The Football Referee As A Dispute Resolver
Updated: Mar 14
Put to one side images of the Premier League and crowds and television cameras and, instead, focus on a good quality game of football played in the local recreation park. Two good amateur teams in a top-of-the-table clash towards the end of the season. Points matter in the chase for the Title. For you, the referee, this is a plum appointment and you know that assessors will be at the game to mark your performance as you are in contention for appointment to a higher league.
You give your boots an extra scrub. Two whistles – just in case one fails. Your notebook, your red and yellow cards. You are a conscientious referee and you tick off your check list of items that go into your sports bag, especially the stopwatch. You arrive. You walk the pitch. Check the measurements, the flag positions and their height for safety purposes, the goal nets – no holes please. You check the playing surface and remove any standout items – big stones, pieces of glass, plastic bottles and the like. You take the occasional deep intake of breath to eject the nervous tension
All is set to go. The players are working out their pre-match nerves and catching a glance of their direct opponent. Lots of physical jerks, neck stretching, quick turns, tightening the laces and caressing the short ball to a fellow team member. The referee is no different. Experienced he may be but his (or her) heart is beating nineteen to the dozen. You know what to expect – contention, insult, challenge, anger, contempt. You know the score. Its football. It happens.
You have done your training. You know the rules. You have read up on anger management. You come from a big family and you have experienced pent-up fury and provocation. A referee is the Ultimate Dispute Resolver. He is the Judge, Jury and Executioner. In legal terminology he is the arbitrator and the mediator. He makes decisions one way or the other “it wasn’t a foul, play on”. That is the arbitrator in him. There are conflicting views and our Referee Decides. But he is also a Mediator and there are occasions in a match when he tries to conciliate, to reconcile, to resolve.
And here he has done his training – what words to avoid using; how “to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs”. How not to rise to the bait. How to assist the players not to explode. It can be a quiet word as you are running alongside them – “you are playing well but try to keep that temper in check”.
I recall one such match. The result really mattered. Quality footballers across the pitch. Winners – every one of them. It was tough and the tension between the players challenged my dispute resolution skills. After 20 minutes the burly No 9 got into a tangle with the powerful No 5. They squared up to each other. This was a key moment in the game. Was I up to it? Did I need to wave red/yellow? I decided on something quite different.
I remember almost word for word what I said. “Listen chaps [I often use the word ‘chaps’. It is a little old fashioned but very neutral]. I am enjoying this game. Top football, competitive and skill all around the pitch. The best tussle is between the two of you and it is great to watch. I prefer you stay on the pitch and allow me to continue watching the two of you. It is the best football. But go too far and you know I will act. Why not keep a happy referee happy and respect each other? Be strong but be fair. Can I count on you?”
Sure Ref – came the instant reply from both. They both stayed on the pitch and shook hands at the end of the game. I loved it. A memorable moment.
The Arbitrator had become the Mediator. The choice of words worked. They focused on the game and what was best for the Team. What does it all mean? In all dispute resolution, you need to be control, calmly assessing the situation and the personalities and working out What Works Best. Have a clear mind and think creatively. Never get stung. Never become subjective, irritated, or derailed. Analyse the situation and review your options. Arbitration is good but Mediation is more fulfilling.