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Refereeing: An Analogy for Life

By Brian Goodlander

Have you ever tried to tell someone what it is like to do a specific thing and could not figure out how to convey your thoughts?  How often have you started your description with “Well, it’s like when you….”.  You use an analogy to paint a clearer picture for the receiver of the information.  I am the kind of person who likes to analogies to make my point and to clarify comments that I am making to a group or individual.  As I become more interested in the craft of sports officiating, I am finding more and more analogies with refereeing.

What are the fundamental principles of successful sports officiating?  I think any official of any sport can agree on three: (1) Equality,  (2) Safety, and  (3) Enjoyment.  Equality is the assurance that all competitors have an equal chance to demonstrate their skills in a fair and just arena.  Safety is a paramount for officiating any sport.  Every participant has the right to perform their tasks in a place of safety.  The official is the gatekeeper for safety in each competition.  He/She confronts unsafe behavior and praises safe behavior.  Games are played for enjoyment; enjoyment for the players, the bench personnel, the team management, the fans, and the officials.  The official allows the enjoyment to occur through fair and safe play.

What are the fundamental principles of life?  I think we can agree on these (1) Peace, (2) Freedom, (3) Justice, (4) Home, (5) Family, (6) Food, and (7) Love.  How do we draw a parallel between these 7 items and the previous 3 principles of sports officiating.  I contest that these seven are not only consistent with but also complimentary to the other three.  Peace, freedom, and justice can easily be lumped into equality.  The skilled player demands the opportunity or freedom to demonstrate their skills in an atmosphere of peace.  If that peace is broken, a foul occurs, the referee has the responsibility to provide justice to the offended player with the issuance of an appropriate correction (free kick, caution, or send off).  I would lump home and family into safety.  The home has long been a place of security and belonging.  A well-knit team is a place where each player has a role and a responsibility and no one player can meet their full potential on the playing field without his or her teammates.  This sounds like a great description of a home and a happy family.  The educated and professional coach is the parent figure for the family.  He/She provides direction on what is wrong and what is right.  The coach provides the opportunity for the players to develop at their own pace and at the skills they excel in performing.  But at the same time, the coach also requires that the player become more rounded and discover the other skills to better appreciate the work of the player’s teammates.  Doesn’t this sound like the ideal home and family?  Love clearly fits into Enjoyment.  The love of the game is why every player laces up their boots before each match, why they spend countless hours practicing their skills, why the endure foul weather and poor field conditions.  Love is why officials come back game after game, week after week, season after season.  “The Love of the Game” is a common theme in sports.

I have read a set of 10 golden rules recently that I thought would truly make the world a better place if they were followed.  They are really no different than a more famous list of ten but they are spun in the web of sport:


  1. Play to win.
  2. Play fair
  3. Observe the Laws of the Game.
  4. Respect opponents, teammates, referees, officials, and spectators.
  5. Accept defeat with dignity.
  6. Promote the interests of the game.
  7. Reject corruption, drugs, racism, violence, and other dangers to our sport.
  8. Help others resist corrupting pressures.
  9. Denounce those who attempt to discredit our sport.
  10. Honor those who defend the game’s good reputation.


These are truly admirable rules and I know that I would love to be associated with a game with these ideals.  Fortunately, I am; along with thousands of other soccer referees.  These are the ten golden rules of FIFA’s  (the international body of soccer) Fair Play campaign - For the Good of the Game!

Why do we have rules?  Some would say that we need rules to protect the innocent from the evil.  Others would say we need rules to set expectations for all involved to try to attain.  Still others say we need rules to protect justice and freedom.  There are even a few that say that we do not need rules.  That rules are to confining and impede on personal freedom and creativity.   Who is right?  I quite frankly don’t know.  I do know that as sports officials, we make decisions about right and wrong, just and unjust constantly throughout the competitions that we officiate.  I also know that “by the book” officials may fulfill one (safety) of the three fundamental principles but fail at the other two.  The overly restrictive official does not create an atmosphere of equality just because he/she interferes every time and injustice is performed.  Often, these decisions are not black and white and the “spirit of the law” must be used to interpret the rules for the good of that particular match and for the good of the overall game.  It is this spirit of the game that every official tries to protect and is entrusted with during every competition.  The three principles are major parts of the spirit of the game.  This spirit is not possible without the three principles and the three principles are meaningless without the spirit of the game.  Let’s be clear.  The spirit of the game is not an excuse to not call fouls.  The non-participatory official who “just lets them play” does not satisfy any of the three principles, especially safety.  The balance between chaos and over restriction must be struck to control the match, to allow the players to play in safety in safety and equality, and to allow the spectators to enjoy the spectacle of the sport.

The two graphics below are visible representation of what this balance is all about.  The graphic on the left represents the place where many officials try to work.  The balance between chaos and restriction is struck my standing the precarious position on top of the curve, where if you slide towards one side or another gravity takes hold and you fall helplessly towards the undesireable.  Additionally, to return to the balanced position it requires a herculean effort to reclimb that hill and reach the apex.  The graphic on the right represents what I propose every official should target.  A position where the balance is the default and effort must be intense and deliberate to press towards either chaos or restriction.  Ironically, the wrong position graphic resembles a frown or unhappy place and the right position graphic represents a smile or happy place.

The wrong place                                                                                    The right place







Officials are taught in the earliest part of their training to be honest and to work with integrity, to never call a foul that they or one of their assistants did not personally witness, and to enforce the three principles.  As parents we spend most of our time with our children trying to impress these traits into their very psyche.  Officials that break this code of honesty and integrity not only hurt themselves but hurt the entire sports official’s family even in sports other than the one they officiate.  The lesson?  Find your happy place, keep your integrity and always remember that you represent an enormous family of officials everytime you put on your jersey, blow your whistle, or make a call about what is right and what is wrong.

(Brian Goodlander is a Grade 7 USSF Referee, a USSF Associate Assessor, a National Soccer for American Youth Referee, and a high school referee in the Cincinnati area. He is a board member of South West Ohio Soccer Officials Association.)


Last Updated on Saturday, 20 February 2010 15:18


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