of "Preventive Officiating," has officiated more than 10,000 games.)

8 comments about "Refs improve in a meritocracy".
  1. R2 Dad, May 24, 2019 at 2:42 p.m.

    Good column, this issue of assigning matches is not discussed much but has a large impact on the quality of the officiating our kids receive. Typcially assignors favor quality referees by giving preference to officlals that have progressed through ranks (grade 7 over an 8, 6 over a 7 etc) . Or by tracking the referees who are trying to build game counts to meet the requirements for the next level up (and I know you know all of this, Randy). But it's all down to knowing the assignors, on a catch-as-catch-can basis.  More recently the assigning software can filter you for specific levels of matches based on your Ref/AR rating. From my observations there is definitely a higher bar for Development Academy matches, since not just anyone can sign up for them (I assume this is similar for USL matches but I don't know this to be true). Followed by NPL matches--I can sign up for one even if I'm an 8, but I will only run a line if they need a body because I don't think I can do the kids justice at U17 and above because I can't keep up. However, many referees in worse shape than I are oblivious to their inabilities and want to do those matches because THEY want to. The problem I see for boys 15 and older is that so many teams are blowing up every year, resulting in many smaller U15s playing up at U17 or 16 year olds playing U19 where those matches are officiated like a men's league/free-for-all. And THAT is driving kids to drop out of league play. NO ONE is doing anything about this at any level, so late-bloomers fall through the cracks and/or drop out.

  2. Randy Vogt, May 24, 2019 at 2:54 p.m.

    Interesting photo that Soccer America posted. Either the second-to-last defender is standing right by GK or assistant's position is way off. And no corner flag either. :(

  3. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 28, 2019 at 6:32 a.m.

    Goal-kick being taken by the defender?

  4. Randy Vogt replied, May 28, 2019 at 10:08 a.m.

    Ian, good point, although the two nearest players have their back to the goal and the AR is not facing the penalty area either. The photo would be good to try and figure out where the ball is. Maybe the goal kick has just been taken and the ball is at midfield and is hidden between the ref and the two nearest players, and they are all facing the ball. Or maybe that white streak in front of a spectator is the moving ball, although the ref's back would then be turned away from the ball.

  5. Tyler Press, May 24, 2019 at 3:23 p.m.

    This article seeks to make the point that referees should be assigned to games based on quality, not availablility. This is a great point.

    However, this article is very poorly written, hard to follow, and probably not edited at all. Paying readers should not be subjected to the same quality writing as the (horrendously written) MLS.com site.

    To the author and the editors, let's tighten things up next time. Poor writing slows readers down and distracts them from your message. Remember, I'm paying to read your every word.

    Best,
    Tyler

  6. Tibor Polgar, May 24, 2019 at 3:37 p.m.

    As an assignor for a large assignment group that had 4900 games in 2018, I don't disagree with your article but in the comment on first-come and self-assign there is no mention of the #1 tool we use - Ranking.   We have a web based assignment system where each game level (age and playing league division i.e. Premier,Gold, Bronze) has a position rank range. Each Referee has a position ranking based on observed performance.   Ideally only the top referees get to even see the U19B Premier games while just about every referee that has passed the initial mentoring period and is deemed good to officiate can see U8.   Note that Center and AR are separately mentored, evaluated and ranked ... again based on observed performance.

    So when an opening appears, I send out a targeted email blast that only includes ranked within range officials.   Futhermore, only ranked for game officials can even see it in the web based assignment system.   I can override and manually assign when a referee wants to stretch his wings (he hears of the opening and requests it).

    Yes, this method saves me a lot of assingment work but on the flip side I must constantly prowl the sidelines obseving referees to confirm the ranking, sometimes downranking and other times more happily uprank.
     

  7. Randy Vogt replied, May 25, 2019 at 5:57 a.m.

    Tibor, what you are doing is very good as your e-mails are going only to refs who are qualified to do those games and you are following up to make sure they are doing a good job. And I also have no problem with assignors sending out emergency e-mails that day when a game suddenly goes uncovered. My issue is e-mails to everybody when there is a turnback, even if the game is a week or more down the road. This creates a belief with some refs that turnbacks are somehow okay as the assignor will simply sending out an e-mail and get coverage. There are some refs today who are not giving any availability and waiting for those e-mails so they can find the game(s) they want to do, maybe it's in their backyard or they are friendly with the coaches at that game. Assignors should assign a game to the best available ref in this scenario, even if it's extra work as the game was already assigned, rather than sending out an e-mail blast to everyone seeking coverage.

  8. Bob Ashpole, May 25, 2019 at 12:40 p.m.

    Randy, the only comment I have is that some priority should be made for development assignments and assessments.

    I am 7 years out of touch, but there used to be a referee shortage. I am somewhat surprised at this issue. The shortage of officials and the high drop out rate after the first year or so was the problems that I recall the sport facing. 

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