On Character, Consistency and Credit.
Consistency is the Holy Grail for football fans. They demand it not only from their team regarding performances, but also from the referee. Decisions must be consistent. Players and coaches echo this sentiment, insisting that officials make not only correct decisions but that the accuracy rate never drops below 100%. This sentiment is even reflected in FIFA’s mission statement for referees, which reads:
Football is a global sport and its rules must be interpreted and applied with absolute consistency wherever the game is played. FIFA therefore has a policy of ongoing training for its referees to ensure that refereeing standards continue to improve and the Laws of the Game are applied the same way everywhere. (‘Refereeing missions and goals’, n.d., para 1)
Absolute consistency is a noble vision but is destined to be no more than a pipe dream, the nature of the referee’s decisions should put us in no doubt about that. During a 90-minute match, the referee will make approximately 245 decisions. Of that total, only about 60 will be objective judgments such as the ball crossing the goal-line (or not) and whether the ball left the field of play (or not). The rest are purely subjective. This muddies the water for officials. To understand why, we need to consider two important classifications of sport.
Sports philosopher David Best identified two types of sport. A purposive sport is a game that determines its winner by the end, not the means. Simply put, it matters not how a goal is scored provided it was done so within the laws of the game; a thirty-yard screamer has the same outcome as an own-goal. Aesthetic sports are different. The winner is determined by how an end is achieved. A gymnastics routine is a good example: a dismount may be successful, but not as successful as another one. Most importantly, the officials need to see it. This is the subjective nature of decision-making which is common in football, despite it being a purposive game. Of the 260 decisions previously mentioned, around 185 will be subjective. When this number is considered, it works out at about one subjective decision every thirty seconds. If we acknowledge that those decisions have no temporal bias – meaning that they can take place at any time, leaving an official to make no subjective decisions for a few minutes and then perhaps six in the space of 90 seconds – it is clear to see why consistency might be difficult to achieve.
However, there are additional reasons why consistency may be forever out of reach.
In these blogs external factors such as crowd noise have been discussed. Such factors are called external or environmental constraints and they do just that: they limit the decision-making of the referee. Moreover, it is often the intent of crowd noise to do so, as crowds will attempt to sway the opinion of the referee. However, there are additional constraints that may impact the officials, one of which relates to another aspect of consistency and an age-old question from fans: do referees treat certain teams or players differently?
This is a difficult area to analyse. Firstly, it is hard to measure and decision-making can be influenced by so many variables. For instance, positioning of a referee can greatly impact their decision and we never truly know what a referee has seen (or not). This is impacted by the playing style of a team (e.g., long balls can lead to a referee being further away from the action than he or she may like) and even the fitness levels of the officials. However, this is not to say that we cannot shed some light on this subject.
Figure 1: Number of cards shown to teams by referees who were aware or unaware of an aggressive reputation (adapted from Jones, Paull & Erskine; 2002).
Figure 1 shows the impact that team reputation can have on punitive decisions. Essentially, referees who were informed that a team were known for being aggressive were more likely to show them a card than those who were uninformed of any reputation. This finding supports the view that reputation counts. This begs the question: how much homework should a referee do? There is a mountain of evidence that claims referees should prepare for matches, however there is a question mark over exactly what that preparation should entail. Referees should enter matches with an open-mind and also finish them with the same outlook. Additionally, it is worth trying to referee in ‘blocks’ of 5 or 10 minutes. This helps officials distance themselves from reputation and previous decisions, known as the assimilation effect, that has been shown to impact decision-making, particularly regarding key-match incidents such as penalties.
Of course, figure 1 and the above discussion is focussed on bad behaviour, so what about positive behaviour? Would players benefit from treating referees with more respect? The answer is probably.
One theoretical rationale for this claim is labelled ‘idiosyncrasy credit’. Essentially, this phenomenon is when we show a bias in favour of people who, we believe, have ‘credit’. This credit can come from a number of sources, such as perceived attractiveness or intelligence. For officials, it could be behaviour. Studies have shown that we forgive people more readily if their previous performances have been good, for instance a football fan may forgive their star striker for missing that golden chance but not so much the team pariah, it stands to reason that for referees (who value positive behaviour) may treat misdemeanours from players with a positive reputation with more leniency.
This discussion is not to suggest that officials are biased. Let us be clear, they are not. The debate simply illustrates the vast number of subjective decisions and constraints placed upon match officials. Referees have always been behind the curve when it comes to academic focus and practice design, something that needs to be addressed if consistency is to ever be achieved.
Stuart Carrington is a lecturer in Sports Coaching Science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. He is the author of Blowing the Whistle: The Psychology of Football Refereeing which is available here: