Cursing, Cards, and Communication

Caitlin, a youth referee, asks:

If I don’t overhear the cursing, but someone tells me about it, would that be a yellow, red or no card?


It depends.  First, who told you?  Second, what kind of “cursing” was alleged?

Let’s take them in order.  If a player, team official, or spectator told you, the answer is “no card” because these are not reliable sources of information generally, but particularly not if what is being alleged is misconduct involving a caution or send-off.  The only sources of information on which you can rely regarding behavior that might lead to any official punishment are the members of your officiating team — assistant referees, fourth official, etc.  Furthermore, when you are told (even if the information comes from, say, one of your ARs) is critical because that determines what you can do about it.  If the information comes before or at the next stoppage, you can indeed issue a card based solely on that information (see below about what color) but, if it comes later (say, at the midgame break), the best you can do is to warn the offending player and then respond swiftly should it happen again.

Now, as to card color (and assuming the information came from an official source, i.e., one of your ARs), there is cursing and there is CURSING.  “Cursing” is a rather generic term that would include simple expletives at the minor end of the range and rising from there to truly offensive, insulting, or abusive language at the major end of the range.  The problem, of course, is telling the difference between even the extreme ends of the range.  However, only offensive, insulting, or abusive words, phrases, or gestures warrant a red card (see the not terribly helpful definition on p. 165 of the 2016/2017 Laws of the Game — basically, it defines such language as the sort for which you would give a red card! — but it does add such clarifiers as “rude, hurtful, disrespectful”).  Useful advice on this matter from a USSF publication in 2014 states it this way:

  • 12.D.2 The referee should judge offensive, insulting, or abusive language according to its content, the extent to which the language can be heard by others beyond the immediate vicinity of the player, and whether the language is directed at officials, opponents, or teammates. In other words, the referee must watch for language that is provocative, public, and personal. In evaluating language as a send-off offense, the referee must take into account the particular circumstances in which the actions occurred and deal reasonably with language that was clearly the result of a momentary emotional outburst.

The above quotation ends with: “The referee’s primary focus must be on the effective management of the match and the players in the context of the overall feel for the Spirit of the Game.”

Improper language not rising to the level of a red card can be handled by a caution (unsporting behavior) or a stern warning.