Communications Between Referees and Players

Gabriel, a High School and college player, asks:

Can a referee use inappropriate language towards a player?


Umm, that’s a short, interesting, and loaded question.  If the language is “inappropriate,” by definition it would be wrong to use it.  It comes down to your (and the Law’s) definition of “inappropriate.”  It can’t be “anything that I don’t like” because that definition leaves no room for debate.

It is probably safe to say that, in general, it would be inappropriate for a referee to say anything to a player that it would be inappropriate for one player  to say to another player … with two important provisos.  First, players know each other (even if between opponents) and thus are in a better position to judge the intent and content of anything one says to another.  Second, while it is common in general for one player to speak to another (even an opponent) because they are engaged in a common endeavor, this is not the case with a referee and players – even if they happen to know each other outside the immediate game.  Referees have an obligation to limit their communications with players – even immediately before and after the game – to the specific performance of the referee’s duties.

As we have noted, a referee has no more (and arguably much less) right, for example, to use “offensive, insulting or abusive language” toward a player than a player has toward another player.  The big difference, of course, is that a player cannot red card a referee.  We can tell you, however, with great assurance, that virtually all referees have stored up many sharp-edged, brilliant, and wholly inappropriate things they would like to say to players, coaches, and spectators.