Should Referees Explain Their Decisions?

After yesterday’s debacle at Stamford Bridge, with Andre Marriner sending off the wrong Arsenal player, there’s been a predictable amount of howling from the media that referees should be forced to explain their decisions.

It’s an interesting question and not as straightforward as it may seem at first blush.

I’ve heard over and over that referees should be forced to explain themselves to media and angry fans (usually right after the decision).  The FA and PGMOL take the opposite approach; they won’t let their referees speak to the press about decisions at all.

Believe me, I understand the sentiment. I would love to know Mike Jones’ thoughts on why he disallowed what appeared to be a perfectly good Newcastle goal.

And I would especially have loved to hear from Mark Clattenburg, when Chelsea were dragging his name through the mud on racism charges. Eventually, we discovered the flimsy nature of the allegations, but it took us four weeks to get there, while Clattenburg went through Hell.

Silently.

Which brings us to Andre Marriner. It’s pretty clear by looking at the video what happened: His view was obstructed, so he spent a good two or three minutes asking his linesman and his fourth official and they gave him the name of the wrong man.

The same thing happened in Manchester City, when he was about to signal a corner on Spurs’ Danny Rose, until his linesman told him it was denial of a goal scoring opportunity. It wasn’t, and the resulting red card was overturned.

In both of these situations, what is Marriner going to say? “My linesmen suck”? No, he’s going to say what he allegedly said to Arsenal:

“Sorry. I made a mistake.” End of story.

What would be the point of forcing him in front of the media, other than to have the press wolf pack tear him to pieces? There’s nothing he can say… And the call didn’t affect the outcome of the game, anyway.

The 10%ers

Recently a Lancashire newspaper called The Visitor asked Howard Webb this question, and he gave this thought-provoking response:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 1.42.34 PM

The press, of course, only want to speak to Marriner because he made that mistake. The 90% of correct decisions the referees make don’t interest them. So, you risk a perception that the negative issues are the majority, since that’s the only time you’d hear from the referees.

To an extent, though, you can argue that that’s what we have now. Now, angry managers and the media spin the story however they want, while the FA puts out vague statements about how the referee “stands by his decision” or “admits he made a mistake.” Fans accept what they read in the papers as truth, because they don’t hear the other side.

Referee or PR Hack?

There’s another concern.

Referees come from all walks of life to do a very specific job on the pitch. They are not hired to do media relations. A referee may be a very good referee and a very good guy, but not necessarily a good public speaker or someone who can deftly handle the press.

By way of explanation, watch any interview with Howard Webb, and then one with Mark Clattenburg. Both are accomplished referees and known to be great communicators on the pitch.

Webb is poised and confident, looking right at the camera and clearly stating his case. Clattenburg looks like he’d rather gouge out his own eyeballs. He rarely looks at the camera, and he thinks through everything he says. He’s obviously very intelligent, but his soft-spoken, shy manner (yes, really) could be used against him in a high-pressure situation.

The Italian Solution

Italy sometimes allow their more polished referees to speak to the media. It’s not all of them; mostly I’ve seen top referee Nicola Rizzoli do this. But Rizzoli is also a highly-educated architect who’s extremely eloquent, and always comes across as calm and reasonable in print.

They also don’t drag him in front of the press right after the game. He usually explains his calls – good and bad – in interviews (not press conferences) and after the fact…sometimes way after the fact. In England, we usually have to wait for a referee to retire and write a book before we find out what he was thinking.

(And raise your hand if you can’t wait for Clattenburg’s book to come out.)

This is my preferred solution to the problem. It allows the referees time to digest what happened, review replays, and think about what they want to tell people. It also gives them a safer place to make their case. (The general press will hate this, of course, because one person gets ‘the scoop’. But oh, well.)

It’s a tough situation, really. The potential pitfalls of full disclosure seem insurmountable, but saying nothing has negative effects, too.

Read about one way MLS referees deal with this issue.

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