Grumpy at the grade 7 advanced recertification.

I took my USSF Grade 7 referee certification this morning. First, an explanation of what that is. Almost every soccer referee starts at Grade 8 (under age 13 starts at grade 9). It’s just an arbitrary number. Theoretically you can get to Grade 1.

You have to get re-certified every year. It’s just a multiple-choice test. It costs money, something like $45. But for $25 more, twice a year somewhere in the state you can take the ‘advanced re-certification’. You take the same written test, just get an 80% instead of the usual 70%, and you have to take a fitness test.

I could not find consistent information on what the fitness test consisted of. I found other states guidelines and used those as a basis for my expectations. You have to do some 40m sprints, a 150m dash – “no problem” I thought.. Turns out Wisconsin is a lot tougher than Nebraska.

Instructions were to be on the starting line, ready to sprint at 8am, at Waukesha High School. This meant a 5:30am wake-up time for me. 🙁 I managed to survive getting out of bed and actually made it there on time and was proud of myself. Then they announced what we would be doing. It was to be SIX 40m sprints, with a timed break inbetween, and then SIXTEEN 150m sprints. SIXTEEN. Not Six. You had to do each in 35 seconds, then walk 50m in 40 seconds, and then do it again. If you missed one, just one, you failed. No second attempt, no extra lap, just. Done. Only 8 of 13 passed. This one poor old guy kept going even after he failed… This test discriminates against experience.

I passed (The sprints were easy for me, but the last 2 dashes were brutal – My stamina is horrible if I’m not chasing a ball). Then it was on to the classroom part of the test. Once again another classroom environment that does not appreciate questions Or alternative points of view. It probably did not help that I brought in Jello Shots (true – they were leftovers I had made for Halloween trick-or-treating, that didn’t get eaten because it rained and few trick-or-treaters came to my door. I brought the Jello Shots in, announced they were for anyone who wanted one, and was told “That’s not appropriate.” and to take them back out to the car.)

Let me give you a taste of what this class was like.

In soccer, the definition of a foul has, for as long as I can remember, required one of three things: careless, reckless, or excessive force. The definition has always been up to the referees to decide. Good judgement and all that. I’ve always taken them to be three different words for the same thing. After all, the consequences for the same are the same, they all fall into the same category of fouls, and the dictionary definitions of them are complementary.

A similar rule exists for yellow and red cards. Each has a specific criteria. For example, unsporting conduct (whatever that is) is a yellow card. Serious foul play is a Red card. These rules exist independently of each other. You can have a yellow card but no foul, or a foul with no card. Each is evaluated separately.

But in this class we were introduced to a new publication from USSF, one that turns this relatively simple rule into a muddy, sticky mess. We were introduced to this new publication with the clarification that this is NOT the “advice to referees”. That one is wrong and should be ignored. This one is the “Guidelines for referees”. Guidelines, not Advice. Don’t get them confused.

The publication is larger than the rules book. These ‘guidelines’ now clarify things by introducing a lot more new rules (sorry, not rules, just guidelines). They talk about ‘tactical purpose’ and what constitutes an ‘obvious opportunity’. But back to the careless, reckless or excessive criteria, the heart and soul of what constitutes a foul.

Now, with these new ‘clarifications’, careless means ‘not being careful’ and reckless means ‘complete disregard for an opponents safety’. Excessive force means force placing the opponent in a dangerous situation. In addition, BY DEFINITION, careless means no yellow card. Reckless now, by definition, means you MUST give a yellow card. Excessive force now requires a red card.

Definitions are all good and well, but the problems with these definitions are numerous.

First off, they contradict the existing rules for yellow and red cards. The list of offenses leading to a yellow (or red) card are well defined. ‘Being reckless’ is not one of them.

A similar problem exists for the definition of ‘excessive force’, saying that it is dangerous and therefore deserving a red card. The problem there is, the rules for direct vs indirect kicks also say that ‘dangerous play’ is an indirect (and by implication a less serious) foul. So which is it? A minor indirect kick? Or the most serious punishment possible, a red card?

Second, this secondary publication is called ‘guidelines’. Are those rules or not? Anyone getting a yellow card for a reckless play can simply put out the argument ‘where is that in the rules?’ It’s not. It’s in the secondary publication for referees. It may be official – but then why not put it in the rules? Why a secondary publication?

