By Matt Ream
In the week after a 1-0 loss to Colorado last week, Portland Timbers’ head coach John Spencer was fined and suspended for his comments about the officiating. During that game, Drew Moor scored a controversial goal and the Timbers were denied a penalty kick on a missed call. This culminated in Spencer being sent off at the end of the game for arguing with the fourth official.
Major League Soccer, much like many of the other leagues around the world, typically cracks down on coaches or managers who dispute refereeing decisions. Fines and touchline bans are commonplace for anyone deigning to contend some of the more dubious calls that have occurred in the past. Despite these heavy consequences, we continue to see instances in which the referee’s judgment is debated upon. The question is: should someone be punished for expressing his viewpoint in reaction to something that didn’t go his way, provided that this expression is made in a non-offensive manner?
In all fairness, referees are people, just like us. People are not perfect and therefore are subject to human error. Furthermore, it isn’t always possible to have a good view of every play on the soccer field, given that the field measures on average, 114 by 74 yards. Referees often have a much different perspective than coaches or spectators, so some decisions can seem incorrect.
That being said, referees seem to be able to escape scrutiny over their decisions. The laws of the game allow referees to operate under a protocol that enables them to make these calls, but when confronted with players or coaches that disagree, the refs can give out discipline for differing viewpoints, regardless of the accuracy of the call. Combined with the strict league policies on post-match dissent, this sets the stage for some controversial moments as this totalitarian tradition often results in frustration for half or all of the parties involved.
As a soccer coach, I have often been frustrated by refereeing decisions that have not gone my way. Granted, I am biased, but many of those calls could have gone either way. The calls that are the hardest to deal with are the game changing calls, such as the missed penalty calls or fouls that have resulted in goals. I recently was coaching in a U8 boys game in which the referee mistakenly awarded a throw in for the opposing team. The missed call resulted in a goal for the opposing team as my team’s defenders were confused by the call and didn’t react quickly enough. I asked the referee in a polite manner why he had given the ball to the other team, and he proceeded to eject me from the game. This was the first time I had spoken to him all game.
I fully understand that people make mistakes, but I also think that referees should be held accountable for their decisions. The only way to make referees accountable is to have them explain their decisions. Too often, I see referees respond to criticism in an argumentative way. I think that if they were given a chance to explain their thought process, especially on the more difficult calls, then maybe we would have more sympathy for them.