A commentary on the role of referee, the competition environment and how it all comes into play.
by: Mark 'Vesuvius' Simmerman
Every athlete who has put his training and skills to the test on the competition mat can attest to the importance of the referee in determining the outcome. While we look for the definitive end to our matches in the form of submissions, most matches simply do not end that way. The referee’s judgment and knowledge are continually tested. As important as good referees are to the safety of the competitors, the outcome of a match and the overall tenor of a tournament, they are often largely overlooked among the many other preparations for a tournament. We spend much time making sure the mats are properly configured, the medals and trophies are ordered and the brackets are right, but the referee is often selected at the last minute from a small pool of reluctant bystanders. Sometimes the referee’s main qualifications are simply having a pulse and a willingness to do the job until someone else agrees to take over. Incentives for refereeing are few while the responsibilities are many. There is the primary responsibility for the athlete’s safety that requires an active and thoughtful official, the pressure from the crowd to always make the right call, and the long hours trying to deliver 100% of one’s attention to one match after another in a hot gym full of distractions. At the end of the day, no one awards a gold medal for “best referee” and often the refs receive little or no compensation of any kind.
Yet the referee does not hold all the cards. Rather, it is a complex interaction of the referee, the athletes and the spectators that dictate the outcome of individual matches, the success of a tournament, and the advancement of our unique sport. Each of these entities has a responsibility, indeed an obligation, to behave in a way that respects the other participants (athletes, spectators and the referee), promotes safety and hygiene, and advances the reputation of BJJ and submission grappling.
The referee must first and foremost know and understand the rules. This seems obvious and yet it is sometimes evident, especially in smaller competitions, that the rules have not been carefully studied in advance of accepting such a responsibility. The referee must also be able to conduct each match according to a consistent order, making certain that everything is in place before and during the match to ensure that it follows a positive course for all involved. Is the timer ready and paying attention? Does the scorekeeper understand the referee’s hand signals? Is the competition area safe and properly configured? Are both athletes given time to stand up, straighten their gi and prepare for the victor’s hand raising at the end of the match? The referee must be capable of focusing his attention only on the two athletes for up to 10 consecutive minutes in match after match - a surprisingly difficult task in an arena full of distractions. He must be aware of situations where his impartiality could be called into question and recuse himself from officiating in such circumstance. The referee must also be a person of inherently good judgment, free from the influence of drugs and alcohol, or even from a hangover from the night before. Such good judgment becomes especially critical in those instances where events on the mat do not neatly conform to what is described in the rule book. Finally, the referee must have the strength of character needed to penalize unfair play and stand by his calls, right or wrong, despite often considerable objections from athletes and spectators.
Beyond their individual tecnhical skills, the athletes’ behavior before, during and after the match also contributes to the outcome. First, competitors should not come to the mat without the necessary skills for their chosen belt or competition category, sufficient fitness levels to remain active throughout the match, good personal hygiene and proper athletic gear, and a thorough understanding of the sport’s rules and principles. This might seem obvious but it is not uncommon to see submission grapplers competing in advanced or even “elite” categories when these categories are well beyond their skill level and sometimes vice versa. Such unequal match ups create circumstances ripe for nasty injuries and disappointing matches from the spectator’s perspective. While each athlete will differ with regard to fitness, we have all observed athletes whose poor fitness levels prevented them from effectively competing throughout the allotted time. These competitors become sloppy with their techniques as they quickly tire and frequently end up getting injured or stalling most of the match. Such behavior not only disrespects the other athlete and spectators but reflects poorly on the individual. Competitors who arrive at the competition mat late and only after multiple requests, with untrimmed fingernails and toenails, open cuts or skin sores, an improperly fitted gi, or clothing that is torn and badly soiled do us all a disservice. Inattention to hygiene puts fellow athletes at risk of injury and infections that give our sport a poor reputation. Recent outbreaks of methicilin resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) and frequent epidemics of fungal infections in grapplers have been quickly publicized and garnered unfavorable media attention. A surprising number of competitors reach the mat without ever having read the rules of the sport. Competitors who are not well-versed on the rules often create confusion on the mat when they find the scoring not to their liking, attempt illegal holds, and argue with the referee during and after a match to petition for “their” points or against an unfavorable ruling. Finally, while all competitors should consider these issues, it is especially incumbent on our elite and professional level athletes to model positive and respectful behavior at all times. There is a fine line between showmanship and poor sportsmanship. The next generation of grappling athletes is watching you.
Spectators may underestimate the importance of the role they play in the outcome of individual matches and the overall tenor of the competition. Aggressive, loud coaching from the sidelines, especially from many people crowding the edge of the mat is distracting to both competitors and to the referee and can also constitute an unfair advantage. Similarly, spectators sometimes feel compelled to make derogatory comments about their favored athlete’s opponent. “He’s out of shape” or “He doesn’t know what he’s doing”. Occasionally, a spectator or coach will go so far as to carry on a conversation with his favored competitor during the match. Once again, such behavior disrespects the opponent and the referee and can unfairly influence the outcome.
In the worst of cases spectators, and sometimes the athletes themselves, attempt to bully or intimidate the referee to obtain the ruling or outcome they want. The pace of some matches can be fast and furious, challenging the most astute and attentive referee to accurately score the match. Frequently, sequences occur on the mat that are not clearly described in the rules and require significant degrees of judgment from the referee. While we all have a right to expect consistency, clear thinking and fairness from the referee, this does not mean his judgment will comply with the spectators’ or athletes’ version of events. Second guessing the referee is easy but also the wrong thing to do. At the end of the day, only the referee can make the final and indisputable call. Those are the terms that grappling athletes and their coaches accept when they step onto the mat. Challenging the referee’s call only undermines our sport, often reflects poor sportsmanship, and seldom yields a constructive outcome.
In the final analysis, while the referee is important he controls only some of the cards that influence the outcome of our matches and the future of our sport. The athletes and spectators also play major parts. Those few who are willing to step up to the spotlight and pressure of officiating deserve our support and consideration. This is best demonstrated by behavior, both on and off the competition mat that respects the broader goals of BJJ and submission grappling such as good health, self-discipline, a personal commitment to self improvement and the demonstration of mutual respect and good sportsmanship at every instance.