OFF THE RECORD
Applying the Laws of the Game
By Jose A. Berlanga
HEY REF!” – A familiar refrain on soccer fields throughout the Houston area as youth soccer clubs begin fall competition in recreational and competitive leagues for players of all ages and skill levels. For newcomers to soccer, the expression “RE-FE-REE” with proper intonation and volume from the sideline means disapproval with the official’s call similar to the baseball version of “come on ump!” Experienced referees, however, recognize this “plaintiff call” and accept the fact that the accuracy of any decision depends on the assessor’s perspective.
Ed Ripley, as a seasoned veteran in his seventh year as a referee, has developed the referee’s “thick skin” and rarely has time to be concerned with sideline commentary. “Most of the time you do not even hear what people on the sidelines are saying,” says Ed. “The one thing I do not tolerate, however, is verbal abuse of youth referees. Such conduct is simply not acceptable.”
His tenure as a soccer referee speaks to his tenacity and his thorough approach to officiating each game. These are valuable attributes honed over the years in his “paying” job. When Ed is not out on a soccer pitch somewhere in the Houston area, you will find him at the offices of Baker Hostetler. He is a partner in the firm and handles complicated financial arrangements in bankruptcy matters for clients engaged in the oil and gas industry, manufacturing and chemical industries, as well as electric and gas utilities, construction and the gaming industry. Ed’s professional experience includes a variety of published articles on bankruptcy topics for the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas, the South Texas College of Law and the Houston Bar Association.
Ed, however, is not alone as several of the referees who have officiated in the World Cup have been practicing attorneys. “It is a pretty good fit for lawyers because we do not enforce rules of the game; we apply the ‘laws of the game’,” says Ed.
His early interest in refereeing began when he decided to attend referee training courses out of a desire to understand the rules he saw officials apply during his young son’s soccer matches. Once he began calling the games himself, Ed was hooked on the sport and estimates that he has now refereed over 100 games for players of all ages. He particularly enjoys referreeing the more competitive games, such as the State Cup games held last year in Houston.
Ed’s love of officiating has become a family affair. His son has now been certified as a referee and whenever possible, they work games together. He points out that refereeing youth soccer games is “a great job for a young man or woman. You get paid for being outside and taking part in a sport which you like to play.” What could be better than that for a teenager in need of spending money?
Ed, like most other club officials, started off with the “little ones” games. Working with very young players as they learn the mechanics of the game allows the referee to call in an “instructional” format, improving their own and the players’ knowledge of the game. It is in this arena that referees first learn that managing the parents on the sideline can be just as challenging as officiating the game itself.
Ed’s experience is that “spectators are generally pretty polite, but competition sometimes brings out lots of frustration, especially if it is not going well for your team.”
On rare occasions over the years, Ed has been forced to talk to parents and coaches about their sideline behavior during a game. He points out that youth soccer requires good sportsmanship, not only from the players but also from the coaches, trainers and the sideline fans. Ed believes that the most important thing is for the players to have a safe and fun playing experience, which is best accomplished when the players’ role models on the sidelines demonstrate appropriate game behavior.
Finally, Ed explains that referees do not always call the game from the “center” position. Most youth games have two assistant referees who work with the center to make the most interesting and sometimes controversial calls. At higher levels of play there is a fourth official who also assists and is part of the referee crew. Ed says that the importance of all officials working together as one crew is well illustrated in the now infamous “head butt” incident during the professional soccer championship game of the 2006 World Cup. France’s Zidane committed this violent foul against the Italian opponent, was shown the red card and sent off for the remainder of the game. The foul itself was not seen by the center referee but was clearly picked up by one or more of the officials on the sideline. Ed points out that in this case “the referee crew worked together and made the correct call.”
There is no doubt that soccer referees are invested with a great deal of discretion in applying the laws of the game. Seasoned referees like Ed understand this and that second-guessing and questioning of a referee’s calls are simply a part of the game. Ed works hard to stay calm and maintain a professional demeanor, even when the pace of the game itself becomes frenetic and the fans and coaches become contentious. Although each game may bring its challenges, Ed admits that even after seven years, nothing beats the thrill of taking the pitch on a crisp, sunny fall day to start the game with the familiar sound of his favorite referee whistle.
Jose A. Berlanga practices environmental law with Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP.
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