How Should a Referee Deal
with Spectator Misconduct?
Every experienced referee has, or will, come to a point in their career where the decision must be made on when and how to deal with touchline misconduct by a spectator. Soccer is a passionate sport. Just check the North Texas motto if you don't believe me: "Igniting passion for the game."
Unfortunately, recent incidents dealt with by the NTX Appeals and Disciplinary Committee would lead me to believe that some referees are igniting passion AT the game. How? Improper exercise of the referee's authority seems to be the common theme.
Law 5 – The Referee opens with the phrase, "A referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game in connection with the match to which he has been appointed." The list of "Powers and Duties" gives some more applicable guidance – "…stops, suspends or abandons the match because of outside interference of any kind; ensures that no unauthorized persons enter the field of play."
In all the guidance available to us, it is not even suggested that the referee has any direct authority over spectators at the match. The referee's authority is over the match itself. The behavior that usually leads to trouble is generally verbal. It is very clear that any physical interference by a spectator with the referee team, or a player, results in expulsion, assault or abuse charges, A&D hearings, and/or police reports.
What I want to discuss are the verbal comments that lead to trouble. What would cause ME, as a referee, to direct the expulsion of a spectator?
- Verbal threat directed at anyone
- Foul language – public, persistent, profane
- Persistent personal insults aimed at the referee crew: "You missed the call," or even "Didn't you see that?" is NOT personal; "You suck referee," crosses the line.
What must happen for the match to continue safely and without further interference? And who is responsible for enforcing that decision?
While we have some specific guidance for the Technical Area and team officials under the USSF "Ask, Tell, Dismiss" approach this may or may not apply to spectators. In the actions I listed above, all should result in expulsion. Borderline comments that impact the players on the field or distract the referee team from their respective jobs might well be handled with "Ask, Tell, Dismiss."
BUT NOT BY THE REFEREE!
We have repeated over and over in seminars, clinics and discussions that NTSSA policy is very clear — "the coach is responsible for the team's spectators."
Every year, the NTSSA By-Laws require NTSSA Rule 3.11- Discipline to be given to every participant, coach and manager. We further require the coach to make known the contents of this rule to parents and spectators.
Yet, too many of our referees ignore the coach's responsibility and choose to engage directly with the spectator. I have rarely seen a positive outcome from the decision to address a spectator directly regarding a verbal comment. (And, I must confess, rarely have I had a positive outcome.) The likely outcome is escalation of the verbal dispute and charges and counter-charges of spectator AND referee misconduct.
It is the coach's responsibility. Why do we choose not to hold him or her responsible?
The referee may direct the action that is needed. Refusal or failure to act would then be "irresponsible behavior" on the part of the coach and potential grounds for dismissal or abandonment of the match.
I have heard all the arguments: "The coach is on the opposite side of the field," or, "I can handle it quicker and with less impact on the playing time."
Come on, referee. If you made the decision that action is required, communicate that to the person responsible and suspend the match until the action is taken. The availability of League Officials or Field Marshals may provide some other assistance based on the rules of competition.
In my opinion, dealing with spectators the correct way requires more professionalism and intestinal fortitude, and is more likely to avoid escalation. Finally, keep your cards in your pocket when dealing with coaches or spectators. Per FIFA and USSF guidance, cautions (yellow cards) and send-offs (red cards) are shown only to players and substitutes.
Find even more resources for North Texas referees on our website, www.ntxsoccer.org!