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Respect My Authority!

Coaches, players, and fans often compare sports referees to police officers when explaining the authority that a referee has over a game. While it is an easy comparison to make, everyone who makes it seriously understates the amount of authority that a referee actually possesses.

We referees are a combination of:

  • The police officer – we witness violations and detain the player
  • The lead prosecutor – we levy charges against the player
  • The jury – we determine the player’s guilt or innocence
  • The judge – we sentence the player to a period of time in a confined area
  • The warden – we don’t let the player out until their debt is paid
  • The executioner – we decide if the player gets ejected

In lacrosse, the rulebook grants the referees absolute power over the game, the area around the game, and everyone associated with the game:

The officials shall have authority over the play of the game, with control and jurisdiction over the timekeeper, scorer, players, substitutes, coaches and anyone officially connected with either team, and spectators (NFHS 2.6.2, NCAA 2.7).

Referees are endowed with similar authority in nearly every other sport that uses refs because sports require quick decisions that are tough to dispute. This authority is granted by design. If sports were officiated in the same manner as a criminal trial then the NCAA Lacrosse Championship Weekend would take six months to finish and there would be a lengthy appeals process.

I officiate well over a hundred games each year covering every age group, which equates to a few thousand people that are impacted by my decisions. Out of those thousands of people, I’ve run into only a few who know how to effectively communicate with officials. The rest say things that only serve to diminish their case. To explain how best to communicate with a referee, let’s go back to the police officer comparison.

When I first got my driver’s license my parents gave me a very useful piece of advice. If I ever got pulled over, I was to be polite to the officer. Applying a bit of common courtesy whenever I spoke to a police officer let me learn exactly what I was pulled over for, and showed that I was likely not going to cause the officer any additional trouble. I’ve gotten a few tickets driving, but I’ve also gotten let off with a few warnings. However, I can confidently say that while I could have gotten a ticket every time I got pulled over no matter how I behaved, I definitely would have gotten a ticket every time I got pulled over if I behaved like a jerk. The point is that police officers and sports referees are just human beings doing a job, and they both generally respond well to common courtesy.

In a lacrosse game the refs are going to make decisions that you (as the player, coach, or fan) will not agree with. Right or wrong, the referee has all of the power and can either make your life pleasant or unpleasant, but if you understand this fact you can work around it.

Last season, I called an Illegal Body Check for a late hit after a shot on a senior defender during Senior Night. Oh, people were pissed off, and I imagine that defender hated my guts the instant he realized I penalized him. He didn’t make any aggressive comment or come at me like he wanted to hurt me (though it was reasonable to think he wanted to). He walked up to me and said, “Mr. Official, why did you flag my hit?” I answered, “Your hit was clean in every respect, but you hit the shooter when the ball was beyond five yards.” The defender nodded and jogged to the penalty box to serve his time. The next time he had a chance to hit the shooter after the ball was well away, he eased up, and I thanked him for that during the next dead ball.

That is an ideal interaction between a player and a referee, but that doesn’t always happen. More often than not, tempers flair, words get exchanged, and two or more people do something they later regret. That first interaction was a positive example, but I find negative examples tend to illuminate the need to change behavior better.

Years ago, I called a player for a trip, and he felt that I made a bad call. The player got right into my face and was screaming at the top of his lungs that I was the worst ref he’d ever seen. I threw my flag (now I’m out of the two I carry), and then I poured gasoline on the situation. I told the player, “You really need to shut your mouth.” That suggestion did not have the desired effect that I was hoping for. The player got more pissed off and as he was walking to the penalty box he shouted, “Throw another one!” I walked over to my partner and asked him for his flag, which he handed to me and I threw high into the air. The player demanded that I throw another, so I threw my partner’s last flag. When all was said and done I assessed a 1-minute trip, a 30-second conduct, a 1-minute non-releasable unsportsmanlike conduct (USC), and a 3-minute non-releasable USC. Oh, I also ejected the player.

The major difference between this example and the more positive one is that the player and the referee did not treat one another with respect. Verbal insults by the player lead to flags from the referee, and none of it was really necessary. Back then, I knew I held all the authority, but I hadn’t learned that I could manage a game much more smoothly by giving players, coaches, and fans genuine respect until they treated me without it.

So to all the players, coaches, fans, and referees reading this I want you to remember that there is no magic to settling disputes on the field. Bring a mutual respect for everyone at the game and work on maintaining that respect for as long as possible. There will still be disputes, but you’ll probably find that the game moves along much more easily.

Quote for the players, coaches, and fans:

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” – Jackie Robinson

Quote for the referees:

“With great power comes great responsibility.” – Spiderman’s Uncle Ben