Player's Perspective: How should games be refereed?

Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin, third from left, makes a save in the club's 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday.
Keith Hamilton/Icon SMI

The most interesting part of the game of soccer is the myriad gray areas. No position on the field finds itself shaded gray more often than that of referee. Referees have a difficult job. It's certainly not a position of envy, with many viewers focusing on what the referee's decided. That's not what I'm concerned about, though. What I would rather do is look at how the game should be refereed.

This chase down the rabbit hole was spurred on by the recent claim that referees have been supposedly instructed to monitor more closely the actions of individual players who may or may not have a reputation for conduct detrimental to the game. That's a whole lot of ifs and maybes and conditionals but it's necessary, as I possess no knowledge on whether the claim is true. And it's a claim not exclusive to MLS.

On the other side, there's the demand that skilled (let's say it, mostly attacking) players be more protected from the rough play that sometimes occurs in the course of a soccer match.

These claims are more similar than different (again, not exclusive to MLS). In this instance, one group of observers has decided that offenders should (possibly) be judged on incidents that have occurred in previous games. And on the other hand, another group of observers has decided that skilled players should have incidents judged based on the treatment they've received in previous games. In short, both sides wish to see actions adjudicated based on the reputation of those they deem victims of unfair refereeing.

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We can reasonably say that the second claim is true; after all, there is public record of these demands, that skilled players need more protection. We'll address that as well, but initially let's assume the opposite claim is true (another conditional, I know): that referees have been instructed to view these incidents with a fragment of past events in view. What does this mean for the game?

First, to address both claims, we must note that referees watch film of past games. PRO (Professional Referees Organization) has told us as much, and I'm sure FIFA referees are no different. Much like coaches and players, they are looking to improve, to learn from their mistakes and to become better referees. These are all good things.

But inevitably, they will develop biases. Previous events lead to memories of these events. These memories become biases. This is again, not necessarily bad. Judges in the courts of law have biases, as much as they try not to. Biases grow from experiences, and most players, coaches and cognoscenti seem to want "experienced" referees.

For example, a referee may watch film of last week's match and see a player who commits a few fouls in the game but not receive a yellow card. Or, more likely, he's refereed this player before and knows the player's pattern of play. It's quite possible that the next week, the referee will be more wary of this player's behavior. It's something I've heard myself on the field. I was in earshot when one referee carded a member of the opposite team and when the captain came to ask, "What for?" the referee responded, "It's the same [stuff] he does every week."

What this means though, is that the referee has developed an inevitable bias based on previous experiences. He has lost the tabula rasa desired in the legal courts and, I would argue, on the pitch. He doesn't need to watch film to issue the yellow card. A yellow card cannot be issued because it's the same foul that the player committed last week.

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In a simple, obvious statement, every game is different. Experience can certainly help referees manage situations, but to the best of their abilities, referees must judge in the moment, without previous events affecting their decisions. If it's the "same [stuff] every week," it should be a yellow card every week. There's no need for history, or film study, to confirm it. Film should be there to look at what the referee can improve, not what a player's behavioral tendencies are.

This also goes for the corresponding claim regarding protection of players. Managers can't seemingly ask for protection for their star players while denouncing targeting of their more physical players. They, too, are asking the referee to judge on history. Referees must decide based on the events in the immediate game.

For the star players, there is a mechanism to deal with 'targeting': yellow cards for persistent infringement. It's up to the referee to decide in the game if the treatment sustained warrants this punishment.

Refereeing in this manner would lead to 'fairer' decisions. It won't be good for those looking to assign players a type or to develop specific narratives, but it will lead to clearer understandings of matches as singular events. A 'diver' will only be a player who dove. A hard man will be a player who played a physical match. And managers, in theory, won't be able to influence a referee who analyzes in the present.

I've done my best HLA Hart impression. It's a bit heavy on sporting and legal theory, yes. But these are the gray areas that make soccer such a fascinating game. Gray areas that deserve to be appreciated, but also elucidated.

Clint Irwin is a goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids in MLS. He can be followed on Twitter @ClintIrwin.

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