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Officiating is supposed to be just another condition you overcome, like the strength of the wind, the bumps of the pitch, the bounce of the ball and the intensity of the heat. And just like no one wants to hear how you lost because it was windy, you’re not supposed to blame the result on the referee. For many in sport, and especially in rugby, that’s a line you do not cross. Be forewarned, I’m going to straddle, trample and try to erase that line.
I am a certified referee. I’ve done some games. I don’t know how many – probably more than 20 but less than a hundred. I actually enjoy reffing, but I enjoy coaching more, and just like games can’t be played without a referee, they really shouldn’t be played without coaches. (At least that’s how I rationalize it. A more honest admission might be that I like to win, and referees never get to win. More on that later.)
I’ve also verbally abused referees. I’m not proud of it. I still disagree with refs and let them know it from time to time, and I still occasionally lose my temper, but I like to think I’m a far cry from that loud ass on the sideline I used to be. It’s something I’m continuously working on, stifling my inner-jerk.
I get rugby’s supposed to be different – hooligan’s game played by gentlemen and all. I think there’s merit to that, and I think Penn Mutual, the biggest corporate sponsor of American rugby, would agree. I think the ethos of the game has played a factor in the insurance giant’s desire to hire as many ruggers as possible.
So I’m not saying stick rugby in the American sport homogenization machine and move to coaches kicking dirt on the sir like in baseball or throwing their headsets like in football. But I also think back-chat penalties are flung around with too much freedom every weekend. Ultimately, what I am saying is we should open up some honest, intelligent dialogue on the state of refereeing in the United States, and there’s no way to do that without acknowledging that the sir is not infallible.
That’s how it’s done at the top level, after all. You think test coaches don’t take issue with calls? Of course they do.
USA 7s head coach Mike Friday felt hard done by against Fiji in the last two HSBC Sevens World Series tournaments in Las Vegas and Vancouver. In both knockout matches, which weigh heavily on seeding for the Olympics, Fiji got away with offenses that often draw yellow cards. Did Friday just say 'oh well' and sit on his hands? No, he talked to the referees and the people that manage them.
“I’ve had those conversations, and in both instances I’ve received apologies,” Friday told Rugby Today. “And there should have been two yellow cards in the Fiji game in the semifinal in Vegas, and it should have been a yellow card in [Vancouver]. That would have meant they’re playing with five players in both games, and I think that would have been a different result.”
Of course, Friday’s discussions, and his being right and the referee wrong, were rewarded with apologies and not wins. The results weren’t reversed. Fiji still won those games. But, the hope is, that open and honest dialogue will affect positive change going forward, and the next time a Fijian player blatantly flops or deliberately punches the ball out of bounds, we’ll see the appropriate action taken. I hope to have the same effect with this discussion.
The way I see it, there are two fundamental issues plaguing American refereeing, and really American rugby, at the moment. One is that refs are simply not paid enough. The other is there is not enough accountability. They’re related.
It would seem only those with massive egos or who take some pleasure in torture would be attracted to refereeing. It’s pretty thankless. There are usually lots of people who disagree with you at any given moment who aren’t always so polite in their way of alerting you to their grievance. Parents can be mean, players insolent and coaches contemptuous. I’ve personally had to kick teams out of tournaments twice for putting their hands on officials or threatening to. There should be hazard pay for such a job, but there really isn’t.
Referee pay varies from union to union, state to state, competition to competition, and code to code. So I won’t throw out an average per-match fee. But what is common is the team paying one price for a referee fee and the referee being paid a significantly lesser amount for the actual work.
I get there are operating costs for referee societies. They pay out mileage, and sometimes they fly in better referees for bigger games. They occasionally pay for evaluators. There is kit, maybe a recruitment budget, money set aside for development, etc. But when my local area and territorial unions dissolved as USA Rugby went to the geographical union model, combined there was a surplus of upwards of $100,000 to be dealt with. That means members were charged upwards of $100,000 in membership fees over the years without receiving the value of their investment. Made my stomach turn a bit.
I’m blindly guessing here, as I have not asked for or received a dollar-in, dollar-out accounting of a referee society, but my hypothesis is there might be some referee societies out there sitting on surpluses that could help raise the pay for referees. Not accusing anyone of anything, but if you got some money in the piggy bank that's not earmarked for anything, maybe give it to the people who actually earned it?
That aside, we can also just pay more for referees. Taking home $50 a match doesn’t make refereeing worth it for everyone. How many more active referees would we see if you made $200 a game? I’m thinking a lot. Ref a match every weekend, and that’s $800 a month, enough to pay a lot of people’s rent or mortgage.
Let’s give the referee society $20 a match for scheduling the whole thing and two line judges $40 a game, so the cost of a game is $300. Split that amongst 46 players, and it’s about $6.52 a match, per. I’d pay that every day and twice on Sunday if it meant as a player I never had to be the touch judge again and as a coach I was going to have six eyes on the field instead of two.
From a referee’s perspective, if you blow the whistle one match and tote the flag two more every weekend, your monthly take home is now $1120. Break it down to an hourly rate, and a center ref is making $150 an hour. Pretty crazy, right?
This is where the accountability comes in. Currently, there isn’t a whole lot for referees. Yes there are referee evaluators. But not a lot of them. Most games, and probably by some margin, do not have a referee evaluator present, leaving the referee who wants to get better to either take the criticisms hurled at them by coaches and players into deep consideration or to rely on introspection.
At the most basic level, every coach and every player in America gets immediate feedback at the end of every match in the form of the final score. Either you won and your team did well enough, or you lost and your team didn’t. The referee never wins or loses, so it’s not like they’re forced back to the drawing board each week to ponder, “I lost. I need to improve. How do I go about doing that?”
The ambitious referees want film to evaluate themselves. Film is great. As a coach, I try to film every single match. Sometimes the SD card gets left in the computer or the camera doesn’t get charged the night before. Sometimes the film is from a bad angle and less useful. But we try to use film to create self-awareness and get better.
In the last year, I think I’ve been asked by a single referee, one time, for film of a match. That says to me a lot of referees aren’t putting in the hours to better themselves every week. Sure, some are. But many only actively work on rugby that 80 minutes once a week. While players are trudging out to practice two or more times in a given week to get ready for the match, the referee isn’t getting any work in. And who can blame them, considering the abuse they endure and the pittance they receive in return?
So the first step is paying referees, making it worth someone’s time. And the second step is more accountability. No referee should make $150 an hour, the rate spelled out by my primitively worked out payment plan. But if they throw in a few hours a week to pore over film when it’s available or to watch an international match or two to see what the best of the best are doing, maybe they’re pulling in $75 an hour, and who would complain about that pay rate? Maybe we create a tiered system, where a top caliber ref makes more than one adjudged to be lesser, thus creating incentive for improvement.
The pay and accountability problem is only going to be exacerbated as the game professionalizes in America. Yes, there’s a pro league now, but there are also more and more paid coaches and scholarship players. There are televised games, big tournament purses, international call-ups and coveted prizes on the line, and they all deserve good officiating.
On any given weekend in America, you may have on either sideline a paid coach who’s judged by wins and losses, a weekend warrior in the middle who blows a whistle, and two rookie b-side players as touch judges. It’s going to take some time and some changes, but we have to work to get away from that.