Referees deserve better from TV commentators

"That's a smart tactical foul in the moment," Fox Sports color commentator Stuart Holden said after LAFC's José Cifuentes kicked Lucas Romero from behind and swung his right arm at neck level as he plowed over the Leon midfielder.

Romero had received the ball 20 yards inside his own half, but Holden proclaimed, "That's not a bad yellow to take."

Holden was praising a cheap shot, an incident he himself described as: "The ball is gone. He knows the ball is gone and he's trying to take him out."

The condoning of foul play comes frequently from soccer broadcasters, who embrace euphemisms such as professional foul ... emergency brake ... tactical foul. Also prevalent is ignorance of the rules.

Earlier in the Leon-LAFC game, Denil Maldonado competed for a high ball while on José Alvarado's back. Maldonado first pushed his hand down on Alvarado's shoulder, then wrapped his arm around Alvarado's head.

After referee Walter Lopez yellow-carded Maldonado, Holden cited "make-up" call, an "evening out" of the yellow card Lopez gave to Adonis Frias for a foul on Carlos Vela two minutes earlier.

Of Maldonado's caution, Holden, while watching the replay, said, with a chuckle in the middle, "Maybe there's a bit of contact, what they're trying to say, on the side of his face, but I think that was the first foul I can remember in the game for Maldonado."

Maldonado's foul met the rulebook's criteria for a yellow card without it having to be considered "persistent offense." And for the record, Maldonado committed the game's first foul, at the 4-minute mark, and fouled again in the 21st minute.

After Frias got yellow-carded for whacking Vela hard from behind, Holden described Frias' action as "just a little over-eager there."

I've surveyed enough youth players and witnessed enough youth coaching to know they don't learn the rules by reading the rulebook. They're most likely to get their information from what they see and hear on TV.

That means referees must cope with coaches and players who are frequently misinformed and influenced by the condoning of foul play.

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What TV soccer commentators should do:

1. Read the rulebook. (It's free to download, HERE.)

2. Wait until you see the replay before criticizing the ref or opining on whether it was or wasn't a foul.

3. If you do jump the gun and the replay refutes your knee-jerk speculation, just admit you got it wrong instead of embarrassing yourself more by contradicting the upclose, slow-motion, high-definition replay we're seeing with our own eyes.

4. After a ref's call, share what the rule is with your audience by reading or accurately paraphrasing the section of rulebook that relates to the incident. It should be a big part of your job to ensure your viewers are accurately informed.

5. Referee some soccer games. Then decide if you're still comfortable praising foul play.

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BBC commentator Chris Sutton, whose playing career included Celtic and Chelsea, has been notorious for his criticism of officiating while TV pundit for BT Sport. Earlier this year, he reffed his first game:

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Refereeing in Soccer America & Around the Web ...

Recent ref, rules and officiating coverage and commentary:

1Iowa Soccer innovates approach to training young refs   By Dan Woog

2. For coaches and refs: Maintain composure. Don't condescend. By Beau Dure

3Terry Vaughn remembered    By Paul Kennedy

Roma coach Jose Mourinho shouted abuse at referee Anthony Taylor in the VIP parking garage after Roma's Europa League final loss to Sevilla.

4The grim reality of being a Premier League fourth official: ‘It’s 90 minutes of hell’ By Stuart James (The Athletic)

5. Grassroots clubs could be deducted points for abusive behaviour towards players and officials under new FA sanctions (BBC Sport)

6. Violence in Youth Sports: Skip Gilbert, Mike Woitalla, Bill Steffen hosted by Giovanni Pacini (GP Soccer Podcast

11 comments about "Referees deserve better from TV commentators".
  1. stewart hayes, June 2, 2023 at 10:26 p.m.

    The 'professional fouls' are are allowed multiple times before a yellow is shown.  This sets the stage for abuse of the refeee.  Players are allowed to get away with stuff.  To make matters worse, the cards come out when attackers are brought down in the attacking 3rd but are frequenlty ignored completely when defenders are brought down during build ups in the defending third.

    This leads to indecision on the part of the ref, when do I start taking out the card.  Players get frustrated as well, example Luciano Rodriguez vs Gambia during the U20 world cup the other day when he was purposely held for an extended time probably on purpose to provoke a reaction.  

    The refes will gain respect when the rules are called from the opening whistle.  In a game where one goal can decide a game why on earth are early professional fouls any less important than those that occur toward the end of the game?

    In the same tournament an Ecuadorian player's shirt is pulled by a Korean while he is dribbling in the penalty area and there is no call.  What happened to VAR?  That is a clear yellow card anywhere else on the field.  

