New England Soccer Today

Time for Referee Press Conferences?

From recanted penalties to ejections for shaking hands, this weekend’s slate of matches left us with a lot of questions about the reasoning behind referees’ decisions. Alas, a clear explanation is almost never released to the public, leaving many of us to wonder how in the world some of these officials became licensed.

D.C. Head Coach Ben Olsen, after being involved in one of the aforementioned issues this weekend, suggested an idea for solving this.

“They should have press conferences,” the first year head coach told the Washington Examiner. “I think we should institute referees having press conferences.”

Olsen’s comments came shortly after he and Houston Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear were both ejected by referee Alex Prus near the end of the Dynamo’s 3-1 win on Saturday, reportedly for leaving their respective coaches boxes to shake hands for an apology on a hard tackle committed on the field. According to the Examiner, Prus ejected the two after conferring with fourth official Landis Wiley.

Those looking for an explanation were left only with a written statement from Prus saying they were ejected for “irresponsible behavior for leaving the technical area.”  A simple, seven-word fragment. Case closed.

But that was not the only controversial decision this weekend. Later that night, in a tight match between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids, a match brimming with playoff implications, referee Ramon Hernandez called for an 87th minute penalty for Real Salt Lake after an apparent handball by Marvell Wynne. With Salt Lake trailing 1-0, this was a decision that certainly caused a rush of emotions on both side. For Real Salt Lake and its home fans, it was an opportunity for the team to get a glorious equalizer and extend their record 23-match home unbeaten run.

For Colorado, the chance of ruining Salt Lake’s record run seemingly evaporated into thin air. Colorado players vehemently protested the decision, one which appeared fairly cut and dried. 

However, Hernandez, who only seconds prior made the call with his own eyes, consulted with his linesman. Incredibly, the call for the penalty was reversed, much to the amazement of nearly everybody.

Salt Lake Head Coach Jason Kreis summed the decision up succinctly for the Salt Lake Tribue: “Puzzling.”

Fortunately for Kreis, Salt Lake managed to find a late equalizer, but once again, it was another situation where an explanation would have been appropriate. If Hernandez didn’t see the play, why did he call for a penalty without consulting his linesman? And if he did see it, what did the linesman see to get him to overturn it?

While it is unusual to have two such highly controversial decisions in one weekend, there is no shortage of calls each week that leave players, fans, coaches, and the media wondering just what happened.

Often times, referees’ decisions are correct, and could be better understood with a simple explanation (e.g. something occurred off camera, a coach or player went over the top when arguing a decision, a  yellow card was for an earlier incident in which the ref allowed play to continue, etc.).  And yes, sometimes even the media and broadcasters encounter misunderstandings when it comes the rules of the game. But currently there is no forum for these decisions to be clarified by the referee himself.

After every MLS match, coaches hold press conferences to give the media a chance to ask them about their decisions during a match: tactics, substitutions, player selections, and so on. In short, they can be questioned on any of these decisions by the media. Coaches can also take the opportunity to cite the referee for unfavorable decisions, but a response from the man in the middle is almost never forthcoming.

Holding press conferences with the referee after each match, as Olsen suggested, would solve a lot of these problems. Press conferences would provide the referee with a chance to clarify a decision and end any controversy immediately.

Perhaps most importantly, it would hold them accountable for their decisions. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is only fair that an explanation be provided on questionable calls – calls made before professionals and thousands of paying customers.

A referee can’t see everything, even with two linesmen and a fourth official. Getting an explanation from the ref regarding the reasoning behind his decision could temper some of the animosity often seen from coaches and players alike, which would likely lead to less criticism of a refereeing contingent that, at least in MLS, has seen more than it’s fair share of arrows. 

Of course, one could argue that a ref should not be accountable to the coaches, fans, and media. Rather, they should only be accountable to the league, even if that accountability is less than transparent to the rest of us. 

But if a referee isn’t comfortable providing an explanation for a call, then maybe that call wasn’t warranted in the first place. A questionable call demands an answer. Unfortunately for MLS fans, those answers are about as rare as a retracted penalty.

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