Ethics and Responsibility

By: Bob Sumpter, NISOA
(Note: This article also appears in this month’s “For the Interscholastic Referee” column, as it applies to both columns.)
The latest uproar in soccer has been about a world cup qualifying game between Ireland and France, wherein a player for France committed two quick hand balls and passed the ball to a teammate who scored the winning goal that sent France to the world cup finals in South Africa, and left Ireland out of the tournament. Apparently the hand ball violations were caught clearly on the television coverage of the game, and seen by millions of viewers, but not seen by any of the Referee Team managing that game. The incident reached international proportions when the Irish Prime Minister complained to the French President, but did not receive support for a protest. The Irish Football Association (naturally) protested, the world soccer body (FIFA) got involved, but after protracted review and discussion decided to allow the result to stand. In all fairness, the FIFA decision was generally (but not completely) in accord with their standing policy that a violation is punished only if, in the opinion of the Referee, it occurred. As part of the “hubbub” that followed, all kinds of opinions and considerations have been expressed. FIFA considered the need to experiment with the idea of increasing the number of officials assigned to manage their games. Some world-class Referees have pointed out the difficulties in officiating games. Other soccer-involved people have cited the need for such innovations as televised replays and other technology to help keep the on-field decisions straight and fair. However, at least one newspaper commentator (note: I have not tried to read all of the available columns) has discussed the real problem of the lack of ethics in the game that underlies this type of mess.
I suggest that there are ethical problems among four groups who are an important part of every game played: the players, the coaches, the governing sports authority, and the Referee Team.

The Players

For some reason, the players have accepted the mind-set that whatever rule violation the Referee doesn’t see is OK. It seems to me that this is all too apparent in today’s game. Not only has the intentional hand-ball violation become common (remember Maradona and “the hand of God?”), but how about common examples of: a player literally pulling off the shirt of an opponent to stop the opponent’s progress, or the “enforcer” who plays only to intimidate the opponent though unfair rough play or actual injury? Could it be that if a better standard of ethical play were bred into players that the game and the players involved might profit? Is it also possible that when a player is not held accountable for ethical conduct on the field that some degree of cheating might be encouraged?
Some indication of the “usual” standard of player conduct was given in a recent newspaper article that cited statistics  showing the average number of Cautions in the following “top” leagues per game were: Spain Primera = 5.04; Italy Serie A = 4.24; Germany Bundesliga 1 = 3.85; USA MLS = 3.62; France Ligue = 3.60; and England Premier League = 3.05.

The Coaches

Is there, or should there be, a stated responsibility for Coaches to not only teach the skills of the game and to elicit the best possible athletic performance of the players being coached, but to also motivate players to a personal standard of ethics that would enhance the game? Could that be one way to try to work on the overall problem of a continuing deteriorating ethical standard among the players and teams in the game? How many of today’s coaches self-limit their responsibilities to only the athletic performance of their players? If a coach does not address ethical responsibility to players, does that encourage the lack of responsibility?

Governing Sports Authorities

What are the ethics being practiced by the governing sports authorities? To what extent do they consistently insist, in their policies on misconduct and sportsmanship, on the demonstration of absolute fairness of all participants. Does the responsibility of the governing sports authority stop when they mandate what they consider an adequate officiating system, and then mandate complete responsibility for a missed decision on the Referee?

The Referee Team

As structured today, the Referee Team has the shared responsibility to recognize and correct every rule violation in a soccer game. While much of the discussion of this particular incident has been centered around the officiating system currently being used by the Referees and how the system might be made more effective, little has come forth about the ethical responsibility of the Referees for managing the game.
With the three current Referees assigned to a game (sometimes a fourth Referee on the sidelines to accommodate administrative matters) crucial incidents are still missed. Not all are missed because of not being observed. As an example, if a Referee during a pre-game briefing of the Referee Team advises the Assistants to “leave the penalty area to me,” does that indicate a lack of ethics? Why, if an incident such as a hand ball violation inside the penalty area is observed by an Assistant that should be considered by the Referee, should that opportunity be denied by such an instruction?
Another issue: how often is a Referee influenced by the desire to be retained at a given level of competition? Answer: we all hope not at all. But how do we motivate the level of ethical behavior in individuals.
Is it enough to mandate increased numbers of Referees on the field to help observe and penalize violations? Some suggest that doing so might even encourage a negatively competitive attitude among players to see how the “system” can be outwitted. Would one of the officiating systems now being actively used to control soccer games, that of three Referees with whistles on the field, be any better at getting all violations to be dealt with? Or, is a different approach needed? Why not, instead, try to reinforce the authority, performance, and ethical awareness of the officiating staff upon whom the game authority puts so much trust?


This is a speculative article on a problem in world-wide soccer that needs to be solved for the sake of the game. At issue is the ethics of all involved, and the need for each of the parties (i.e., Players, Coaches, Governing Sports Authority, and Referees) to work together for a full solution.