Third, the definitions defy common sense understanding of the words. Careless means reckless. Reckless means careless. Look it up in the dictionary. Excessive force could mean several things – any larger, or more coordinated player colliding with a smaller or off-balance player, thus resulting in the smaller player falling down, could be accused of ‘excessive force’. I’ve used excessive force myself, and I know it is something different than being ‘dangerous’. Using more force than necessary, and sending an opponent flying a little farther than you should have, does not mean its dangerous.

Fourth, the definitions include a tautology or self-defining logic. If I give someone a yellow card, then BY DEFINITION it must be reckless. So I can punish a similar foul two separate ways (And there are many reasons why I might punish one team or player more stringently than other), and when questioned why I gave player One a red card but player Two no card, all I have to say is “Oh that was excessive force.” or “Oh that was careless.” And what made it careless and not reckless? “Oh, because I didn’t give a card.” It’s a convenient dodge for referees to help them avoid explaining their decision. It’s circular logic, begging the question, and provides no real explanation.

And lastly is the simple observation I posed to the class: “Every five-year ever does not consider the opponents safety. They’re not capable of it. You’re saying I should be giving every kid a yellow card?”

I point these things out to the instructors and they get grumpy. One of the guys was on the USSF national advisory committee and could not give me a satisfactory answer for why these two publications are separate, or how to resolve the discrepancies. He claimed he saw no issues. The guy running the clinic and who is the head assignor for all referees in Wisconsin became visibly upset when I pointed out the flaws in logic. His assistant stepped in a gave a lecture how we as referees are required to “enforce the rules, regardless of our personal opinion”. He kept looking at me. I asked “Why do you keep looking at me?” His response: “because you’re driving me crazy!”

I may be a bad ref, but I’m an expert at not knowing when to quit. Seeing the distress of these poor instructors, I suggested an alternative definition, one that I was taught years ago, a definition they used to teach, and a definition that both makes sense and is compatible with the existing rules.

My alternative definition, which I tried to offer as politely as possible, was the concept of intention. A foul that was merely clumsy, where the defender was genuinely trying to play the ball and not contact the opponent, and either misjudged his own skill or the skill of his opponent, and instead UNINTENTIONALLY kicked the other player, should be merely a foul; no yellow card.

If instead the challenge was an intentional foul, then it should be a yellow card. This falls under the category of unsporting conduct. Any intentional foul, regardless of its severity, should be considered unsporting. Makes sense to me. (And of course a red card is something extreme, not just excessive but downright unconscionable. You’ll know it the instant you see it. I don’t like that definition but it seems to be true, and was the guideline given by the instructor. It’s so rare its not an issue. The argument here is between yellow cards and no cards.)

The instructor, again, didn’t seem to appreciate me. He stepped forward and asked “How do you know what their intention is? Can you read their mind?” I don’t know if he was serious or being a smart-ass, but this is a question I’ve thought about and although the question surprised me, I had the answer ready.

“Yes”, I said. “I can. I can look at their eyes, I can read their body language. Yes I can tell what’s going through their mind. That’s my job. Every call I make I’m judging their intention.”

Nervous laughter rippled through the class. My answer might have been funny but I wasn’t joking. It’s true – I do read their minds, to the best of my ability anyways. I tried to clarify this. I explained that the concept of intention is already used in the wording of the rules. The word “careless” has the word “Care” in it. It implies their intention, or lack thereof. The handling rule explicitly uses the word ‘intentional’. Another rule about yellow cards says if someone fouls ‘deliberately’. Yet another guideline uses the phrase “With the tactical purpose of breaking up a promising attack”. Purpose, deliberate, care – all different ways of referring to someone’s mental thought process, or intentions.

And yet the instructor scoffed at me! He pulled out the rule book and read a rule aloud. “There’s no mention of intention” he stated. “Purpose!” I countered. “Purpose means the same thing!”. He shook his head, make a derogatory sound, and turned away. Scoffing!

I was miffed. I don’t know what’s so controversial about what I said, or why the lack of acceptance.

Then we got to the actual test. It was a group test, which means we could help each other (in groups of 3 or 4). You’d think that would make the test easier, but it did not. Everyone asked everyone else what they thought, and it was rarely unanimous, and that led to debates, which lead to wording and interpretation. Sadly, I opened my mouth in these crucial moments to suggest alternative interpretations. (I’m really good at multiple interpretations of words.) All were suggestions and questions, and I totally expected to be vetoed down (I just wanted to be thorough or careful), but that led to me being rejected outright when we came to a question I was certain of the answer.

