Photo via Christian Petersen/Getty

In training last week I nicked a player from behind in an 8v8 game, he fell to the ground, and we scored off the turnover. Our coach, acting as referee from the sideline, asked if I fouled him. I always have the natural instinct to say no chance; there’s no asterisk next to a W in the results column. This time, though, I didn’t know what to say. Our coach made the rare inquisition because he wasn’t sure; I made the uncharacteristic shrug because I wasn’t sure. Genuinely, we had no idea if it was a foul or not. That’s a feeling we seem to be experiencing with increasing frequency lately.

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It’s exhausting. I’m tired of discussing referee decisions; more so, I’m tired of being worried about referee decisions. It’s okay to have human error. People miss things that happen at high speeds. It’s not okay when everybody sees the same thing and but can’t decide what it means, and when a specific foul has different outcomes on different days. Players don’t know what they can and cannot do on the field.

Last Sunday in the Copa América, Jamaica’s Rudolph Austin got a straight red card because he kicked through the ball and his studs hit a Venezuelan player on the knee on his follow through. Later, Mexico’s Andres Guardado made a sliding challenge with both feet and his studs exposed above the ground and he only received a yellow. Why did Jamaica’s Austin get sent off for his challenge—and thus helping doom the Reggae Boys to early elimination—when Guardado got to continue on for a similar act?

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Is a two-footed challenge a red card? What does it mean when the studs are exposed? Can I attack a bouncing ball at all? Is a handball based on advantage or intent? Do I have to defend a cross with my hands behind my back; what in the hell is an “unnatural position?” In theory, FIFA’s Laws of the Game contain answers to these questions; in practice nobody has any idea. I hate that players crowd referees to ask for cards, but how can you blame them? It’s anyone’s bet what could happen, and of course, players will try to plant a seed and influence his future decisions.

Referees aren’t supposed to be on the field to interpret rules; they are supposed to be on the field to enforce the already interpreted rules. Referees don’t change games, they merely do what the rules suggest. They are the police, not the courts, yet they are too frequently asked to be both. The problem here isn’t that referees make mistakes. Human error is fine, if regrettable. But even after looking at a million different slo-mo replays, referees, fans, and players often come to different conclusions from the same evidence. That’s no longer human error.

Alexi Lalas would probably argue that the controversy is good; it makes for good entertainment. As a fan, I agree with Alexi. As a player, I can’t take another second of it. When I see a teammate get a red card for a two-footed challenge and then an opponent get away with the same challenge I want to rip someone’s heart out. This is our livelihood. I make my money based on results. If my team goes down a man and we lose, my livelihood is threatened. If a player misses a couple games suspended and the team loses, the coach could be out of a job. That kinda shit shouldn’t be arbitrary.

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Everyone should be on the same page for what the rules are. Referees already have a hard enough time (I have a natural inclination to hate refs but I fully respect how hard their job is). If the play happens too fast or at a weird angle and the ref can’t tell if it’s a two-footed challenge, then that’s fine. Players need to lay off on those calls. But if the referee sees it clearly then he shouldn’t have to make a normative evaluation. It shouldn’t be a decision or conversation at all; it’s written in ink. I don’t care at all what the action is—just as long as everyone follows it.

Sports rules are often talked about as if they are immutable law handed down from God. Fans wave their hands wishing there was something—anything good Lord!—somebody could do. But they are rules written by humans, and we have at our disposal erasers and pencils.

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Soccer’s governing bodies have the power to take actions and clear some things up. Analysts can’t enjoy discussing referee decisions week in and week out rather than the key moments or goals, and fans, too, must be stressed about the possibility of their team losing over an arbitrary decision. It can’t be good for the brand, can it? Debate and disagreement can be productive, but nobody likes to focus on the officiating. MLS and US Soccer have always been at the forefront of implementing new ideas to improve officiating, to their credit. It’s a bit of a radical idea—the United States generally doesn’t lead in anything when it comes to soccer—but who better in the world to take the lead?

Let’s write laws with specific instruction. “If a player slides to challenge the ball and he exposes his studs, it’s a yellow card regardless of whether he wins the ball; if he doesn’t win the ball and connects with the opponent it’s a red card; if he exposes the stud above the ankle it’s an automatic yellow card regardless of intent; if he exposes the stud above the knee it’s an automatic red card,” etc. Players should never ask, or rather, have to ask: how can you give a yellow/red for that? The referee should be able simply reply did you do X and Y? Then it is what it is.

I merely use studs up challenges as an example because it seems to happen the most. We need these detailed orders for handballs, two-footed challenges, kicking through a bouncing ball, and accidental elbows on headers. The most basic of all these is changing the handball rule. Enough with intent or unnatural position; wouldn’t it be easier to just say that if it gives you an advantage, it’s a handball? What the hell are we doing waiting on this?

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I’m not sure why referees aren’t leading the charge on this clarification from their bosses given their the ones that take the brunt of the abuse, though perhaps they are doing so behind closed doors. But some referees do seem to enjoy being a part of the conversation, and every time I see a referee puff out his chest and stick his hand into the air as he gives a card like he just won an arm wrestling fight a little part of me dies. Bro, nobody came to watch you. Referees are at their best when they aren’t noticed, and there shouldn’t be a natural friction, even before the game starts, between referees and players.

Referees have a tough—and though it pains me to say, vital—job. It’s made harder, unnecessarily, because governing bodies adopt ambiguous rules. They can’t be asked to watch things happening in a split second, and then have to adjudicate based upon ambiguous rules. Players have too much on the line—paychecks, livelihood, dreams—for the results to be left to one man’s whim.


Bobby Warshaw graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, and then was drafted in the 1st round (17th overall) by FC Dallas in 2011. Bobby currently plays for the Harrisburg City Islanders, and sometimes contributes stories to his hometown newspaper, the Patriot-News, in Mechanicsburg, PA. You can follow him on Twitter, @bwarshaw14.