    I agree with the author completely.  The professional foul has got to go and a good place to start is with the annuncers praising such actions.  

  2. R2 Dad replied, June 3, 2023 at 8:44 a.m.

    The easiest solution is to get Christina Unkel on the video cast to provide an official's opinion. She seems objective and dispassionate on these calls, and has enough tact to call the boys on their "incomplete " understanding of the LOTG.

  3. R2 Dad, June 3, 2023 at 12:24 a.m.

    Let's not kid ourselves--everyone just wants to wring their hands and remark at how unacceptable the status quo is. But the reality is that coaches run the FA, run the leagues and run the clubs and they are happy with this situation. They can all Fnck Off--I quit officiating after 13 years and they are the reason. Not the money. Not the hours. Not the players. THE COACHES. Just like pro/rel, nobody wants to upset the applecart. At this point I've given up on USSF and all the leagues--they are not salvageable. 

  4. Ben Myers, June 3, 2023 at 12:05 p.m.

    This is yet another reason NOT to watch MLS.  The play is abysmal.  The announcers even more so.  But Garber and the MLS don't care.  Get the eyeballs watching, get the cash into the coffers, and everything else be damned.  Once again, the USSF sits on its hands, so the status quo of blithering announcers babbling nonsense will continue.  If only MLS would issue yellows for professional fouls?

    Referees that officiate the game to a higher and tighter standard would improve the MLS game considerably.  Say what you want about the physical play in the EPL, but the officiating is almost always very good, on point to the level of physical play by the competing squads.

  5. Beau Dure replied, June 4, 2023 at 9:31 a.m.

    To be picky, there's not really any such thing as an MLS ref. There are refs assigned by PRO, as they are in other US leagues. 

    That said, MLS/PRO did far better than the EPL/England in rolling out VAR. 

  6. beautiful game, June 3, 2023 at 12:26 p.m.

    The pro-foul is a cancer for the game, gratis to the likes of Howard Webb et al, WC 2010 whistle swallower, former head of MLS referees, and now EPL. When the LOTG rules are undermined in many areas, the players react accordingly.

  7. James Madison, June 3, 2023 at 6:58 p.m.

    Holden is just showing himself to be an ignorant ass.

  8. Joe Shufelt, June 4, 2023 at 8:45 a.m.

    Mike, This is a great article, long overdue though.  Every US Commentator has the same problem, that of second guessing the referee calls and this type of incorrect criticism should be more closely controlled by the networks.  I am not sure if the commentators are always condoning foul play, as part of the game, or trying to make it clearer to the audience that many referees do not fully apply the laws as written.  To blatantly disagree with a call on the field based upon their view from the booth or on the tv is dumb, unproductive and detrimental to the sport.  Nobody should be a commentator unless they have been a referee...

  9. Mike Lynch, June 4, 2023 at 2:20 p.m.

    Tactical fouling allowed by coaches, tolerated by referees and praised by commentators are killing the game. Each stakeholder can do better, but it is the coaches who are in position to stop this unethical behavior immediately. Coaches control player selection, playing time. Simple solution to a simple problem. 

  10. stewart hayes replied, June 20, 2023 at 9:54 p.m.

    Unfortunately, FIFA has allowed the referees to ignore some fouls like obstruction, wrapping arms around players on corners, fouling by forwards against defenders launching counters and not dropping off 10 yards on all free kicks immediately etc... By not calling the 'small stuff' the game has degernerated.  Sportmanship has taken a back seat.  Players are allowed to cheat a little.  

    Games are lower scoring as a result and negative tactics detract from fair competition.  The skillful are hamstrung by the thugs.  Needless injuries are occuring.  Referees are not respected.  It is a sad state.

  11. Ric Fonseca, June 7, 2023 at 5:11 p.m.

    Inteesting... When I took my first US Soccer Coaching course taught by Detmar Cramer back in the early '70s, and then was asked to manage three succeeding US Soccer Coaching schools in the late '80's, I remember the sessions on the LOTG that were then given just "lip service," by the teaching staffers.  Several refereees of the L.A. area were astonished to learn that the LOTG weren't given but some "lip service," and I distinctly remember one of the officials sated that one of the best ways to impart/teach the LOTG was have the coaching students actually referee several games.  Sadly, to my knowledge this never came to pass, in fact when coaching at my community college, I required my student-athletes to read the LOTG and even conducted instruction on officiating after the season was over and the semester was still in session, the result being that several of my then team members went on to officiate high school games.  And BTW, they also received their academic grade in (then) physical education (now kinesiology).  I strongly am supportive that coaches and players attend several officiating sessions and also be examined on the nuances and intricacies of the LOTG.  And  so I say PLAY ON!!! 

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