​Without a Referee, There is no Game: The Philosophy Behind the Statement

Stuart Carrington

​Without a Referee, There is no Game: The Philosophy Behind the Statement

The return of football after lockdown promised a great deal.  There was a sense, and hope, that players and coaches would have missed the game to such an extent they would never take it, or the bodies that enable it to occur, for granted again.  It is often said the game cannot occur without the officials and, therefore, the reintroduction of the game offered a chance to reduce (or possibly eliminate) the frequent abuse the referees report and experience.

Unfortunately, this utopian fantasy didn’t last long.  Recently, a referee was punched during a pre-season friendly that many would have seen circulating on the internet.  Support groups and fans alike condemned the action but, unfortunately, similar are events are not only feared, but expected in the future. 

How can this be changed?  Perhaps those that play the game need to develop a deeper understanding of why there would be no game without the men and women in the middle.  It is assumed that statement implies that the game cannot physically take place without an official, much like it cannot take place without the players or a ball.  The real meaning goes beyond this assumption.  To date, this blog has focused on the psychology of refereeing, a valuable and under-researched area of the sport of football.  The rewards of psychological investigation are great, including improved performance, greater satisfaction, well-being and enhanced recruitment and retention of match officials.  Additionally, exploring psychology inevitably leads to greater understanding of other academic disciplines.  This is mainly due to the fact that psychology, the study of the human mind and behaviour, cannot be disassociated from our surroundings and our history.  Therefore, to comprehend why we need officials, we must explore some key philosophical concepts and definitions of game playing. 

In 1978, notable sports philosopher Bernard Suits (1925-2007) stated:

“To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by the rules, where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.”

Let’s break this definition down in relation to football. 

The ‘specific state of affairs’ that Suits claims is the goal of the activity is to score more goals in the allocated time than your opponents do.  This can only be done by means that are ‘permitted by the rules.’  In other words, you cannot score a goal with your hand, for instance.  The rules, of course, are in place to make the game harder (Suits calls this ‘in favour of less efficient means.’)  If you were allowed to score with your hand, for example, it would be a much easier game.  These rules are of course arbitrary (William Webb Ellis certainly thought so) but they are accepted because they make the game possible.  To put this another way, players sign a social contract by participating, agreeing that they will play by certain rules and constraints for no other reason than this contract makes the activity possible.  It would, after all, be impossible to play if both teams played with different rules. 

A game is therefore defined by its rules.  Football is football because of the number of players allowed to play at any given time, by markings and dimensions, conditions of victory (and defeat) and constraints of play.  All parties involved must also be aware of the rules and abide by them, or the games ceases to be.  Suits called this formalism. 

Formalism, therefore, relies on the understanding of rules.  We all know what the rules are of the games we play, but we do not often take the time to consider the nature of the rules.  Figure one illustrates the types of rules that we are concerned with regarding officiating.

Figure 1: Characteristics of rules (adapted from Basile, 2008)

Observation of figure 1 reveals the characteristics of rules.  Firstly, there are two types of rules: descriptive (rules that guide behaviour such as ‘warming up helps prevent injury’) and prescriptive rules.  Prescriptive rules attempt to control behaviour and it is this type of rule that referees are concerned with.  ‘A yellow card should be shown for a reckless tackle’ is an example of such a rule.  There are two types of prescriptive rules: optional and mandatory.  Optional rules are suggestions on how to meet your aim.  For instance, to win a football match, a coach may believe that playing quick, one-touch football is the best mean to this end.  This is an optional rule.  A team does not have to play in this way, even if it is advantageous.  Referees are not particularly concerned with optional rules, instead focusing on the mandatory.  These rules exist only because of their existence in the rules.  They are arbitrary, but necessary for the game to occur.  For instance, ‘a team must never have more than eleven players on the pitch at any time’ is a mandatory rule, despite the number being arbitrary in nature.  It is agreed without question.  Of these rules, there are two more we must discuss.  The first is practice-defining, such as ‘the winner of the game has more goals than their opponent at the end of the contest’.  The second is regulative, such as ‘a goal cannot be scored with the hand’.  The main role of the referee, in conclusion, is to enforce regulative, mandatory, prescriptive rules.

The purpose of this is to eliminate (or at least minimise) cheating.  The legal philosopher Stuart Green defines cheating as:

“the violation of a fair and fairly enforced rule with the intent to obtain an advantage over a party with whom the cheater is in a cooperative, rule-bound relationship.”

Consequently, if a rule is agreed upon by all parties and is enforced by an impartial agent at all times, breaking this rule constitutes cheating. 

Players, however, may defend their decision to cheat by using a key boundary identified in this definition; that the rule must be fairly enforced.  It could be argued that if an official penalises player A for simulation, for example, but then does not penalise player B, the rule has not been fairly enforced.  Consequently, breaking the rules surrounding simulation is not cheating.

Formalism disagrees with this.

If we return to Suits’ definition of play, he states that it is the rules that make play exist.  Simply, punching the ball into the net with your fist may result in a goal, but football ceased to be played.  Without an official, there would be no enforcement of rules.  According to formalism, this means no game, both in a philosophical and literal sense.  Of course, referees may miss incidents of rule breaking.  Does this mean the game ceased to be?  Possibly.  However, this was not a) the fault of the official provided it was an honest mistake and b) ‘fairly enforced’ does not equate to ‘always enforced’. 

Everybody – players, coaches and officials – have a responsibility to enforce the rules of the game.  Shirking this responsibility only results in the erosion of the game which benefits no one.  We’re all in this together.

Stuart Carrington

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: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blowing-Whistle-Psychology-Football-Refereeing/dp/1911121626/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1RMZKANQOYRG6&keywords=blowing+the+whistle&qid=1578307434&sprefix=blowing+%2Caps%2C144&sr=8-1