Mindhunter, behavioral science as applied to modern-day refereeing

During the pandemic days - with not much else to do - we started watching Netflix series every night. Recently we started watching Mindhunter.  Mindhunter is an American crime thriller web television series created by Joe Penhall, based on the true-crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. The series is about the establishment of a Behavioral Science unit at FBI in the late 70s. The new unit is trying to profile serial killers and identifying the reasons that led these people to become serial killers. In doing so, they want to help law enforcement identify the culprits of unresolved serial killings as well as trying to reduce crimes that are in serial nature by preventive actions. Naturally, doing so they meet with a great deal of opposition form the Law Enforcement agencies who are old school. Those old school law enforcement agencies claim that crime is a crime and their job is find the criminal who committed the crime. Once they realize how profiling criminals help them solve some of their cases they start appreciating the work of the behavioral science unit.

Well, you might ask what is Mindhunter to do with soccer officiating. Recently, I had been following a number of soccer refereeing accounts on social media. In these accounts somebody puts a video clip and ask the followers what the decision should be: Yellow card, red card, penalty kick etc. Lots of people make opposing comments about the type of foul or disciplinary action to be taken, quoting tons of text from the Laws of the Game (LOTG). Very rarely do they ever write about how the referee could identify that something was going to happen and prevent it from happening. They are drowned in the sea of the letter of the LOTG. “That is old school.” 

I was very much like them until a couple of years ago. In the mid 2000s, a good friend of mine then member of the UEFA referee Committee, Jaap Uilenberg, told me and the elite Turkish referees in a meeting that now we should forget about “refereeing by the book” and instead switch on to the concept of “man management.” (Needless to say neither Jaap nor I use the word “man” in a sexist way). I started to think what he meant. Then I started thinking about what is meant by the “spirit” of the LOTG. A few years later, the concept of “what football expects” started popping in refereeing debates. Understanding what Jaap said, plus what the spirit of the LOTG meant, plus the concept of “what football expects” widened my horizon in modern-day officiating. 

Unfortunately, not only here in the USA but around the globe the letter of the LOTG is treated like a sacred document. The coaches or instructors who know the little intricacies that are embedded in the letter of the LOTG are hailed as great coaches or instructors. You are frowned upon if you cannot tell the number of cautionable offenses. But if you ask the same people what they understand of the spirit of the LOTG or the meaning of “what football expects,” then you will get conflicting answers. They and the majority of the “old school” referees should understand that modern-day refereeing requires a “behavioral science unit.” This hypothetical unit will help them understand how players think; how referees can help them to avoid being sanctioned and hence man-manage them if possible without having to caution or to send them off looking at what football expects.

The first step is to understand that the letter of the LOTG is a not sacred text. It is written in pseudo-archaic English that is not easily comprehendible by the ordinary people who have a great love of the game. Only well-educated native speakers of English will understand the letter of the LOTG completely. As a result – since the English version is the authoritative one in case there is a divergence between the official languages of FIFA – translation might be problematic. Very recently, an incorrect translation of the VAR protocol from English into Spanish caused a problem in a LaLiga game. It is obvious that the language should be simplified or better still, as I have written several times, there should be two LOTG: one for the grassroots and one for the professional game. Any referee at an advanced level should naturally know the letter of the LOTG; that is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. They should also know and taught what the spirit of the LOTG is. The spirit of each sentence of the LOTG is the reason why it was written -- it is that simple.

Understanding just the letter and spirit of the game is not sufficient either, and then the advanced referee should understand what football expects mean.  That is the second step. To clarify this notion, this let me give you an example: Any of the 12 offenses mentioned in Law 12 committed by a defender in his/her penalty area when the ball is in play is penalized by a penalty kick awarded to the attacking team. That is what the letter of the LOTG says. So in a game there are many instances where the letter of this Law is met but a penalty kick is not awarded. In some cases, exactly the same foul will result in a direct free kick just inches outside the penalty area. The “old school” referees will say that if you call the one outside the penalty area, then you must call the penalty kick. Well, life is not that simple in today’s refereeing.  Many times you will hear that either the challenge or the push was not strong enough to justify a penalty kick. According to the letter of the LOTG, calling a penalty kick is correct but soccer does not expect a penalty kick out of that challenge or push. So we have to look through the lens of what soccer expects when we decide for a penalty kick which is correct according to the letter of the LOTG. The simple definition of what soccer expects is what the stakeholders of soccer-- the players, coaches, spectators -- expect from the game for that particular call. That intuition of what soccer expects is something you can only build up through experience and watching a multitude of high-level games.

Let me give you another example: Referees at the highest are advised to make sure that the second yellow card for a player is very clear and obvious one. “Where does that say?” would be the first reaction of an old school referee. It does not say that in the letter of the LOTG but this is what soccer expects at that level. Sending a player off for second yellow card should not be disputed, because a team playing with one player short is always at a disadvantage. Another common approach of the old school referee would be to accuse the player: “He/she should have thought that he already a yellow card and not commit the foul.” Or they would accuse the player for simulation in the penalty area when he/she is able to deceive the referee and get an unfair penalty kick in his/her team’s favor. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the referee is assigned to “man manage” the game so he/she should manage all the problems. 

How to prevent some events and some disciplinary actions in a game is yet another topic for the “behavioral science” unit and for that the readers will have to wait for the sequel.

3 comments about "Mindhunter, behavioral science as applied to modern-day refereeing".
  1. R2 Dad, July 13, 2020 at 4:11 a.m.

    This is a very interesting topic as I believe IFAB has now constructed handling laws to contradict what the game expects. This is especially pronounced in the EPL where faster players, estimates of contact , their Diving pogrom and VAR have exposed this conflict and sewn distrust and skepticism. Essentially bringing the game into ill repute.

  2. James Madison, July 13, 2020 at 3:01 p.m.

    Good argument, but the penalty situation is a bad example.  Players expect referees to have the courage to call a penalty even if it is inches inside the penalty area.  Moreover, the term "player management" solves the gender issue without cowering beneath an apology.

  3. Ahmet Guvener replied, July 13, 2020 at 5:59 p.m.

    Man management is the term that Jaap used when introducing the concept. 

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