Playing soccer recently, my team grew more and more frustrated by what we felt was poor refereeing, as in calls that favoured the other team or else faulted us incorrectly, which amounted to the same thing. Granted, we’re none of us professional, so the only thing at stake was the satisfaction of winning. But, as the saying goes, that’s why we play the game – nobody plays to lose. So, on that basis, our team was frustrated, and it mattered.
Players on both teams knew each other fairly well, so there was plenty of on-field bickering and sharing of opinions. Finally, someone from their team – let’s call him Michel – said, “Instead of complaining about it, why not just try your best to help the team?” It’s a pretty common attitude, on account of being positive and constructive. How many coaches have encouraged their teams to take up the responsibility of controlling what’s in their control? I know I have – more on that below.
As soon as Michel said this, one of our more heated players – let’s call him Roy – aimed an outstretched finger towards the referee and shouted back, “What’s the point!” What he meant, of course, was that when the rules aren’t being enforced, striving to help the team is futile since any gains are ultimately clawed back or nullified. “It’s easy,” Roy added, “to say ‘Don’t complain’ when you have the advantage!” Michel said nothing, and this actually became the end of all the back-and-forth. As it happened, the game ended shortly after that, with one team – ours – and one referee each leaving the field feeling hard done by.
People often say that sport teaches great lessons about life, and again, as a coach, I know I’ve said this to teams that I’ve coached. Yet we say such things under the assumption that the referee’s interpretation of players’ actions, when held up against the Laws of the Game, will match our own interpretation and, indeed, will match everybody else’s interpretations as well. The further we depart from this assumption, the heavier Roy’s outburst weighs upon us because, sure enough, the more futile it becomes trying to play a game by what amounts to a fluctuating set of rules.
As I say, I coached my teams to take up responsibility for what’s under their control, but I was always careful to elaborate my reason why: be responsible to control what you can control because the rest is out of your control. The other team, the field conditions, the ball, the weather, the referee – because any of these variables could work against us, we need to focus on playing well, score a lot, and put the game out of reach. That means beat the opponent, beat the field conditions, beat the equipment, beat the sideline supporters, beat the weather, and beat the referee.
How all that translates to ‘real life’ lessons could be construed as anarchy, beating everything under the sun, at any cost, which is not where I’m going with this. So I’ll reiterate: the way to beat all these things is to play well according to the rules as we understand them and put the game out of reach on the basis of our skill and teamwork. That goes for the ref, too: put criticism to rest by beating all questions of integrity with skill and teamwork. (For often having referees working alone, it’s a wonder that youth & amateur sport have any refs at all.)
And, I realise, this does assume that everyone else involved, besides us, shares – to some degree – our understanding of the rules. And I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that we all generally know the rules, even if we don’t precisely share their exact meaning. For that reason, I think it’s fair to assume that usually players will see the same things when they apply the rules to game play. There’s even one further consideration here, put so well by Spokesman-Review columnist, Norman Chad: “If you’re watching the games for the officiating, you’re not watching the games anymore.” There are always debates and such, but we don’t usually get a referee as poor as my team (thought we) did this last time. And on those rare days when all seems to work out, we’re as like to say, “Geez, I hardly even noticed the referee today.” Win or lose, that’s nearly always a good day.
But that’s sport, and sport is a self-contained world of rules, bounded by a playing field – in that respect, all is stable and predictable. Leaving aside physical fitness and training, the constraints posed in sport are rule-based, i.e. arbitrary, and out of fairness, we agree as players to abide by them – otherwise, we’d not be players but cheaters. To be clear, none of us in this recent game felt our opponents were cheating; this was strictly a case of feeling the referee was misinterpreting game play.
For all this, how can sport possibly teach us about life? Maybe we can infer the law of the land as the Laws of the Game, but in life, who’s the referee, by analogy?
At soccer practice, you might argue that the referee is the coach although I can say, for me, when I’m coaching I prefer to be coaching. That leaves the players to collectively referee themselves, which boils down past 1v1 to each sole player bearing their share of the burden. Especially during some small-sided training game with modified rules, the players must each become a partial referee or else the arguments begin. This becomes a responsibility to the team by the players for the Game, which rings something akin to that statement about government “of the people by the people for the people.” Curious that we live for the Game in the one instance and the people in the other – makes you wonder about analogies as much as analogies make you wonder.
So how about in day-to-day living? Is the government our referee? Are the police a referee? In certain aspects of life, we’ve built a playing field with specified boundaries – out in traffic, for instance, are red and green lights, and “Stop” and “Yield” signs. Are these referees, of a sort? For me, they’re actually not. In these instances, while driving a car, we might feel the need to stay safe and not injure ourselves or anyone else. Or maybe we just want to keep our insurance rates as low as possible. But where the lights and signs are mere reminders of the law, we might say the referee is you, the driver, making decisions that have your vehicle propelling and halting down every street.
But traffic is hardly the only example, and those kinds of boundaries are more pragmatic, anyway, for safety. Other aspects of life and living are more, well, open to debate. How about your boss, your teacher, or your parents? How about a total stranger? There are lots of examples, but I’m reminded of that adult on the playground who takes it upon themselves to be parent, guardian, and disciplinarian to every child in sight. For some kids, somebody they’ve never met can still be a very effective referee. For some adults, too. So just who is in charge of enforcing as compared to laying down the law?
One might argue that the best candidate for referee as you make your way through life is you. Hmm… right, well, if the referee in life is our own self-conscience, then just how free do we feel to make our own decisions? Some would say we remain entirely free, which I think explains Michel’s esteem for striving to help the team against the odds: work hard and live up to your responsibility to others, as well as to yourself. Make society a better place. But not everyone is either so bold or else so enabled.
Buried in there, though, is one more subtle layer beneath this so-called esteem, and it’s this subtlety that I would characterise as the referee, this weight of social expectation to live up to your responsibilities – and here comes the unspoken part – just like everyone else. There’s a collective demand upon us, one we all feel but that is neither felt nor heeded equally by all. It’s the concept captured by the word conscience, a sense not simply of what you or I believe is correct and right but of what others believe is correct and right. It’s peer pressure and the source of contention in Roy’s retort to Michel: it’s a lot easier to say ‘Do what I do’ when you have an advantage of some kind. That said, you don’t always find someone like Roy on the other end of things, and maybe not everyone is as prone as their neighbour to the pressure of peer referees. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, Roy would simply be a little more lonely.
For different people under similar circumstances, rules might be interpreted differently or applied unevenly. Unlike sport, though, where the referee is a third party who might still get things right or wrong, the various arbiters we encounter in day-to-day living – just as prone to error – might not be parties of the third order but the first order, i.e. our own self. That might at least be reconcilable. But when they’re a party of the second order, i.e. someone else, perhaps face-to-face, we might more likely face dispute, especially if there’s advantage to be gained, one party over the other, which is why sport needs referees in the first place. In life, if we’re all soccer players, we all share the burden to be the referee. But surely some bear more of that share than others.
Well done to those people. Without the referee, there’s no game for players to play.