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Dealing with foul language

Victor Matheson USSF National Referee 11/1/2000

Foul language is an area where referees tend to be the most inconsistent. Some referees will caution and send off players for the slightest word while other referees let players yell things that would make an army Sargent blush. In all cases, dealing with language requires judgement on the part the referee and good judgement is extremely hard to teach in a short editorial. In this article, however, we will examine what the Laws of the Game say about language and suggest how to apply these laws in the games we referee.

At least three or four areas in the Laws of the Game deal with issues relating to foul language. Law 12 states that, "A player is sent off and shown the red card if he... uses offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures." Law 12 also states that, "A player is cautioned and shown the yellow card if he... is guilty of unsporting behavior" or "shows dissent by word or action." Law 5 state that the referee must, "Take action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may at his discretion, expel them from the field of play and its immediate surrounds." Finally, one piece of Law 5 that was omitted when the Laws were rewritten in 1997 but still exists in spirit is the direction that, "Referees should refrain from calling trifling offenses."

Essentially, the Laws of the Game give the referee the discretion to deal with foul language in four ways. First, the referee may choose to ignore the language completely. This is probably best for situations where the language is not directed at any other persons and when few if any other players heard the comments. Keeping in mind the idea that the referee should refrain from calling trifling offenses, if nobody heard the comments except for the referee, little purpose is served by punishing the guilty player. The player's use of inappropriate language has no effect on the game, so there is little reason for the referee to make a big issue of it.

Next, the referee may choose to talk to the player but not give any other sort of punishment. This approach is best for situations where the language was loud enough to be heard by many players but was simply used out of frustration or surprise. For example, a player may curse loudly after missing a shot on goal. While many other players may hear the language, since it was not directed at them or any of their teammates, no one really takes offense at the words. In this case, it is usually enough to simply remind the player to watch his mouth in the future.

The final cases deal with situations where the foul language is directed at another person such as the referee, an assistant referee, or an opponent. Here either a yellow card or a red card can easily be justified; unfortunately, it is not easy to tell you which card to give. Basically, the referee is the guardian of the game and the promoter of justice. I would urge all referees to consider the concept of justice when giving cards for language. Before giving a red card for language, ask yourself if the violation is serious enough to require a team to play short for the rest of the game simply because of a player's mouth.

Also, be consistent with giving cards. I have seen extremely violent games played where three or four cards were given for language or dissent but no cards were given for violent tackles. Nothing upsets a player more (justifiably so, in my opinion) than a referee who lets a player commit a nasty foul and then cards the victim of the foul for cursing at the opponent who just brought him down. If you are not going to give cards for violent tackles, something that truly affects the safety of the players, it seems terribly inconsistent to give cards for language.

Now, I do not wish to say that you should not ever punish players for language as there are several situations where dealing strictly with language improves the game for everybody involved. First, you should not hesitate giving cards to players for taunting opponents. Cautioning a player for "trash talk" avoids future problems by preventing language from escalating into something more serious. Second, loud and abusive language towards the assistant referees (especially if they are young officials) should be dealt with by issuing cards. Similarly, players who curse at you as the referee must be, at minimum, cautioned. To fail to acknowledge this type of dissent undermines your authority and gives all of the other 21 players on the field the green light to engage in similar behavior. Finally, players who use ethnic slurs must be sent off immediately. Ethnic slurs are a cancer that is guaranteed to destroy any game if it is not dealt with quickly and harshly.

Appropriately dealing with foul and abusive language is an important skill for referees, especially as they progress to higher and higher level games. I would urge all referees to remember that the game is for the players and not for the referees. You must learn to judge what language upsets players and to punish it effectively while refraining from punishing language that is inconsequential to the game.

Victor Matheson
USSF National Referee
AskTheRef Lead Panel Member


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Victor Matheson is a USSF National Referee as well as a certified assessor and instructor. In his 15 years as a referee he has officiated over 1,600 games including A-League matches as referee and MLS matches as a 4th official and assistant referee. He has refereed in USSF amateur or youth regional competitions thirteen times and in national competitions five times. He currently serves as the State Director of Instruction for Illinois.

When he is not on the field, he is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Lake Forest College in the northern Chicago suburbs. He has authored or co-authored numerous publications dealing with the economics of large sporting events, state lotteries, and tax policy.

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