Ill-Advised Officiating Assignments

PJ, a U13 – U19 parent, asks:

Under what circumstance should a 15 yo referee his younger brother’s soccer team?  Is this putting undue pressure on the ref, especially someone that inexperienced?  I’m not saying he would always “rig the game,” but it’s hard for him to process his mates calling him by name to give penalties, free kicks, etc. Sounds like it should be something strongly avoided if not forbidden altogether.

Answer (see also “Apology” posted on July 5)

We’re going to take a risky guess that you are British (based on your use of the word “mates”).  If this is correct, please note that we cannot and do not provide answers or guidance based on how other soccer organizations outside the US implement the Laws of the Game (see our statement of “principles” on the “About” tab).  If you live in the US, then read on because everything that follows is focused on IFAB/USSF protocols.

There are two levels at which the issues you raise can be approached.  One is the matter of age itself.  Persons can be certified at the lowest grade level as young as 12 though one or two years older than this is not infrequently required by many state and/or local soccer organizations.  Theoretically, therefore, a 15 year old Referee could have been officiating for as long as nearly 4 years — a length of time which could certainly lead to more than sufficient experience if the young Referee was able and willing to be assigned to lots of games each year.  Then there is the associated issue of “age difference” — in other words, someone at age 15 might well be more than adequately experienced to officiate, say, a U-12 match but would almost certainly not be assigned to, say, any match involving players who themselves are 15 and older.  These rules, if they exist, are almost always set at the local soccer organization level, by individual assignors, by the state association for upper level games, or even by the youth official’s parents.  When and where they exist, they must be followed of course. Note that you didn’t specify in your scenario how much younger the team’s players were than the 15 year old assigned to referee the match.

However, the second level at issue here doesn’t involve age but, rather, potential conflicts of interest.  Indeed, the USSF Administrative Handbook, in discussing ethical issues for Referees and Assignors, particularly notes that all officials are required to avoid conflicts of interest — and, short of betting on the outcome of a match, we doubt that there is any situation which is more clearly a conflict of interest than having a family connection with the one or more of the players or team officials being officiated!  Is it officially banned by name?  No, but it is clearly a circumstance to be avoided, either in offering or in accepting an assignment.

Most assignors routinely gather information from referees who want to receive games from that assignor and, routinely, questions are asked about whether there are any teams with which the referee is related to by family. Occasionally, a team might be approaching game time with no official in sight and might plead with a parent or spectator who also happens to be a certified official to “do the game” because, without an official, the game cannot be held (the game becomes a scrimmage at best).  We advise anyone who might be willing to volunteer to disclose fully their relationship with anyone associated with one of the teams and specifically to get agreement by both coaches that they accept the volunteer despite the unusual circumstances.

By the way, these two issues (age and conflict of interest) can merge when the Referee, no matter how well trained and experienced he or she might be, is the same age as the players being officiated.  At the same age, the issue is not so much experience as it is familiarity.  Unless it is a tournament far away from home (the players or the referee), it is quite likely that the Referee might know many of the players, not just of one team but of many teams, due to school, social, or other connections.  This is why tournaments will almost always specifically exclude from assignment any Referee who is in the same age grouping as an entire set of teams.