Intent is a very difficult thing to see as a referee, which is why it is not factored into our decision making nearly as much as most people think it is. I cannot look into the mind of a fourteen-year-old midfielder while he is slashing his opponent who is going for a ground ball. All I can see is a slash, and based off how severe the action is I will assess a 1, 2, or 3 minute foul (or perhaps a non-releasable foul if it was especially violent and makes contact with the head or neck). I’m not trying to be mean to the young kid, but he did something bad that impacted another player’s safety so I will punish him with a penalty that I judge is adequate to the crime. Intent has very little impact in what I call.
When I was little I thought saying, “I didn’t mean to do it,” was my get out of jail free card. Even though it never worked with my parents or teachers, I kept repeating it until I realized that I should probably just own up to doing something wrong instead of making an excuse or blaming someone else. So it surprises me when I officiate a youth game and flag a slash, offside, late hit, or holding that I sometimes hear, “Ah ref, he didn’t mean it!” from either the adult coach or parent on the sideline who definitely knows that particular excuse does not work.
I do not care what the player meant to do. I care about what he did. I’ve had players at almost every age level walk by me on their way to the penalty box and quietly tell me, “sorry ref, I didn’t mean to, but I caught him high and I’ll keep my stick lower from now own.” While I marvel at the player taking responsibility I hear from coaches and fans:
- “That wasn’t a foul!” (yet the player agrees with me, curious)
- “You’re picking on him cause we’re winning (or losing)!”
- “He’s the biggest kid on the field what is he supposed to do bend his legs when he hits someone smaller?” (yes)
- “He wouldn’t have done that if you could throw a flag on the other team once in a while!” (suddenly it is my fault for someone else’s transgressions)
I deal with silly comments because the player and I know the situation. The next time he steps onto the field he will try to play a little more under control, and I likely won’t have to throw my flag on him.
I threw a flag a while back on a player who cursed at me. I reported a 30-second conduct foul to the bench and once the coach heard the number he yelled, “That can’t be right. He is the nicest kid on my team and I’ve never heard him curse!” This comment threw me for a loop. I never reported to the table that the player wasn’t nice or was a bad person. I reported, “Red, 27, Conduct, 30-seconds.” Even the nicest players in the world can make an on-field mistake, and even the most regularly penalized players on a team are capable of being good sports at a critical moment.
The big penalties for 2014 at the high school and youth level are for targeting the head/neck and blindside hits. They will carry a 2-minute non-releasable penalty, and I reffed a few games this fall under those new rules. My partner and I double-flagged a cross-check to another player’s neck. This player got hit right in the adam’s apple and was sent flying. We assessed a 2-minute non-releasable Illegal Body Check, and that player’s coach was adamant that there was no “malicious intent” so it should just be a 1-minute releasable penalty. I didn’t see revenge in the player’s eyes when he hit the kid, or sense that his aura was red and angry before the hit. All I saw was a high hit, which goes straight to 2-minutes non-releasable.
We tell our young players to accept responsibility on and off the field, but they get mixed messages when they commit a penalty and the first words from their adult coach or the spectators are, “come on ref, he didn’t mean to do that!” Let’s work on keeping the message of personal responsibility the same to our players at home, at school, and on the field. Because if that excuse doesn’t work on me it likely won’t work on a police officer or a judge.