Referee Abuse

Referee Abuse
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By Warren Tabachnick

In the news recently were reports of two separate incidents in which referee abuse occurred, where they were attacked by players during a high school football game (one of whom was injured as a result). It seems that referee abuse and harassment of officials is becoming commonplace and occurs at all levels of sports, from the fields to the ice.

We caught up once again with Matt Cleary, a New York-area referee who officiates hockey games at the youth, recreational and on up to the minors level, to get his take on abuse of game officials.

Are there times when you feel threatened when officiating a game?

It really depends on the rink and proximity of fans to the rink. Some rinks have people directly over your head and that can be quite intimidating. Thankfully, I have never felt threatened. It’s also important to note that when arriving at the rink a referee should not stop in the lobby—or anywhere else near parents or fans—to chat for extended periods.

Have you ever felt in danger physically?

I have been either a referee or a linesman in about 1,500 games, and am happy to report that I have never felt in danger.

When refereeing a game at the youth level, how do you deal with the parents?

The youth levels of hockey are supposed to be instructional for the players, as well a guide to the playing rules and application of them. Unfortunately, this means the parents must also learn the rules. I have both heard and been approached on many occasions by angry parents about why little Johnny was run into and no penalty was called. It is a very tough thing for a referee to continuously hear from adults about how bad you were and not react. This non-reaction technique is what separates the good referees from the referees who let this kind of feedback get to them.

How do you cope with an abusive coach?

It is crucial that communicating with a coach starts before the game even begins. In all of my games in which I am the referee, I make sure I go over to both benches for a brief introduction and to ask if a coach has any questions. This sets a professional tone and sometimes helps with a coach that may otherwise be abusive. In any case, where a coach becomes abusive I let him/her know that it will not be tolerated and that penalties will follow if the abuse persists. This is another critical point for a referee where you cannot “pull the trigger” on a bench minor for a loud coach. It takes years of practice and patience that may become a simple hand gesture (palm up—stop sign) to put a stop to the abuse that wins in the end.

How do you handle unruly fans?

This happens a lot more than any referee would like. The truth of the matter is, for a referee the fans are not part of the game. Unless the game becomes disrupted by an unruly fan, some things a referee has an obligation to do to eliminate that scenario. He or she should ask the coaches if they know the person(s), if identifiable. Ask the crowd to leave. Finally, running the clock in a close game until that person leaves also works very well as the others will now become the referee’s friends, which will help to get that person out of the rink. That quickly puts an end to the referee abuse.

Have there ever been instances where you had to seek intervention from the authorities?

Gratefully, no. I have witnessed major injuries on the ice that required ambulatory assistance. Once, a player needed a helicopter to get him to the hospital ASAP.

What do you like most about refereeing?

I love the game. Now that my playing days are behind me, it is very cool to see the game from another angle. The camaraderie with other referees, as well as with the players, is what I like most.


What do you like least about refereeing?

The lovely smell that follows after a grueling game. Referees always ensure that both washer and dryer are operational daily.

What advice would you give to the players, coaches, and fans on how to properly conduct themselves?

My advice is this: Come and watch a hockey game. The referees are not perfect and will make mistakes; it’s part of the game. I would think that if a player missed a breakaway goal, that the conduct shown on that scenario would be the same for the referees if something was missed or called. Never throw things on the ice, never intimidate, and communicate well.

Matt Cleary is Director of Accounting Operations at a large NYC real estate firm.

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  1. Great article. I rarely see referee abuse at the higher levels of hockey, but did so commonly in youth hockey and adult hockey leagues. Perhaps the worst incident occurred during a men’s league game when, after being assessed a game misconduct, a player on my team actually punched a referee in the face while leaving the rink. The game was stopped, police were notified, and the man was arrested for assault. We came to find out later he was on probation after a prior incarceration, had his probation violated, and returned to serve an additional 8 month prison sentence. Needless to say, I quit that team shortly thereafter and have not returned to adult hockey.

    This week’s incidents in the NHL, including Dennis Wideman’s cross check of and Milan Lucic’s punching of a line judge, have, unfortunately, brought this topic up again. One can only hope that respect for authority ultimately wins out.

    • Thanks for your comment, John. It always baffles the mind to see rec hockey players lose control and take it out on the refs.

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