Rule vs. Spirit

Published on October 1, 2014


By:  John Van de Vaarst

All soccer officials working interscholastic games are required to be knowledgeable of the NFHS Rules of the Game.  Almost without exception, each official must take a qualification examination to become a varsity official and take an annual refresher examination.  Most state associations have a minimum score on the refresher test to retain the varsity status.  In order to obtain a minimum score, the official must know the rules and study the rule book on a regular basis.

Knowledge of the rules is critical when there is a particular play in a highly contested game that requires a unique interpretation.  The referee or assistant referee must be prepared to make an instant decision that could impact the outcome of the game.  For example, in a highly contested game with the score 1-1 team A is awarded a corner kick.  There is a great amount of pushing and shoving prior to the kick and the referee must delay the kick and talk to the players.  A player from team A takes up a position in front of the goalkeeper and the referee must observe this situation as the kick takes place.  The kick is taken and the ball strikes the goal post and rebounds.   The assistant referee or lead official in a dual game must immediately decide if the ball wholly crossed over the goal line and is out of play if not play continues.  The players from both teams continue to jockey for position and the ball goes back to the kicker who scores.  Team A begins the celebration and Team B players consider retaliation for the shoving.  The referee must immediately recognize that the goal should not be allowed because the kicker played the ball a second time before it was touched or played by another player.  The referee must quickly signal no goal and the restart of an indirect free kick.  If the referee was not knowledgeable of the rule on restarts the goal could have been awarded improperly.

In the above incident the referee was not only knowledgeable of the rules but also the spirit of the game.   He/she allowed the players to jockey for position.  When this became a problem, the referee delayed the restart and talked to the players involved.  He/she by the rules could have issued cautions for unsporting conduct.  This would have been within the rules.  However, the caution would have meant that the player(s) would have to be substituted for and the potential for a key player being removed from the game could have occurred.  This could have an adverse impact on the game.  Also, if one of the players involved had a previous caution, the player would now have to be removed from the game.  By applying the spirit of the game, the situation was properly handled and no players on either team was adversely impacted.

A second example is when two teams with outstanding records and ranked high in the state standings are playing against each other.  There are many fans at the game supporting the teams involved.  A player from the visiting team commits a foul near the touch line where the stands and fans are located.  The fans begin to cheer at him/her and make verbal comments.  The player becomes emotional and as he/she heads up field looks toward the crowd and claps his/her hands towards the stands.  The referee immediately stops the clock, calls the player over and ejects the player for taunting.  By the letter of rules, this is a proper decision.  However by the spirit of the game the referee has negatively impacted the game by several respects.  First, the team is placed in an adverse situation because the ejection means the team must play short for the remainder of the game.  The second problem is the ejected player will more than likely be suspended for the next game and if the individual is part of the starting line-up a substitute, who probably has less skills, must start in the next game.  Third, many states have a rule if a team has a given number of ejections in a season the team cannot participate in the state tournament.  The one action by the referee has a potential for numerous problems.

Referees must know the rules but just as importantly he/she must know how to apply them properly and know when to use the spirit of the game as an over riding factor.

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