“I’m proud of him for standing up to that ref! That was a terrible call,” the man said as lifted his soccer chair, slamming the two arms together. Shaking his head and muttering to those around him, or perhaps mostly to himself, he added, “I’m really proud of him for standing up for himself. He has the right to do that.”
I overhear this as I wait to take my place on the sidelines to watch the next game. My 12-year-old daughter’s team is about to take the field. There still is a buzz in the air. No handshakes being offered or good-game wishes. Officials are conferring and consulting with one another. The previous game must have ended badly.
I’ve seen this happen before leaving angry team parents red in the face from yelling about the call that “cost them the game.” They swear under their breath and disparage the ref, the play, the other team, the other coach, the outcome. Sometimes this escalates into a shouting match on the sidelines with opposing parents lobbing epithets and even threats at each other. Occasionally, things even get physical.
But in this moment is different and I’m stunned. Never before have I heard a parent uttering glowing praise for their kid who was just issued a red card for dissent toward a referee.
Dissent is a red-cardable offense according the rules of soccer, which are officially called the “Laws” of soccer. It is one of just a few transgressions considered so egregious that the penalty is ejection from the game. The player cannot be replaced, and their team must complete the game with one less player, known as playing “one man down.”
Outright red cards are quite rare in youth games in my experience. Typically, they are shown when a player is engaged in such persistent fouling that they have been called twice for yellow card offenses. ( 2 yellows is an automatic red) Regular fouls, punishable by a yellow card and a free-kick for the opposing team, happen fairly regularly. They are run-of the mill transgressions: shoving, tripping, illegal tackling, handling the ball (other than the goal keeper), obstruction, reckless play. Generally, they occur because kids are just a bit overly enthusiastic or perhaps a bit too aggressive, and even then, the player is usually warned before they’re booked with a yellow. Persistent misbehavior earns a red.
Apparently, this kid persisted.
His proud papa has me thinking about why we need referees. I confess that, in my capacity as player, coach and parent, I have sometimes disagreed with a referee and occasionally said so. Loud enough for that referee to hear. But I hope I have not done so in a way that has disparaged that person and certainly not with the intention of overriding or negating the established laws of the game or the ones pledged to uphold them.
The game needs a ref: in fact it must have one. If two teams are going to compete fully and at their best, we need someone who knows the rules and will administer them fairly, in an unbiased fashion, equally toward each side. It’s a tough job. Refs get paid to do it, but not much. The good ones see it as a chance to teach the players how to compete well according to the rules. They cannot tolerate dissent. If they do, things quickly devolve.
Sides resort to whatever tactics work and if enough is at stake they play with complete impunity.
Downward this spirals. Anything to win. Morality and ethicality out the window. "Out on you! Our ball!" Too late. Catch up, loser. I'm only cheating if I get caught I'm only lying if they can prove it And even then, if I can talk my way out of it, I'm a celebrity.
Yes, without rules and someone upholding them, things usually get ugly.
True, sometimes the ref misses a call. Sometimes they don’t see the foul, or they let things go, or they may even seem to be leaning in favor of one side over the other. They are, after all, fallible. But we cede authority to them because we need to for the sake of the game. Once we don’t, we’re lost and all is lost. We may as well not even play because in the game played without regard for rules, the one most willing to break them is the winner. In effect, the worst team always wins.
Today, in the aftermath of the storming of the US Capitol Building by individuals in complete disregard for the rule of law in our country, I am wondering about manmade law and its place in our lives. About the boundaries and regulations law-abiding citizens agree to observe. About the authority under which we place ourselves for the sake of security, community and the common good.
What’s clear is this: left to our own devices, we are not that good. We need a referee.
And for this we may need to go back to the basics. Back to the decrees and laws declared at the first, when Moses was appointed referee. Back to thou-shalt-not…
- have other gods
- bow in allegiance to idols
- use God’s name in vain
- give false testimony about your neighbor (lie)
- or covet what belongs to your neighbor.
- And thou shall:
- observe the Sabbath and
- honor your mother and father.
Today, this years-ago boy and his showering of praise for his red-carded dissent has come back to mind. Probably 12-13 then, that would put him in his late 20’s now. Just about the age of many we saw ravage the halls of our Congress yesterday. I wonder if that boy has grown into a young man that father is still proud of.
Dear Lord, Today, I pray for our country. For this Republic and the bold experiment it represents. Thank you for our founders and their foresight, for the rule of law and for those who uphold it. Protect them and bear them up on your powerful wings. Today, I pray for our country. I lift up to you those who have lost their way. Those who have forgotten the thou-shalt-nots, those who never learned them and especially those who have lost their fear of them. Today, I pray for our country. Help us to renew our commitment to each other as we rededicate ourselves to You. Cleanse from us anything that would hinder your work in our lives. Help us to trust so we can obey with willing hearts and clear minds. Amen