A Referee-less World

Why do we hate referees? It’s an obvious question to ask after the cruelty of Fred’s fall in the Croatia match and Spain’s ultimately Dutch-antagonising head start in their opener. I’m hoping this won’t become a theme of the tournament because griping about referees is tedious unless it’s done directly, pantomime style, at the match itself. Nonetheless it’s necessary because refereeing is crucial. Badly refereed games and tournaments leave a sour taste in the mouth, with even the victor being left strangely unsatisfied, like that feeling about half an hour after a McDonald’s meal where you get hungry again because, although your stomach is physically full, your body is completely devoid of any actual nutrition.

But in order to explore the original question we have to look beyond the physical figures of the referees themselves. What does a referee actually do? The referees are there to police the game. They are there to enforce the arbitrary set of binding rules agreed upon by all the contestants, the inherently limiting parameters by which any game defines itself, and makes itself meaningful as a contest, be it between teams, individuals or even a single individual against the system itself. From Starcraft to Solitaire, a game is nothing but a simplified system defined by rules.

Why do we play games? Why do we feel the need to parcel activities within these deliberately limiting systems? We do so for the same reason that scientists use controlled experiments. We limit variables in order to create a model which allows us to explore certain ideas or behaviours in relative isolation, allowing us to answer, or at least speculate upon, questions that real life obscures within its messy complexity. While life itself is undoubtedly just an incomprehensibly gigantic game – according to the definition of game set out above – there are so many interlinking rules and systems that the rules become incomprehensible. Any observer of any game or sport would, given time and inclination, be able to decipher the rules from the game as played. Of course in the sciences and social sciences we have indeed been doing this with the game of life itself, but while I was able to learn essentially all of the key rules within football after a match or two, in the grand search for knowledge we are, for all our progress, still only scratching at the surface of our functionally infinite ignorance.

In games, then, we create a kind of life garden. We territorialise, embody and/or abstract aspects of life that, for whatever reason, we want to explore further. We remove almost all the variables and create a system that, while it can produce incredible complexity, is nonetheless comprehensible in its entirety. I may not be able to win much at chess, or fully understand how the interacting rules influence good strategy, but nonetheless my terms of engagement with chess are utterly transparent. I know that my territory is an 8 by 8 grid, I know exactly how my pieces move and my opponent’s move, that nothing is hidden and that nothing within the game is decided arbitrarily – by rolling a die, for example.  Chess thus becomes a model for rationalism, or rationalistic debate. It seeks to create a contest defined by purely logical reasoning, the system needing to be sufficiently complex enough only to give a strategic depth to that logical reasoning, as opposed to noughts and crosses which could be seen almost as an easy introduction to the concept of logic, one ultimately lacking as a contest because there is not enough complexity to produce doubt – the correct move set for the opening player will win the contest every time.

So the system stands or falls only by the quality of its rules. If the rules are not seen to function, to be consistent or to be fair* within the terms of the game, the game ceases to be a game. It becomes worse than the absence of a game – which would be life – it becomes instead the nightmarish opposite of that controlled garden we sought to create, it becomes a representation of the worst aspects arbitrary, unknowing and randomly cruel nature of the universe, operating without transparency and dispensing rewards and punishments according to pure whim. The difference between a functional set of rules and a broken set is very much like that between the New Testament and Old Testament God, respectively. The New Testament God loves us and sent Jesus to make his rules very clear to us, to provide us with an accessible and understandable route to heaven. The Old Testament God is a vengeful creature of whim, punishing us for disobeying rules we either couldn’t have known or which God himself decided to change without our knowing.

The referee, then, is God. The twenty two footballers are merely playing the game. The referee is the game. Whatever it is we seek to discover or escape from within football’s glorious abstraction exists only at the whim of the referee. The Brazil Vs Croatia match defines this as clearly as any other. A fascinating contest shot through with rich veins of Golithian Narrativium destroyed by the utterly preposterous awarding of a penalty for, at worst, a mere slip. One that did not at any point resemble even the long lost memory of a genuine foul. Thus has the entire world’s faith in football, and thus their faith in games, and thus their faith in our ability to carve meaning and fairness out of life’s harsh rock face, have been undermanned by one man very possibly thinking about a long stay in Sao Paulo and just how much he’d like to see his wife and kids again. To be God is one thing when blessed with omnipotence, another thing entirely when fragilely embodied and surrounded by a hundred thousand baying enemies.

