Referee Ethics

By: Bob Sumpter, NISOA, Florida

Yes, this is an important subject.  It’s about Referee Ethics, perhaps one of the most important topics that concerns Referees, because it shapes and defines your refereeing career.

The entire basis for having a referee in soccer rests on everyone trusting in the integrity of that Referee, both on and off the field.  In each and every game, you are called upon to make and enforce many different decisions.  All involved in the sport rightly expect you to make those decisions objectively, fairly, and with a deep sense of the spirit of sportsmanship, fair play, and participant safety that dominate the history of the game.

Doing so is the responsibility of each and every Referee.

The “NFHS Officials Code of Ethics” is an excellent, comprehensive statement for the high school game. It begins by reminding us in the preamble that Referees are participants in the educational development of high school student-athletes. As such, we must exercise a high level of self-discipline, independence, and responsibility After stating these aims, the code goes on to define eight specific ways to act.

Number One.

The first guideline advises us to master both the rules of the game and (equally importantly) the mechanics necessary to enforce the rules. It goes on to remind us to exercise authority in an impartial, firm and controlled manner.

Certainly as the sole authority for decision making on the field, the Referee must master the rules to the letter!  There is no one else empowered to make rules decisions during the game.  It is the same for field mechanics.  The NFHS Soccer Rules Book prescribes the procedures and guidelines for the three allowed systems.  You must follow those specifications in order to manage the game properly.

It is common sense that exercising authority takes not only rules knowledge and mechanics, but also requires you to be fair and unbiased in applying those rules so that your decisions are uniform with accepted Referee interpretations, and consistent from one decision to another throughout each game.  When you make subjective judgments on player behavior you are expected to use your best common sense to get the best result for the game.

Number Two.

The second guideline asks that we work with each other and our State Associations in a constructive manner.

This underlines the importance of working with our colleagues both on and off the field. In practice we learn all too quickly that it is the Referee Team who must work together to successfully  manage a game and participant behavior.  No one game official can guarantee success in any game.  It takes all members of the Referee Team to achieve success, regardless whether the Referee Team for any given game uses two, three, or four members.  Constructive, positive and cooperative action is critical to Referee Team success. This begins well before the game takes place, usually at the first time the Referee Team contacts each other to plan for the game, then continues at the pre-game briefings, lasts through the actual game, and extends to required follow-up after the game ends.

This also stresses that we should become actively connected with Referee colleagues through officials’ organizations and their regular in- and out-of-season meetings. Most NISOA Local Chapters maintain a vigorous continuing education program gthroughout the year.

This guideline reminds us that a good deal of information and guidance is made available to us from our State High School Association about paying attention to game and behavior problems.  We should study this input, and make sure that we implement the directions given to us.

Number Three.

Upholding the honor and dignity of the profession(of Refereeing) in all interaction with student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors, school administrators, colleagues, and the public is the next important guideline.

This advice addresses the need to act professionally in all dealings concerning high school soccer and the part we fulfill as interscholastic officials. Understand that people we deal with representing the schools are professional educators and administrators, as are the people representing the state associations.

Remember that we offer our individual services to schools as independent contractors who serve specific client-educational institutions. A true professional not only contractually agrees to be competent in game officiating, but also strives to be particularly respectful in treating others in a civil manner, remaining calm and in control of any situation in which the Referee becomes involved.

We expect respect; we must show respect.

Number Four.

This guideline stresses the need to prepare ourselves both physically and mentally; dress neatly and appropriately, and comport ourselves in a manner consistent with the high standards of our profession.

Certainly we cannot repeat often enough that professional behavior includes the Referee Team being competent in the rules and mechanics, physically fit, all professionally attired in uniform Referee gear, and conducting ourselves  in keeping with the authority and responsibility given to us by the rules.

Number Five.

This advice concerns our obligation to be punctual and professional in the fulfillment of all contractual obligations.

Your assignment to a game is a contract between you and the two schools in that game. While you expect those schools, their teams, and their representatives to fulfill their contractual obligations to you, you-in turn- must be prepared to meet your obligations in that contract. Primarily you must be competent, fit, and ready in all respects to manage that game properly.

Also remember that games scheduled by schools involve costs, travel, stadium or field preparation and management, and numerous other arrangements by the schools and teams.  Any time you do NOT meet your agreed upon obligations of things like coming ON TIME, coming fully prepared, performing pre-game inspections, enforcing prompt start times, and implementing the NFHS Soccer Rules and mechanics fully, you then violate your contract with those schools to the great detriment not only to yourself, but to equally great detriment and losses incurred by the schools involved.

Number Six.

Remain mindful that your conduct influences the respect that student-athletes, coaches, and the public hold for the profession (of Refereeing.)

Any improper conduct you commit as a high school Referee not only reflects on you as an individual, but on all of us.  All who you deal with when refereeing judge all of us by what they see YOU do, how YOU act towards them, and by the image YOU portray. So, not only must your conduct be correct at all times, but it must be seen to be correct. You cannot afford to “bend” the rules in any way that favors any participant or team. You also cannot afford to NOT fully enforce any rule. Remember, your correct application of the rules sets the allowed behavior level of participants in that game.

Number Seven.

This guideline is especially important. It states that while enforcing the rules of play, remain aware of the inherent risk of injury tat competition poses to student-sthletes. Where appropriate inform event management of conditions or situations that appear unreasonable hazardous.

Your three major concerns when refereeing are to (1) manage a fair game, (2) protect participants from injury by enforcing the behavior and safety rules, and (3) to help make sure that the game is fun for all involved.

Protection of players from injury is extremely important.  You do this by dealing promptly with any and all types of unfair play that might cause injury, in a way that discourages the offending player from doing the same again. You also make sure you have thoroughly inspected the field and equipment, player equipment, and any other aspect that might cause participant injury; and do so thoroughly before the start of each game. Get safety violations corrected; always report in writing post-game on safety violations noted and actions and decisions taken.

Number Weight.

The final item in the code stress that Referees must take reasonable steps to educate themselves in the recognition of emergency conditions tat might arise during the course of competition.

There are many field conditions and game events that you must come to recognize as cause for concern about participant safety. The ones that come quickly to mind are: (1) sudden storms that make the playing surface dangerous, (2) Lightning, (3) players with bleeding injuries, (4) dealing with an unconscious player, (5) faulty goal posts or crossbar, (6) faulty or non-standard corner flag posts, (7) any particularly rough play or any confrontations between players, (8) fighting on the field or sidelines, (9) spectator interference, or (10) faulty player equipment.

In any such instance your immediate action should be to stop the game and see that the problem is properly resolved as either the rules require, or as your common sense, discretion and experience dictate for a positive resolution. Do NOT ignore any such problem.


As you study the NFHS Officials Code of Ethics, you will find it a very thoughtful and relevant set of guidelines and standards for all Referees.  NISOA urges every Interscholastic Referee to study and consider the value of these in your future Interscholastic Referee career.