Sunday, May 28, 2006

Never Let 'em See Your Underbelly

I made a HUGE mistake today on the soccer field. I was Assistant Referee (AR) for a U-12 boys game in a tournament. U-12 means the boys are under 12 years old at the beginning of their soccer year, so by now most of them are 12. Two teams, one from Texas and one from Colorado. There are two AR's for each game and one Center Referee (head honcho). The AR's are positioned along the touch line, which is the side boundary of the field. Each AR "runs the line" from the half line across the middle of the field to the goal line at one end. One AR gets the team side, one gets the spectator side. Today I got the spectator side, the side with all the parents. (cue in "pending doom" music)

I made a bad call. It was actually an error of omission. I failed to make an offside call when it was indicated. It was due to my misunderstanding of a fine point of the laws of soccer, and I won't bore you with the details. Unfortunately, a goal resulted, and the parents went bananas. "OFFSIDES, REF!! OFFSIDES! OFFSIDES!"
([In truth, it was only two or three Dads - it usually is- but they were loud enough and awful enough to expand my impression to the whole group.) The center ref came over and we conferred privately. I explained the positioning of the players to him. He educated me, then he made the offside call, took away the goal, and restarted the game at the offside position.

That was not my huge mistake. It was not even the first mistake of my (so far short) reffing life, nor will it be the last. Nor was it terribly egregious, although I was embarrassed that I didn't know the law more thoroughly. All refs make mistakes. It's the nature of the beast. You can't be everywhere and see everything all the time. A good ref does his/her best, gets most of them right, and everybody's happy. Or, everybody's equally unhappy, which is the same thing. As it turned out, the team that lost their ill-gotten goal went on to cream the other team anyway. They were a better team.

No, my mistake wasn't that I missed a call. My mistake came afterward. My mistake was forgetting that referees never make mistakes. Period. By definition. The referee is always right. You may not agree, in fact you may disagree verbally, but the game goes the ref's way. Every time. Parents (and other spectators) disagree all the time, often very verbally, sometimes abusively. The experienced refs have learned to just shut their ears to the parental barrage. Most parents have only half a clue about the laws of the game, and they're on the sidelines, not in the middle of the action, meaning they can't see the game as well as the refs, and they're usually wrong about whatever they're bellowing about anyway, so the good refs ignore them.

I find this difficult. I'm working on it, but when I hear rude shouts from the people behind me, challenges to good calls made with comments like, "Are you BLIND, ref?""Are you watching the game at ALL, ref?" etc, my hackles rise. (I don't know where hackles are exactly, but I know what it feels like when they rise). I want to turn around and educate them, or chastise them, or punch 'em in their obnoxious faces! Conversely, I've been known to chat up a nice group of parents before the game or during a break. Both of these approaches are bad ideas. Do not engage the spectators. Period. In no way, shape, form or fashion. These are probably rules 2 and 3 of referee etiquette.

And ESPECIALLY don't forget rule #1. The referee is always right.

So, when I, after screwing up the offside call, turned and apologized to the parents for making a mistake, I was trashing all three rules. THAT was my big mistake. NEVER say "oops" when refereeing. NEVER admit a mistake. Oops, I mean, we don't MAKE mistakes! We are always RIGHT!

In medicine, we also make mistakes. Of course. People are human. Everyone makes mistakes. So, when I make a mistake in my medical practice, I do what seems to me to be the Right Thing To Do. I acknowledge the mistake, apologize, and fix it. And do my best not to repeat the same mistake. I believe this is the Right approach in life in general.

But in refereeing, it really is different. It really is important that the referee maintain their status as undisputed boss of the field, head traffic controller, the guy (or gal) with the Last Word. The referee must maintain control of the game, or the game will get out of control. "The referee is always right" is one way this crucial control is maintained. There are no debates about what the correct call should be. There are no voting sessions on the field, or discussion with players, fans, or coaches. Right or wrong, the ref is right. We must maintain the illusion of omniscience in order to keep things running smoothly.

Back to my blunder. I naively thought that admitting my mistake to the howling parents and apologizing would calm them down, would satisfy them, would make them see me as human. NOT! Instead, it seemed like it lit a fire under them. First, they looked at me as if I were speaking Hungarian. Then they proceeded to get even more rabid, even more insulting, for the rest of the game.Like jackals who catch sight of a gazelle's soft underbelly, they were on us, growling and snapping. What I had done was give them ammo. Evidence of incompetence, which they hungrily foist upon the three of us for the rest of the game.

I didn't turn around again, didn't make eye contact again, didn't speak to a one of them after the game. I learned my lesson, too late for that game, but not too late for the next. No more Ms. Nice Guy. Rule number one is my armor, my shield, my backbone.

Next time too, I think I'll bring earplugs. And a muzzle (for me). Just in case.


First 50 said...

You, go girl! Yours is the word of authority!

You know, I'm wondering if some of out political and religious leaders learned their skills at referree school?

first 50 said...

Oh, typo! Not the out political and religous leaders--they certainly don't fit the ref role. What I meant was OUR political and religious leaders.

Anonymous said...

hack·le1 (hăk'əl)
Any of the long, slender, often glossy feathers on the neck of a bird, especially a male domestic fowl.
hackles The erectile hairs along the back of the neck of an animal, especially of a dog.
A tuft of cock feathers trimming an artificial fishing fly.

-da Queen

anafaran said...

Our soccer days were numbered when our oldest, 5 yrs at the time, started his short-lived career kicking the ball down the field with not a single player trying to block him and he kicked a beautiful shot into the opposing team's goal. It was a very humiliating day. We never came close to another soccer field after that. He later took up another sport, much later. I get a kick hearing about your adventures out there as a soccer ref. It's just a game after all. It's supposed to be fun, right?

dr peg said...

First 50 - good point about leaders. "I'm right because I'm right! Get used to it!"

Queenie - thank you for that definition. I guess I'm part chicken!

anafaran - You might be surprised how many young kids do exactly what your son did. Especially at that age! When my daughter started soccer at age 6, the coach's main goal was to keep them going in the right direction. I'm sad that one incident was humiliating for him and turned him off soccer forever. It's a great sport.

medic said...

u-12 and their parents act like hooligans... what a nice way to set an example...

Anonymous said...


It just doesn't happen in soccer alone. Spelling bees are just as bad. In fact any competition for kids will bring out the worse in many parents.

dr peg said...

medic - hooligans is right! When I step back from it, it's actually kind of amusing to watch the evolution of parent attitudes over time. By the time the kids are 17, the parents have wised up and quieted down.

anonymous - spelling bees? Really? Wow. Hard to imagine parents in the crowd dissing the spelling bee judges! ;)

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