Ultimately, we hate the referees because when they fail, they instantiate that which we sought to avoid in creating the game in the first place. The referee reminds us of the fallibility not so much of the systems we create but rather the fallibility of ourselves and the universe we live in to live up to the elegant beauty of our own abstractions of it. A bad refereeing decision is a cosmic child’s tantrum, upturning the board, scattering pieces everywhere and irreparably destroying the world we were inhabiting within the game.

This hatred is hugely problematic when, as we currently organise football, there can be no game without the referee. However, the nature of the game makes it impossible for us to expect the consistency referees would need to apply to uphold our faith in that game. Referees are the paradox at the heart of football, without them there is no game but the game cannot allow them to exist within it. The best we can do with the current paradigm is to train referees extensively and allow them to rule as consistently as possible by giving them clearest possible parameters to work within, removing ambiguity and providing suitable examples wherever possible and backing this up with a certain amount of collective decision making – subjective judgements are likely to be (but only likely to be, history is littered with examples of the contrary) better when made by a committee of the informed than a single informed individual. But all this presupposes that the modelling effect of games only works in one direction. That we are only removing aspects of life to create a game, when in fact the model then produced has the power to profoundly change the way we look at and behave within the world, and thus change the world itself. In that sense while life is evidently a giant game it’s worth remembering that within that game each and every human being represents a set of rules that, unlike the rules in other games, are able to change themselves and therefore the parameters of the game itself as the game is being played.

Take chess as our example once again. How many idioms relating to contest or conquest to we derive from this board game? How many notions of sound military strategy? Perceptions of hierarchy? Taken to its logical conclusion we could imagine a game so complex and compelling that we use it to test ourselves, that we use it as the central ordering point for society itself, a concept thrillingly explored in Iain M Bank’s ‘The Player of Games’ – a game as a culture, a culture as a game, and the two shaping each other with absolute reflexivity.

How, then, can we imagine a different football? The game only has value when the rules are held to be fair. Who holds these rules to be fair? When I play football every Thursday we don’t have a referee. Fouls are called by the committee of everyone who happens to be there on the day, and the longer term consistency is adjusted and enforced in the weekly post-match conference centre known as the pub. Serious transgressions will be met with stern conversation, peer pressure dictates the norms and polices them very effectively, because the match only exists by virtue of us all turning up to it, and the rules only exist because of our continual consent to be governed by them. Religions are an excellent example of this model of social organisation, for good or ill. The choice to join the group – the ‘faith’ you have – is your affirmation of the agreed upon rules. These rules are policed by ‘referees’ but ultimately their power doesn’t rest in their ability to apply direct sanctions (the religious equivalent of yellows, reds and suspensions) but in the peer pressure applied by the group. This tends to be applied more explicitly and even violently the more cultish a religious group becomes, with questioners of the orthodoxy greeted with banishment and life-long ostracisation.

What would happen if, though, like in our Thursday football we removed this model of fear? The fear of retribution from some higher power? A match that only exists because people turn up, played to rules agreed upon by those who go regularly, and policed by their continual discussion and subsequent consent to those conditions and those changes?

Imagine a football without the referee. Imagine an understanding between footballers and fans that we really are in this together, that this contest before us only has meaning via rules that themselves can only truly be consistent and fair if they are defined and refined via the constant communication and consent of the group buying into them. The only consequence to breaking the rules is ostracisation, but when that ostracisation is from a group you want to be part of it can often be, as Banks points out, consequence enough.

Imagine, then, the model this would provide to society. A refereeless game, each team a canton and each fan and player a voter, changes agreed upon by referenda and implementable with enough of a groundswell. Among Dulwich Hamlet fans the chant of ‘Communism Is Inevitable’ has become a firm favourite ever since this moment of glory from Ian Daly and Robert Molloy Vaughan’s phenomenal celebration of it. This may well be true, but we will know when fully consensual world communism has truly arrived when we see football, at all levels, being played without a referee.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.


One thought on “A Referee-less World

  1. […] had 11 men, despite the absence of an out-and-out centre forward. As Seb Crankshaw points out in his recent piece on refereeing, football is a game and therefore, “nothing but a simplified system defined by rules”. As long […]

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