A World Without Referees

Updated: Jan 30

By John Sloop (@NCAMookie), columnist.


Imagine, for a moment, soccer without referees. Indeed, imagine all sports without referees.


No Mike Dean to yell at from your couch. No Baldomero Toledo to ask about his eyesight. No Martin Atkinson to ask which game he’s watching. No referees; only technologies.


Isn’t there a sense in which this is a both world a lot of fans claim they would like and a world toward which technology is (somewhat) driving? In baseball, the move toward robo-umps and an automated strike zone is one step toward this reality. While soccer thus far only has goal line technology that completely removes human interpretation, one can imagine a world in which, rather than watch referees stare at lines drawn on a screen to determine an offside call, the computer itself simply makes the call using the same tools.


While such a world seems an impossibility when it comes to soccer, given the subtlety in the differences between, for example, a hard foul and a yellow card, it is a useful scenario to carry out as an exercise in order to think about the multiple roles that referees or umpires in the total experience of the game. I have friends who claim to fetishize the idea of a game without human interpretation, in which the perfect calls are always made.

Casey Gower/Speedway Soccer

The truth is, however, humans don’t work that way. Heck, even in the minor league baseball parks where robo-refs are already in use, there are at least two cases of coaches being ejected from games for yelling at the computer (one being former Cy Young winner Frank Viola). We have a hard time NOT believing our own eyes regardless of whether the calls are being made by a computer or a human. I’ve certainly seen people argue with goal line technology when a ball has been close to crossing the line. Let’s face it, if it’s close, we think the call our way.


But there is more going on here than simply the fact that we don’t necessarily trust technology any more than we trust a human. In truth, isn’t there something we would miss some about these mistakes, these very human errors? Isn’t there some in the differences in interpretation between supporters and referees that feels integral to the game? Isn’t a sense of injustice a type of lifeforce?

Photo credit: Simon Stacpoole, Offside

In The Language of the Game, Laurent Dubois suggests that fans might be more sympathetic of referees if someone developed a video game called “FIFA Referee” in which the goal is to make the correct calls while not having fans and players yell and scream at you. Dubois, however, doesn’t think people truly want to be more sympathetic to referees; indeed, just the opposite: we need to be angered by them.


Dubois puts it this way: “In truth, however, we love the feeling of being wronged by the referee. It is one of the most powerful and cherished emotions a soccer fan can have. The rage that is directed at the referee is really just a condensed version of the rage that fans direct at the game.” Indeed, Dubois says that to truly love soccer, one must love its “fundamental perversity,” that theater and trickery are at the very heart of the game. Trickery and mistakes are not distractions from the game; they are central to it. Arguing with a referee is not something we do rather than enjoy the game; it is a central part of our enjoyment. The fact that referees can make mistakes and that soccer is so unfair is, for Dubois, one of the very things that makes is “so endlessly absorbing.”


I don’t want to come off as saying that I like when referees make mistakes or that I like unjust calls. I’m more simply saying that, if we did not have referees---imperfect humans—making calls, I think there is something that we would miss. Part of our bonding together as fans is the fact that we can collectively feel wronged by a referee and have a shared desire for some form of revenge.


We’ll never actually believe that the calls on the pitch are being made perfectly; I’d rather have a person to yell at than a box.


A world without referees? Never.

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