When to Caution or Eject; Making the Decision

“When to Caution or Eject; Making the Decision”

By: Rodney Kenney, NISOA National Clinician, Florida

After teaching a referee class, I asked if there were any questions. To my surprise I got a question I had never been asked before. “How do you know when to caution or eject a player?” As I started to answer the question I realized just how complicated the question was. It also occurred to me that not understanding when to caution or eject a player is the downfall of many referees. Some referees can give few cautions and have even less ejections and rarely have problems in their games, while other referees give numerous cautions and ejections in almost every game and still struggle to control the game.

Of course, there are mandatory cautions and ejections that NCAA has outlined in the Rule book, such as: caution for the use of incidental language. Handling the ball by a defender to prevent a goal is an example of the mandatory ejection, but for the most part the decision to caution or eject a player is left to the discretion of the referee. Every game will have several fouls and verbal comments, yet we do not consider every foul or comment to be misconduct. Then, just when does a foul or comment become misconduct?

The answer lies in how each game is played. Every game has its own personality, depending on the skill of the players, the teams’ ethnic makeup, the teams’ history playing against one another, and the environment in which the game is played. Some games are very intense, while others are non-confrontational. Even though a game is intense it does not mean it requires more cautions or ejections than the non-confrontational game. Misconduct must be judged in the context of how each game is being played.

In games where tackles have not been vigorous, a strong tackle will catch the opponent off-guard, and the chance for injury will be great. In this type of game a strong tackle may be considered misconduct and require a caution or ejection. In a game where strong tackles are the norm players are prepared for such tackles, and the chance for injury is less. For the same strong tackle in this game the players may only expect a foul to be called.

Within the framework of safety and the rules, the referee should allow the players to set the standard of what is considered misconduct in their game. This requires the referee to be able to assess the players’ attitudes about how the game is to be played within the first few minutes of the game. As and example: In the 9th minute of a game a player was fouled in midfield, the referee blew the whistle for the foul and the player who was fouled got right up and played a quick free kick, to a teammate on his way to goal, and not a word was said by either team. The referee immediately blew the whistle and called back the free kick so he could caution the player who made the tackle. It was apparent by the players’ initial reactions that they did not consider the tackle to be misconduct. The referee failed to read the players’ obvious feelings about what was acceptable in that game.

Yellow cards and red cards are issued not to correct what has just happened, but to keep the same action from happening again in the game. If the referee gives out too many cautions in an effort to control the game the cards lose their effectiveness as a deterrent. Remember the referee has the four ways to deal with players who use questionable tactics: a kind word, a warning, a caution and the most extreme discipline, an ejection. The referee must always try to use the least amount of discipline required to get the desired results. Each card must have an impact on the player and/or the game that the referee could not get by more diplomatic means. Too much discipline applied too soon could have a negative influence on the game, and set a standard of discipline that may leave the referee with little leeway for disciplining players later in the game. Flagrant misconduct however, must be dealt with immediately, whenever or wherever it occurs, whether it is in the first or last minute of the game.

Five simple questions can be asked to help a referee determine if an infringement is misconduct in any game.

  1. Was the foul intended to harm or intimidate an opponent?
  2. Were the comments abusive or insulting to the referee or any one else?
  3. Was the player’s action not within the context of the game?
  4. Was the player’s action part of a trend of physical play, which if allowed to continue, could lead to serious foul play or violent conduct?
  5. Was the player’s action a form of trickery that is not within the spirit of the game?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then the infringement must be considered misconduct and punished appropriately.  After a game in which I have ejected a player, I review the game with my assistants and try to assess if there was something in the game that I missed that could have prevented the ejection. On many occasions I find that if I had asked the five questions and dealt with misconduct at critical times in the game I may have prevented what lead to the ejection. As you can see, knowing when, and how much, discipline to use is part of the art of refereeing and comes with a great deal of experience, but even the inexperienced referee can ask the five questions and will at least be able to identify misconduct, and have a good chance of dealing correctly with it.