Using Advantage to Your Advantage

By: Todd Abraham, NISOA National Clinician; Secretary, NISOA

“Advantage” is a term well known to the Intercollegiate Referee. It is one of the key powers given to the Referee.  It is one method that the Referee can use to curb unfair play by not allowing unacceptable conduct toward an opponent to interfere with the ability of the offended team to use skills and fair tactics to compete successfully. Advantage applies to violations or misconduct against opponents, cited in NCAA Rule 12

The core idea of the “Advantage” Power is to allow the Referee to decide NOT to immediately punish a conduct violation, but instead to delay whatever punishment might be needed. Or, it allows the Referee to not apply a punishment in case of a conduct violation that would otherwise be penalized by a whistle to stop play long enough to award a free kick. In both cases, the result also includes the decision to allow play to continue in order NOT to interfere with the “flow” of the game. The Referee may also apply advantage in situations that are solely acts of misconduct, such as requiring a caution or ejection, or in situations in which both a violation and misconduct occur as part of the same incident.

The Rule.

This power is cited in NCAA Rule 5: “The Referee shall…refrain from penalizing in cases where he or she is satisfied that by doing so an advantage would be given to the offending team. When the Referee observes a foul that is not to be penalized, the Referee shall call out the words “play on” and signal accordingly to indicate that the foul has been acknowledged.  However, if the advantage does not materialize, the Referee shall then blow the whistle and award a free kick.”

This power can be very useful in keeping a game properly controlled and moving along to the benefit and enjoyment of participants and spectators. Advantage is both a privilege and a responsibility given to the Referee. It very much concerns the Referee’s ability to measure the use of the power to positively balance its effect on both participant behavior control and the need to keep the game flowing along as smoothly as possible with a minimum of stoppages. Obviously the fewer stoppages, the more players will concentrate their skills and abilities on keeping up with play, their opponents, and upon the team objective of winning the game.

Consider Where, When, Why, and Why Not

One aspect to consider is where the incident happens. More often an attack by a team that reaches that third of the field nearest the opponent’s goal tends to create potential advantage decisions.  In this area of the filed, it is more likely that the Referee will allow the advantage and play to continue to see if the attacker or attacking team can realize the benefit of the advantage. The Referee, of course, tempers the advantage decision based on the flow of the game, how severe the violation, the need to keep player and team behavior controlled, how late in the game the incident occurs, and the relative advantage of a free kick restart if the decision to whistle and restart is made. These elements become more important as the prospect of an immediate try on goal is probable.

What about advantage when the incident occurs in the middle third of the field? Here, the chances are not as pronounced for a try at goal by an attacking team.  Of course the individual and team level of skill has a lot to do with the Referee decision. If the Referee has read the game adequately up to that point, and has correctly determined the ability level of the teams, an advantage call which allows for a quick advance and play could well add to the excitement of the game and the benefit of the offended team.

An advantage allowed in the furthest third of the field away from the goal being attacked is less often successful, unless of course the teams involved are highly skilled, or the situation can develop into a startling breakaway for the attacking team offended against.

The Referee mechanic for when and how to apply the advantage is to give the proper signal, calling out as loudly as possible “Advantage, Play On”, and making sure you are as close as possible to the incident so that there is little doubt that you have seen and correctly called the play. Positioning is critical to firmly enforcing and call for a violation. The closer you are, the more you will be seen and accepted as making the proper call.  The old Referee adage: “Presence Lends Conviction” holds true.

It’s also important, as part of the mechanic, to watch your back when you allow an advantage, because more often than not advantage results when the ball is passed off by the offended attacker to a teammate who then continues the attack. At that point you have just let a violation occur, play is moving away quickly, and if you do not pay some attention to observing the two players involved in the advantage situation, you might miss retaliation that need to be attended to. Here, the pre-game instructions you give to you ARs can help a great deal.

A final thought about the “How” of the Referee mechanics.  Do not be hesitant to call an advantage back if the supposed benefit does not occur.  Your application of advantage is all about justice and fairness on the field to and for both teams. Concentrate on observing whether or not the original violation caused the advantage NOT to materialize, or did the offended player really end up at a disadvantage. Remember, when you apply the advantage, you do not always know what the outcome will be, so be prepared to correct a mis-call if needed.

Isn’t it a delight to have the NCAA Rule 5 specify that if your decision to allow an advantage does NOT result in a benefit to the offended team, you can stop play for the original violation and go back and penalize?  How often do you get the opportunity to correct a decision that does not turn out as expected?

Cautions and Ejections

The seriousness of the violation is USUALLY independent of the application of advantage. If misconduct is involved, be prepared to penalize accordingly at the correct time. That is always at the next stoppage, whether it is for another incident for which you whistle, or after the ball has left the field for any reason. Once you have allowed advantage, be alert at the next stoppage to make sure play does not restart until you have dealt with the offending player. At the stoppage, you must act quickly to prevent play from restarting until you have completed you action.

If the incident is cause for a follow-up caution then do so, no matter how long it takes for a stoppage to occur. Also, make sure the offender know that you intend to get back to him/her.

If an incident is severe enough to warrant an ejection, be prepared to issue the ejection! There will be incidents where the violation is so serious that you will have to disregard the advantage.  Game and behavior control should always be paramount to your decision making.

Advantage and the Assistant Referees

A great deal of involvement in, and support of, the Referee Team by the Assistant Referees is a must for every successfully managed game. The “Pre-game Referee Team Briefing” is critical to success in that game.  Make sure to go over decision-making guidelines so the ARs know, for the more common game situations, what is expected in terms of signals, communications, controlling player and participant behavior, and when and how to help in critical occurrences and play. Advantage situations should be a part of those guidelines.  Already noted is their expected help in after-the-play retaliations. Equally important is their help in off-the-ball-violations, occurrences behind play, player confrontations, and the like. The greatest need is for decision-making consistency in determining when to act. Make sure the Referee Team functions properly in every game in which you take part.


Proper use of the power of the “Advantage” can help make a fair game into an exciting game.  It can also help make a good game into an even better game.  Be prepared to help improve the total game experience for all by strengthening your ability to use “Advantage” to its fullest benefit.