Question: “Someone kicks a direct free kick directly into their own goal. What’s the call?”
Answer: “Corner kick”.
I was certain of this one. The correct call is a corner kick for the other team. You cannot score on yourself from a dead ball/free kick. I stated as such, and to my dismay, my partners went “mmmm, I think it’s a goal.”
“No, I am certain about this one. its a corner kick.”
“Mmm. It’s a goal.”
“No, I’m not guessing here. I’m 100% certain.”
“Mmm, that doesn’t make sense.”
“I know, but that’s why I remember this rule. The correct answer is C. I’m positive.”
“I think I’m putting down A” (Chorus of agreements)
“No, I’m POSITIVE its C”
“Well you can put down what you want.”

I used the strongest language I could, expressed the most emphatic opinion I was capable, and was dismissed. Well then, screw you guys too. You just keep listening to the pretty girl and putting down what she says – I’m gonna put down the correct answer.
So from that moment on I just ignored my partners.

It was the third hardest test I’ve ever taken. The first was in my “Advanced algorithms” class (I got a 58%, the third-highest(!) grade) and the second was Organic Chemistry II, Where I got a D (64% if I recall). This test I got a 72%. Passing required an 80% or better. I failed.

Turns out, it didn’t matter! After the instructor read the correct answers, he announced everyone passed! He then took the questions and our answers back, without going over what we got wrong or why we got it wrong. It was bullshit. I only remember a few questions I got wrong; whatever I managed to remember in the two minutes I had to review the correct answers. And what I know I got wrong I’m not certain what the correct answer was, or why.

Here’s the online form we used for the pre-test. As you can see, it doesn’t show the correct answers and is, ergo, useless.

I think they did this to cover their own incompetence. Ok, not incompetence – their mistakes. They made a lot of mistakes. Here’s what I remember in those initial minutes.

After the test they handed out copies of the 2016 Rules of the Games (Yippee, I can replace my battered 2012 copy) and I immediately looked up the answers to what I could. They got several answers on the test wrong. For example, the question “Which of the following is a requirement for penalty kicks?” Answer A) read “The keeper must have both feet on the goal line”. I stopped right there and wrote “A” because I know that is a requirement. The correct answer was supposedly C), “all players except the kicker and goalkeeper must be behind the penalty mark.” That is also true, but then that makes the answer to the multiple choice both A) and C). I asked my partners what they had, and they all said they had C). It was supposedly not A) because keepers can, so they said, stand on OR BEHIND the goal line. Wrong. I looked up the rule, it says they must be on the goal line. (I remembered this because last year they modified the rule (For high school rules) to add the phrase ‘facing forward’. The idea of a goalie sticking his butt out towards the kicker intrigued me so I made a special study of the rule).

Another answer the test got wrong is the answer to ‘what happens if someone other than the designated kicker steps up and kicks the ball into the goal’. They said it was an indirect kick for the other team. False, because the rule specifically says if there is an infraction and the ball goes into the goal, the kick is retaken. Emphasis on “into the goal”, which was specifically stated in the question. The instructors seemed to have added that phrase unthinkingly.

There was another one saying a player who steps into the goal (beyond the goal line) is “leaving the field without permission” and is considered an “outside agent”. Interfering with the play then falls into the ‘outside agent’ catchall, meaning its a drop-ball. I disagree, because players constantly leave the field in the normal course of play, whether running after the ball or just absentmindedly stepping off. Technically it’s leaving the field without permission, but hence the concept of “implied consent”. It’s not a phrase anywhere in the rules, but that’s what it is: implied permission. He’s not an ‘outside agent’!

There were several more ‘iffy’ questions like this, like should you card a player who is about to leave the field with the referee’s permission but then jumps into play and plays the ball. They said yes, its a card; its unsporting conduct. I argued ‘no, it is not a substitution until he actually leaves – before then, it doesn’t matter what happens.’ Their counter-argument was the question says nothing about ‘substitutions’ or that play had stopped. I asked “When else does a player get permission to leave the field??” but did not get an answer. Iffy.

Still, I was disappointing in my performance. Hostile classroom non-withstanding, I should have done better. I’m grateful to the instructors for passing everybody. I would have preferred an explanation, and a chance to see what I got wrong (I hate being wrong!) but it didn’t seem to bother most everybody else so… go with the flow.

I’m a grade 7 referee! Yey! (Which means nothing other than bragging rights)