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kottke.org posts about William Ralston

The Impossible Job of Refereeing

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2023

From William Ralston in The Guardian, a long read on “the impossible job” of being a Premier League referee.

No one disputes that referees are as fit as they’ve ever been. The problem, according to many observers, is that referees are also worse than they’ve ever been. In 2017, then-Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger claimed that English referees’ level “drops every season”. The next season, Cardiff manager Neil Warnock despaired at how the “best league in the world” could possibly have “the worst officials”.

Today, that story of perpetual decline has given way to one of full-blown crisis. Every week brings a new wave of anger — from fans, players, managers and pundits — about alleged errors, inconsistencies and incompetence. This is at the polite end of the spectrum. On social media, referees’ mistakes are often blamed not on inevitable human error, or even simple ineptitude, but on elaborate conspiracies to derail this or that club. (The fact that every fanbase believes there is a conspiracy against their particular club does not seem to give people pause.)

There is no statistical evidence to support this story of decline. In fact, all such evidence suggests that referees are making fewer mistakes a match, with accuracy rising each season. (However, these statistics themselves are difficult to assess, given that they are collected not by a truly independent body, but by PGMOL and the Premier League, and very little of this data has ever been made public.) Instead, the critics point to a large, often indisputable, collection of individual errors and baffling decisions. These errors amount to only a tiny percentage of all decisions, but having been replayed and discussed over and over, they are the ones etched into memory.

In season one of his podcast Against the Rules, Michael Lewis explored the disconnect between how referees are perceived and their actual performance, not just in sports but also in governance, business, and even the arts.

There are interesting bits throughout the piece, many of which deal with human psychology (esp. of groups) and even philosophy. I found this bit worth quoting:

On the next day I spent with England, 5 November, he was refereeing the champions, Manchester City, at home to Fulham. In a room at a swanky hotel on the outskirts of Manchester, England and his team gathered for their pre-match meeting. His usual assistants had been replaced, because they support Manchester clubs. (Every official must declare their allegiances, and will not be assigned that team’s matches or those of their closest rivals. Other factors that determine appointments include how many times an official has refereed each club that season, how close they live to the stadium, and which teams their family members support.)

Fascinating! Do any of the sports leagues in the US do this? Or is, as I suspect, the support for one’s team in England just so much more intense and foundational to one’s personal identity than in America?