Dealing with Dissent

by John Puglisi, NISOA Past - President, NISOA National clinician and NISOA local assessor.

March 7th, 2007

The first day you stepped on the soccer field with a whistle or flag in hand, you quickly realized players, spectators and coaches did not always agree with your decisions. In fact, for each individual who agreed with you, several others did not. The ability to make timely decisions is an essential skill for soccer referees. The ability to deal with players and coaches who do not agree with you is also an essential skill. The intent of this article is to help referees recognize when “disagreement” becomes “dissent.”

What is Dissent?

The dictionary defines dissent as, “To differ in opinion.” Dissent within the context of the NCAA Soccer Rule Book is misconduct, certainly a more severe definition. If you showed a yellow card to each coach or player who had a difference in opinion with you, most soccer matches would end in about 10 minutes because the yellow cards would turn to red and there would be no players left on the field. The referee must decide when the “difference in opinion” threatens match control or becomes misconduct.

“Seeing” dissent

Most referees think of dissent in verbal terms. A player says something to the referee and out comes the yellow card. Spectators, players and coaches may not be completely sure what was said but whatever it was seemingly met the referee’s criteria for dissent. While verbal dissent is probably the common form, the physical manifestations of dissent threaten match control more significantly. What do we mean by “physical manifestation?” Here are a couple of “physical manifestations” of dissent that you can observe:

  • Persistent physical gestures such as waving arms, simulating the referee giving a yellow card or wagging a finger at the referee or assistant referee.
  • Throwing or kicking a ball away in protest.

These behaviors will threaten match control if allowed to continue unpunished.

Verbal Dissent

Verbal dissent is a subjective decision for the referee. Each referee has their own tolerance for what can be said within the context of match situations. The referee has to use their own judgement and experience in defining their own criteria for verbal dissent. Do not confuse this criteria with the NCAA’s zero tolerance policy for incidental foul language.

When you determine your own criteria for verbal dissent, consider where the dissent occurs and how widely it is broadcasted. As an example, I follow an attacker and defender into the far corner of the field on my diagonal. After some spirited play, the attacker runs out of room and the ball goes into touch. The attacker may have some choice words for me regarding why I didn’t call the trifling physical contact which preceded the attacker losing possession. In this case, with just me, the attacking player and a smirking defender around, I will probably have a brief word with the attacking player. However, if the same incident occurs in front of the team area, heard by team personnel and several players, I may need to change my approach. I need to more strongly consider this behavior as misconduct. Referees can not allow match control to suffer in this case.

“Hear No Evil”

Have you ever met a referee who takes great pride in their ability to ignore what players and coaches say during a game? I am sure you have. This is not a characteristic of superior officiating capability. It is a problem. Paraphrasing NISOA National Clinician Bob Evans, players and coaches will continue to push as far as they can until referees have the courage to do what the rules require them to do. Ignoring this kind of misconduct makes the job for the referee at the next game more difficult. The referee’s job is tough enough. We don’t need to make it harder on our colleagues.

The Team Area

As I noted in the example above, verbal dissent on the field (and off) between the team areas is a significant threat to match control. Both teams and most players will hear what’s being said. The referee must deal with this firmly. The standard of what is acceptable and what is misconduct is established on this part of the field based on the referee’s action or inaction. The NCAA rules require referees to caution coaches and bench personnel for dissent. Use this power and responsibility to enhance match control.

The Assistant Referee

The NCAA rules do not give the assistant referee the authority to deal with dissent. Referees must keenly observe dissent directed at the assistant referee. Assistant referees make crucial decisions during the course of a game, most notably offside determinations. The ball comes through, an attacker runs on it, the defenders arms are raised in the air, the flag stays down and the ball goes in the back of the net. You know what is going to happen next. The referee must be prepared to protect and support the assistant referee against dissent by the players and bench personnel. Do not tolerate:

  • Players running toward the assistant referee.
  • Multiple players confronting the assistant referee.
  • Bench personnel interfering or confronting the assistant referee.

Dissent undermines the integrity of the game, diminishes the spectators’ enjoyment and is contrary to the NCAA’s sportsmanship initiative. The NCAA soccer rules provide referees with the authority to identify and deal with dissent. It’s up to the referee to demonstrate the good judgment, responsibility and courage to act accordingly.

You can leave a response, or right-click and copy this location to trackback from your own site.

3 Comments so far

  1. Giancarlo says:

    Very nice write up on Dissent!

  2. John Puglisi says:

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it!!

  3. Fred Wachter says:

    Again,good stuff John…..articulately written………

Leave a comment

Fields in bold are required. Email addresses are never published or distributed.

Please do not put personal information in your comment. Your name will automatically appear above your comment so you do not have to type it in the comment.

Some HTML code is allowed:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>
URIs must be fully qualified (eg: and all tags must be properly closed.

Line breaks and paragraphs are automatically converted.

Please keep comments relevant. Off-topic, offensive or inappropriate comments may be edited or removed.

If you do not see your comment immediately, do not panic and please do not post your comment a second time. Comments are screened to remove spam and protect your privacy. It might take a little while to go through this process.

Want a picture or graphic to show up next to your comment? Go here to get your own!