Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Case of the Runaway Referee (Soccer in the City of Angels, Part III)

Keith Hackett and Paul Trevillion, You Are the Ref (Lionel Messi, 2010)
It was our league's first season and one of our first really competitive matches.

A linesman walked off the field in the middle of play. He threw aside his yellow flag and muttered "Working this game isn't worth risking my life."

Amen to that, but....Was his life ever actually in danger? What on earth had made him think that it was?

The life-threatening situation involved a team called "Nikys," sponsored by a soccer shop across the street from our field.

They were an intimidating side. They had speed, stamina and intelligence. Each player seemed to know where the ball and everyone on the team was going. Nikys played a tight, fast and hard game.

They played like they owned field and were not above using theatrics and emotional manipulation to dispossess their opponents. They were aggressive, they never believed calls made against them, but they paid their dues, showed up and played a good game.

They started their season with us by destroying one team after another. Nevertheless, we really wanted them in the league. We knew that other sides would eventually catch up with them (and they did). But if Nikys didn't stick around, those teams would not benefit from the challenge of playing against them.

Given that they were sponsored by the shop across the street, we needed them, and they knew it. We wanted them to have a good experience with the league. I at least found myself wanting their games in particular to be well-run.

So, when I saw the referee walk off the field in the middle of play, I was upset. All I knew was that the ref felt threatened. I wanted Nikys in the league, but I wanted our referees to have a good experience of the league, too.

I was confused: the Nikys guys played hard, but they were one of the least problematic teams in the league, in terms of their organization and general conduct. I couldn't reconcile what I knew about the team with the referee's claim that his life had been threatened.

Refereeing is hard. A league needs to be experienced by players as fair - that fairness is the result of the referee's work. Referees need to feel secure in their authority in order to produce that fairness - on some level, that sense of security comes from within themselves, but it is also the product of the space. They need to feel that they have the respect of the league itself.

I wouldn't get the full story about what had actually happened until the day was over.

Nikys gave up a goal. The defenders complained to the linesman that it had been scored from an offside position (from where I stood, it had looked good).

It was a nasty goal. Their defense hadn't read the attack properly. They'd been caught sleeping.  It was kind of goal scored when possession and the run-of-play make it seem like you are dominating the match, so you let down your guard. And with that loss of focus, your defense breaks down. It's an error born of complacency. The players (in my view) masked their error by reacting as if the goal had been offside. From where I stood (and according to players from both teams), their complaints were well within a game's normal theatrical range.

A good linesman does not engage this kind of whining. On television, we see a stone-faced indifference to player histrionics. This linesman, however, responded by goading the defenders. According to witnesses (from both teams), the linesman said something like "that's what happens when your defense is shit."

Of course, one of those defenders said something back - and it wasn't nice. It might indeed have been menacing. The linesman then called to the center referee,and demanded that he throw the offending player out. He issued this demand as an ultimatum: "You either throw this guy out of the game, or I leave."

The very experienced and professional center ref supported the linesman's call vis a vis the goal, but did not give in to the ultimatum. Having given himself no other option, the linesman packed up his gear and went home. He was visibly angry, and told everyone who would listen that he felt his life was on the line.

It was definitely one for "You Are the Ref."

Someone volunteered in his stead, and the match was finished without incident. I'm not sure that was by the rulebook, but it was in the interest of a good game - which is what we had.

As I spoke to the remaining referees and to players from both teams, it became painfully clear that the linesman and a number of the players and spectators were nervous about playing in that neighborhood. Some of this nervousness seemed to express itself around Nikys, as the neighborhood team and the "scariest" team in the league. (By "scary," I mean that you knew, going in, that the game would be hard, and you'd probably lose.) I can imagine that driving across town to play in our league, only to have your ass handed to you by the "locals" was not fun. ("Locals" is in scare quotes because the Nikys guys weren't all based in the neighborhood.)

Nikys weren't the easiest squad to referee - but they were easier than the LAPD team. For some, however, the team looked like they've been called in from Central Casting to give face to the nameless ranks of TV Latinos - who still appear on the screen too often as criminals and crime victims.

LAPD forcing protesters out of MacArthur Park with rubber bullets and tear gas in 2007. Here, they are walking across the park's (then dirt) soccer field.

The linesman's nerves might have been triggered by the neighborhood rather than by the people on the field. Whether you call it Rampart or Pico Union or Westlake, this part of LA makes headlines - and not in a good way.

It is true that it is not the "safest" part of LA. In the months we played on this field, a beloved street vendor was shot and killed, a child was injured by a stray bullet, and an indigenous migrant was shot and killed by an LAPD officer. That's just three incidents - all of which happened within two blocks of us.

None of those bad things happened, however, while we were playing our games. Violent crime is down in Los Angeles. Studies show, too, that things like soccer leagues suppress incidents of violent crime by bringing more people outdoors on a regular basis. People get to know each other, they look out for one another and for the neighborhood.
Same spot in MacArthur Park as photographed by The Original Winger (2010).
It is in the city's interest to encourage community use of LAUSD fields - and adult leagues benefit the neighborhood as much as youth leagues do. Adult leagues bring not only families with children, they bring out young people and their friends. Soccer has a way of activating a space - a trip to MacArthur Park will show you just how good a scene can be when it has an organic relationship to the space, when it's relatively informal and open - when it encourages both participation and spectatorship.

To return to the linesman: I don't know what happened, really, or why he felt so at risk. It's possible he just had a horrible week and was not in the mood for arguing with people. I've never seen people yell at each as much as they do at a soccer match. It can be stressful. Add feeling like you don't belong there, feeling like an outsider on the defensive - he may have just hit a wall. Not everyone is up for having a match turn into a consciousness raising session.

The center referee set an ideal example. He kept the game going and minimized the drama - he didn't draw any more attention to what had happened. He shrugged it off as one more thing that happened. The whole incident passed very quickly, and was soon eclipsed by a really good game.

We adjusted: our referee assigner was very committed to supporting the league - this incident demonstrated that the referees needed to have a sense of what the environment was like, and be comfortable with it. They needed to be sure enough of their own expertise and authority to run the game, even if they were (like me) out of place.

We eventually had a stable team of referees of diverse backgrounds. They expressed a range of ability and experience - but they all cared about the work, and seemed to enjoy the challenging of refereeing well-played games, even when they got heated.  I wish I could say they were treated well by all the teams, but that would be a lie.

Even so, by our second and last full season, the referees were using our games regularly for assessment - that was a real compliment to us. 

The referees were one of the better sides of this story - even the guy who left, fearing for his life, had something to teach us.

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