Trending Topics: North American Referees and the Supreme Court … Not That Different


This is a new column that will appear towards the end of the week discussing the hottest topic in American soccer. If you don’t like the Twitter connection or the Puck Daddy influence, oh well, thanks for clicking. Views do not necessarily represent those of EOS or their staff.

Staff Writer

There are many ways to financially develop a league, many ways to develop coaches and develop players. However, there is only one way to develop referees, and if there is anything we have to come learn about those who are supposed to interpret an institution’s rules, it is that their progression will be the slowest and the most reactionary.

Yes, referees are the Supreme Court. No, this is not a stretch — especially considering how scrutinized both positions are these days. The problem both of these groups of individuals face is that while their role is defined, how they fulfill that role is not. They are well-versed in the rules of their institution, but how they use said rules in their decision-making process is something that cannot be taught proactively. There will always be misinterpretations made that will draw heavy scrutiny, and unfortunately for referees or justices, there is no way to prevent them.

The Professional Referees Organization has hardened themselves up a little bit after reviewing a particularly controversial game in Columbus. The most egregious incident of that match was referee Juan Guzman’s decision to only caution Crew center back Giancarlo Gonzalez after he committed a professional foul on D.C. United forward Eddie Johnson. After heavy criticism from many in the media including this website, P.R.O. issued a statement confirming the criticism that Gonzalez had denied a goalscoring opportunity for Johnson and should have been sent off.

Gonzalez did not receive supplemental discipline. Guzman cited a technicality to avoid commenting on the decision.

There is a lot in this incident that makes it an interesting case study and checkpoint in the status of officiating in this country. Firstly, although MLS is the primary funder of P.R.O., it would be disingenuous to characterize officiating as only MLS’ problem. US Soccer also funds the independent company and both the NASL and USL Pro have partnerships with them.

The reason why this is brought up is that all four entities should all be in the same boat in aiding P.R.O. and in making it accountable in each of their leagues.

To revisit the connection to the Supreme Court, think about what it would mean if they were as inconsistent as North American officials? There would be no clear baseline for Americans to go about their business because no one would be quite sure how a written statute would be interpreted. Our state of mind would consistently be at that awkward state of not knowing if you can make a right on red. Yet that is the state of mind that exists amongst all those who participate in or watch North American games.

That leads to cheating.

Cheating is a tactic that involves the willful disrespect of a game’s rules in order to achieve the game’s stated goal. It’s the striker staying a little offside because he thinks the referee’s assistant will not raise his flag on the through ball that leads to a goal. It’s the defensive midfielder going in a little harder on the skillful attacking player so that he’s forced to come off at halftime and his team ultimately fails to score the equalizing goal.

All of this made possible by the referee who decides to be looser with his interpretation of the written laws of the game.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that cannot be solved quickly. Investment only goes so far when it comes in a field with limited innovation. Such is the case in officiating, where the ultimate goal is to interpret and apply written statutes. It’s a thankless task P.R.O. faces because their success is only measured by how often they fail.

It also does not help that those who perceive its failings are subjective. One media member may see the Gonzalez foul and the decision to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action one way and write about it, another will see it in a different way and do a podcast about it. Of course, fans deserve explanations on divisive calls, but trying to further explain a decision to a fan, especially of the team that did not receive the benefit of the referee’s decision, is never going to be easy.

The other issue in this is the referees themselves — as individuals and as a whole. In an ideal world, referees should have a style, but they should not have a reputation. Guzman’s postgame actions give the media cause to scrutinize the next time he officiates a game (he’s the fourth official for tomorrow’s Seattle Sounders-Colorado Rapids match).

The problem is that Guzman is not the only referee with a reputation. Just mention the names Mark GeigerHilario Grajeda and Ricardo Salazar and there will be collective ambivalence amongst all interested parties. That is okay to an extent. Much like the political views of justices are all different, the sporting views of referees are different because each has their own mind. They are not robots.

They are also not stars. It’s not embarrassing if you can’t name all the Supreme Court justices or all of P.R.O.’s referees as part of some Jimmy Kimmel skit; it only matters if you know them for their role and how they operate in it.

It should be impossible to forget, but the referees are in a union, and judging from the lockout that ended a month ago, the Professional Soccer Referees Association and P.R.O. are not necessarily in an amicable relationship. As a result, P.R.O. has to be tactful when issuing statements like the one it issued this week because, while the fans and the media deserve further explanations on certain calls from someone inside the organization, the P.S.R.A. will be watching closely to see if that explanation does not damage the reputation of one of its officials.

All of this gets remembered when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement begin again.

P.R.O. is in a thankless position. They operate in a role that is, by definition, reactionary, which means they will always be behind the rest of the sport when it comes to improving the standard of North American officiating. They will always be scrutinized as much as they are now, though the hope is that the context changes from how all-of-North-American-officiating-is-not-world-class to how this one North American official is not world-class; much in the same way a justice gets criticized for making an anachronistic statement in his/her opinion. It then seems that giving opinions based off of written facts is not something for the faint of heart.

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