Calling Penalties In Blowout Games

Every so often a coach asks me a question about officiating perspectives while I’m off the field and how they come into play during particular situations. Usually the coach and I don’t see eye to eye completely like this exchange:

Coach: “Why did you call that legal hit unnecessary roughness in our last game?”
Me: “I judged the hit to be unnecessary.”
Coach: “What was unnecessary about it?”
Me: “Your player didn’t need to hit him, so it was unnecessary.”
Coach: “But it was a legal hit!”
Me: “Agreed, everything about the hit was legal from a contact standpoint, but we didn’t have a legal hit all game and the legal hit you’re talking about in the 4th quarter was ridiculously huge. I called unnecessary roughness because players on each team didn’t permit me to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Coach: “Refs keep taking good hitting out of the game.”
Me: “I don’t get to make the rules coach. All I get to do is enjoy them! [Smile]”

I don’t usually explain judgment calls during games, but after games in the summer or fall I’m always happy to explain what I was thinking if the coach comes up to me with a legitimate question while I’m in between games. Recently, a coach I’ve known for years wanted my perspective on what he termed “officiating the score.”

He explained that while his team was winning by a large margin the officials on the game were not throwing flags for personal fouls, namely slashes, on the losing team. When he asked the official why he didn’t throw his flag the response he received was: “Coach you’re winning, be happy with that.” This coach wanted to know why the official wasn’t throwing his flag for personal fouls on the losing team, and had trouble explaining to his U13 players why they were getting hacked repeatedly with no call.

Over the course of our conversation I explained that officials should never abandon the first responsibility of officiating (SAFETY) due to the score. A slash in a 15-1 game should be called on whichever team is swinging with deliberate viciousness or reckless abandon. What tends to happen in blowout games in high school and below is that fairness calls will get skewed to the benefit of the losing team.

Before I go any further I want to be clear: Personal fouls need to be called regardless of the score. They are called because the violations are of a serious/safety nature. Not calling safety violations in blowout games leads to fights because the players come to realize that the refs either aren’t paying attention, or don’t thing safety calls are warranted with a blowout score. SAFETY CALLS ARE ALWAYS WARRANTED, ESPECIALLY IN YOUTH GAMES! I don’t like using all-caps, but I feel very strongly about the need to stay on top of safety calls.

Fairness calls are technicals fouls. These are fouls of a less serious nature and are about advantage/disadvantage. There is no safety issue when it comes to technical fouls, and in games where the score is significantly lopsided most officials will give the losing team a pass on 50/50 technical fouls and 50/50 out of bounds calls. If a player on the losing team in a blowout game kind of holds a player on the winning team there probably isn’t going to be a flag. Safety is not impacted here, but fairness is. What is more fair – to flag the losing player and place the winning team who is up by twenty goals in for a man-up they really don’t need, or not throwing the flag and preserving fairness in the context of the entire game? I lean more towards the latter.

This isn’t about helping the losing team get back into the game. I had a 22-0 U15 game many years ago. The losing team never cleared the ball past the midfield line until the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. On their first successful clear I was stationed at the midfield cone on the far side of the field and saw the defender go fifteen yards offside while in possession. I could have called him for offside and thrown salt onto the very raw wound that he and his teammates were experiencing, but I didn’t do that. I completely ignored the offside, and the winning coach was jumping up and down while screaming that the defender was offside. The offside was indisputable, the need to call it not so much. I looked at the coach until he made eye contact with me, then I looked at the scoreboard and looked back to him with a smile on my face. He looked at the scoreboard, looked back to me, smiled back and gave an expression of: “yeah, probably not that big of a deal.”

Technical fouls rarely have an impact on blowout games, and I think it is perfectly acceptable to allow the losing team in a major blowout to skirt the by-the-book definition of technicals. The game continues to flow, the winning team is never in any real danger of losing their fifteen goal lead, and the losing team doesn’t feel their getting beat on by the winning team and the officials. So to all the refs out there getting ready for summer ball – remember that you can pass on a couple of technicals and be just fine, but don’t decide to keep your flags in your pockets for personal fouls just because one team is winning. Both teams deserve that the officials will be focused enough to call the obvious safety violations regardless of the score.


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