The Rational Ref

Referees need rules to deal with offensive language on the field

It seems that everyone knows verbal attacks when they hear them, but where do we draw the line?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 August, 2013, 4:11am

What the heck was that? Are you kidding me? Fudge, sweet FA and sugar. These are all equivocations or double entendres for crude and nasty language that people use.

The rules in soccer clearly state players or substitutes will be sent from the field of play for using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures. Unwholesome verbal attacks or gesturing can be directed at anyone, so that means if referees hear or see such behaviour then they will mete out disciplinary sanctions.

But what exactly constitutes offensive, insulting or abusive behaviour? Are there official definitions or standard guidelines? It seems that everyone knows but where does one draw the line? To a large extent culture plays a significant role, as well as understanding the context of what is being said.

In Hong Kong, public opinion appears divided towards primary school teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze who was filmed shouting "What the f***" and other obscenities at police officers. While some have condemned her, others have defended her outburst.

Even in the EPL, TV close-ups show players regularly using the F-word, and cursing at referees, with no apparent sanctions. On the field of play, it is the match referee who is responsible for deciding what is permissible and what is not. The trouble is, referees have no guidelines. What may offend one referee and elicit a red card, another may deem worthy only of a caution, if at all.

In light of the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair, Liverpool FC recently issued their staff members - but not their players - with a list of unacceptable words and phrases they deem to be offensive, insulting and discriminatory towards others in the public sphere.

The list is part of a wider education programme run by the Anfield club and categorises offensive language according to race/religion, sexual orientation, gender and disability. For example, staff are taught not to use racial terms like "Chink" or "Nip"; anti-gay words "ladyboy" and "dyke"; gender expressions "princess" or "don't be a woman"; and disability labels like "midget" and "retard".

These guidelines are great for the terraces, but are they considered red-card offences on the field of play? Since referees have not been specifically advised about these terms, they have to be left to the personal interpretation of the referee.

Although referee Andre Marriner did not send off Suarez for using insulting language towards Manchester United's Evra last season, the Liverpool player was eventually given an eight-match ban.

In Hong Kong, if there is racial language spoken in Chinese against an African player, or if a Spanish player swears at a local player in his native tongue, what should the referee do? What happens if the referee does not understand Spanish or considers racial slurs in Cantonese to be culturally acceptable?

Furthermore, if a player calls a referee a cheat, this is universally deemed insulting and the player must be sent off. To accuse a match official of being a cheat is to question his integrity.

In rugby, the strict enforcement of the rules saw British Lions hooker Dylan Hartley sent from the field in May and given an 11-match ban after he called referee Wayne Barnes a "f*****g cheat". As a result Hartley missed the Lions' triumphant tour of Australia.

Soccer would do well to follow rugby in its strict enforcement of the rules, if only to remind players of their role-model responsibilities. In particular, the EPL and the FA bear a huge responsibility since the league is followed by billions. But how many times do we see players on TV openly abusing referees and getting away with it? Since there are no official lists of unacceptable words and phrases like those provided by Liverpool to its staff, a good rule of thumb is to think about the kind of language you would never use at home in front of your mother or young children. It is likely that this same bad language would also be unacceptable on the field of play.

One final note. Crystal Palace boss Ian Holloway last week commented on match officials. "It's going to be a long hard season for me with these people," he said. These people? Take from that what you will, but it is going to be a long, hard season for match officials if the FA does not discipline Holloway for his continued demeaning and discriminatory stance against them.

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