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Commentary: In Defense of Refereeing

Photo Courtesy of Nathan Shively on Unsplash

“Good calls, sir.”
“Great game, ref.”
“Mr. Referee, I just wanted to thank you for being the most impartial arbiter I have seen in my lifetime.”
…Sir Thomas More’s Utopia: Even More Utopian out on shelves now.
In other words, never in my lifetime have I heard those idyllic, pacifying, honey-coated words uttered out of a spectator’s mouth. Ever. Want the truth? Here’s a naturalistic observation of the soccer sports complex done by Colin Frier, PhD (pseudo-doctor):
Referee calls fouls.
“Let them play!”
Referee doesn’t call fouls.
“You better get a handle on this game, sir, or else things are gonna start to get violent!”
Very uplifting stuff, I know. Per the wise words of Bob Dylan, “You can’t win with a losing hand.” And for referees, blowing the whistle is essentially like having no better than a high card in poker. At every sound of the whistle, spectators and players alike scream some iteration of “WhAT?!?”, minds boggled, as if the call is puzzling beyond comprehension, as if they just watched Donnie Darko, took an advanced course in astrophysics, or listened to The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” on repeat. Understatements aside, the blast of the whistle is treated like the trumpets in the book of Joshua, its vibration strong enough to bring down the walls of Jericho. Yes, the world will collapse if the referee even slightly touches his lips to that damned whistle.
If it isn’t evident already, spectators, ripe with indignation, prefer to use their sweet petunia’s soccer match as a Ten Minutes Hate session from 1984. Or better yet, a Mike Pence press conference. Something about watching a referee make calls contrary to the general populace’s likings inexplicably brings out the absolute worst in people. Truly, their emotions are more tender than Joe Biden’s ankle.
As a soccer referee myself, one of the poor, unfortunate souls belonging to Ursula the sea witch in The Little Mermaid, I certainly fit the bill of a part-time zookeeper tasked with a job most undesirable: overseeing the ape exhibit. Every time I mediate a U13 boys soccer game, it’s like being placed on the death machine in The Princess Bride. To quote Jim Morrison, not a game goes by that there’s not “blood on the streets, up to my ankles.” In fact, I’m convinced that the sign at the entrance of the soccer pitch reads like the one in Dante’s Hell via invisible ink: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Or, for a more striking example, the chant from Mad Max: “Two men enter, one man leaves.”
I’ve been a soccer referee for seven-odd years now. As Frank Sinatra said, “The record shows, I took the blows.” I’ve endured freezing rain, Death Valley-hot summers, Sharknados, the whole works. Per the words of Farmers Insurance, I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two. I’ve been to the ice planet Hoth and back again. I’ve lived through the entire book of Exodus, battling locust plagues and the like. I’ve weathered more than Russell Crowe and Elijah Wood combined in their respective movies, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings.
So, aside from first responders, referees are the true heroes. They’ve seen hell and then some. They’ve looked the Devil in the eyes. They’ve experienced torture only rivaled by Inquisition methods. Presumably, the reason the majority of onlookers hate referees to no end is because of the referee’s role as a quasi-doctor, able to provide a diagnosis, absent of a solution. Referees call fouls, but they can’t appease the crowd, a similar scenario to Ricky Gervais’ speech at the 2020 Golden Globes. These stewards of justice, the valiant referees, deserve mounds more credit than they’re receiving right now.
Whether motivated by their love of the game or the prospect at picking up some more pocket change, referees are on the clock in every corner of the world. The universality of refereeing is actually, much to the chagrin of the naysayers, largely unmatched. This wide-ranging nature can be summed up in a simple aphorism: no refereeing, no sports. At least, simple enough for Lindsey Lohan. Referees are needed all over the world for a plethora of sports: soccer, basketball, football, toe wrestling…
And the fact of the matter is, regardless of high demand, organizations are constantly hurting for referees. This crisis is understandable, of course; signing up to referee is like being sworn into the presidency. Perks aside, taking up residence in the Oval Office is just about the worst thing a human can do to themselves. In a year alone, the amount of stress that taxes a president’s immune system is enough to build up knots so unmassagable that even the nation’s most lauded masseuse wouldn’t be able to work them out.
Nevertheless, despite having a death warrant attached to its job description, sport commissions around the world are begging for the bravest of souls to step up to home plate and become a referee. After all, as with anything, third parties are a necessity in order to adjudicate a dispute. Referees make objective decisions. They don’t champion for a particular team. Spectators, naturally, tend to argue the opposite, assuming that all referees are involved in Tim Donaghy-esque scandals, accepting bribes on the side like a city councilman (as noted, once again, by the venerable Bob Dylan). The plain truth is, referees call what they see. They aren’t beholden to special interest groups.
To do their job right, leastways adequately, referees have got to have the same biological makeup as Mr. Waternoose in Monsters Inc.; that is, donning five eyes. Critics would like to think, rather, that referees are Mike Wazowskis, possessing the same amount of auditory skill as Beethoven. Referees are simply products of the blind school, puttering aimlessly around the field like the three blind mice in Shrek. Yes, referees are expected to have eyes on their hands like the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth in order to catch all the minutiae in the match.
During a game, the referee’s brain is like a hamster wheel, or, for a more elaborate description, like one of those DVD BluRay ellipses that bounce from corner to corner on the screen when the movie is paused; only in this case, that ellipse is flying at mach speed. When Pink Floyd sings, “The lunatic is on the grass,” they’re really referring to referees.
Like it or not, referees, these war heroes, these dauntless umpires, benefit society in a multitude of ways. A, coaches can’t be left to arbitrate their own games, just like Trump and Biden can’t be left to run their own debate. Nonpartisan arbiters are an undeniable must. And B, the sports industry is a cash cow, and without referees, the lucrative monolith would crash and burn. Someone has to be the intrepid impartial, even if ABC News won’t do it.
Yet, in spite of the referee’s extensive upsides, the majority of spectators still have it out for them, as if these equitable mediators exposed them in public or mercilessly murdered their newborn. These rubberneckers subscribe to the idea that, even if a referee is staring directly at the play along with everyone else, somehow they are “watching another game,” somehow staring into the ether.
Therefore, naturally, if the referees left the premise, the rewards of such impeachment would be reaped almost instantaneously; everything would harmoniously come together like a Joe Biden unity project and gospel singers would come floating down from the heavens on brazen wings singing “Oh Happy Day.” Yes, if the referee vanished from existence, it’d be like the end of The Return of the Jedi, everyone clapping and dancing to some Ewok tune, celebrating the death of the Devil.
…this perspective is criminally untrue, of course, as we have seen thanks to considerable evidence for the contrary. While I must admit there exists a select few genuinely incompetent persons in yellow, it’s humanly impossible to be Doctor Manhattan, incapable of error. Competent or not, referees are a net positive for the world. Referees are ambassadors, skilled in negotiating with either side. They have skins as thick as rhinos. They are friends, and they are enemies. They are gravediggers, they are priests. They are doctors, they are counselors.
Without a doubt, the referee is the “man in the arena,” per the words of Theodore Roosevelt. He whose “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” He who “strives valiantly.” He who expends every last breath in the name of the game he loves, for no other reason than to serve the community, to keep the competition honorable, and to leave an indelible legacy for the future’s bold judges.
The referee is the world’s policeman, yes, but police are friends.
Treat him as such.


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