One of the first things I learned in sports was how to jeer the ref. My mom taught me that phrases like, “IF YOU HAD ONE MORE EYE, YOU’D BE A CYCLOPS!!!” and “YOU GOT YOUR UMPIRE LICENSE FROM THE SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND!” were perfectly acceptable things to yell. I remember thinking that refs really got a bad rap and not understanding why.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned. Oh, have I learned.
I remember one call in a volleyball match where the ball was clearly out, but the ref called it in. Or when my legs got taken out from under me in a soccer game with no foul called. A friend once encouraged me to study for, and get my refs license so that I could work my way up to calling the World Cup. My response? “So that I can piss someone off and get shot? No thanks.”
It seems that one thing that the MLS and European Leagues can agree on is that the refs are usually bad. I judge how bad a ref might be based on his yellows-per-game average in addition to his career statistics. There are calls that get missed on both sides. There are games that I have been left thinking, “Well, at least he messed up calls for both teams.” VAR and GLT were supposed to make the refereeing aspect of the game better, but they really don’t. Sure they work — video catches everything it’s told to record. What makes it faulty is the humans that run it. It’s largely ignored when it could correct a call.
Why isn’t appropriate criticism allowed? (I emphasize ‘appropriate’ here as I do not condone, in any manner, behaviour akin to Buffon’s commentary and apparent disregard for the safety of that referee and his wife. Yes, he apologized, but the damage had already been done and threats had already been made.) Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke was fined $7,500 for “public criticism” when he made a comment in a post-game interview about the refs missing a major call last year. Head coaches and players alike are not allowed to comment on the performance of the refs. How is this acceptable?
I get that no one is perfect and no ref is going to make the right call every time he steps on the pitch, but there needs to be some sort of recourse against those missed calls that can cost games. (Appealing a call after a match is great, but it doesn’t change the result on the pitch.) The review boards don’t institute much more than a slap on the wrist when it comes to penalizing them. I mean, how else do you explain a ref who absolutely botched a Gold Cup semi-final getting a chance at a World Cup game?
So what’s the solution? Better transparency, for one. Let the refs answer questions regarding their calls. Heck, let them be asked about their calls in the first place. Two: actual punishments other than just being sent to ref in a lower league for a week. Referees who consistently make bad calls should suffer punishments that could include losing their license. Finally, incentivize good by rewarding the good ones. A ref who consistently demonstrates the ability to manage his games well and, when necessary, makes good use of the tools available to him should be given bigger games.
Look, I know that if I don’t perform well at work and consistently make bad decisions, I lose my job. Players don’t perform well, they get benched or sometimes even transferred. Coaches? They’re in the same boat as me. Why do refs get slaps on the hand and nothing more?