The dignity of the referee

FIFA want referees to be tested for drugs: delegates at FIFA’s medical congress were told by FIFA officers that referees in the future might be tested for doping. “We have to consider referees as part of the game,” said FIFA’s chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak. “We do not have an indication that this is a problem but this is something we have to look at. The referees are a neglected population.”

One might of course wonder whether this is typical extension of regulations beyond where they make sense, perhaps driven by Parkinsonian expansion of bureaucracy. If there has not been any indications of a problem, it doesn’t seem rational to try to solve it. To investigate whether there is an undetected problem in the first place and then try to solve it if there is one is rational, but starting out with banning doping in judges regardless of whether it matters sounds a bit like a “everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer” mindset from the anti-doping organisations.

Maybe some doping of referees might actually make the sport better?

The standard trinity of ethical reasons for banning doping is that it is unfair, has health risks or is against the spirit of sport.


The health risk angle remains as a valid argument – doping may be as unhealthy for referees as players.

Enhancing fairness

Referees are not competing against anybody: their job is to maintain the fairness of the sport. It is not unfair to anybody if the referee is able to do this to a greater extent – for whatever reason.

In fact, more capable referees might be good for the sport. The Reuters article begins by stating:

“Referees are routinely criticised for having poor eyesight, lacking fitness and getting decisions wrong but FIFA medical experts want whistlers tested for performance-enhancing drugs.”

What would be a performance enhancer of a referee? Obviously better eyesight, better fitness and better decision-making ability would be enhancement of referee performance. Presumably FIFA will not ban LASIK eye surgery or contact lenses to improve referee vision (especially since this kind of enhancement seems accepted in sport). Fitness enhancement would presumably be of the same kind as normal sports doping and a likely target for testing. But if referees could become more fit, presumably their ability to move to see what was going on in the field and to interact with the players would be better, allowing them to do their job better.

Enhancing decision-making is probably the most intriguing form of referee enhancement. I assume (not being a referee myself) that what is needed is fast reactions, alertness, attention, memory for rules, and the ability to inhibit spontaneous reactions until they have been consciously checked – all things existing cognition enhancing drugs appear able to provide to some extent. It would seem that any improvement in these abilities would help make the game more rules abiding, avoid externally imposed mistakes, and hence more fun and fair.

Cognitive enhancer drugs might have biasing effects, so not all drugs would support the game: stimulants that make the referee fast but prone to impulsive pronouncements would clearly be refereeing disenhancers. But this is only an argument for making sure the referee is not using the wrong ones.

The dignity of the referee

The USSF code of ethics for referees states:

“(1) I will always maintain the utmost respect for the game of soccer.

(2) I will conduct myself honorably at all times and maintain the dignity of my position.


The referee might be obliged to avoid doping not just because it might be against the spirit of soccer, but also because it might be against the dignity of the position.

Michel D’Hooghe, the chairman of FIFA’s medical committee, said: “The referee is an athlete on the field so I think he should be subjected to the same rules.” This seems to be a substantive argument. But should all athletes on a field be treated identically? Referees have a very different task from the players, making the incentives for doping different. The fact that they are involved in the same sport doesn’t mean the rules have to be identical: the pit teams of Formula One racing are presumably not subject to the same  game rules or moral considerations as the drivers.

One might argue that the referee should aim at being like the players, in order to properly be a part of the game (empathy might be an important element of proper refereeing). Hence the referee should be surrounded by the same rules and meta-rules as the players, and if the meta-rule says that doping is not OK then that applies to referees too.

In some sports technological aids have been used to help refereeing, for example cameras to watch whether balls cross certain lines. While there has been debate about their accuracy, I don’t think anybody disagrees with their use if they are working well. Yet this is an advanced technological enhancement of the referee: a technological system is used to give a new channel of information feeding into the judgement. If that is acceptable, then surely other forms of extensions of referees could be acceptable. But more importantly, this is an ability that players do not have access to: surely having camera access to the field would change the spirit of soccer. The referee cannot be just like a player.

The dignity aspect, however, is interesting. A referee is supposed to not just do fair judgement, but to represent fairness. In a way this might be similar to how athletes today seem to be held to very high standards because they are supposed to represent the best of humanity – and we get very cross with them when they fail at this, showing the venality that is also part of being a human. So holding them to high standards might be logical, even when these high standards do not make the actual soccer games played more fair. What many viewers care about is the idea of the game rather than the actual activity.


My conclusion is that it is not clear that banning doping among referees matters from a practical standpoint. Making use of some enhancers might actually make referees better at refereeing in certain ways. But the reason people enjoy sport might not have much to do with perfect fairness or even rules: it is an emotional and social activity, and hence issues of trust and dignity might matter more. If the friends of soccer don’t like enhanced referees, then they shouldn’t be enhanced.

However, this is tied to a particular sport. Other sports might have different spirits, or different audiences. They are just as free to make up the rules and meta-rules for their activities. What they cannot do is force the rest of society to agree that these are universal ethical rules: the enhancement that is bad for players – and maybe referees – could be good for members of the audience. The local rules also cannot overrule more strong general moral principles: people engaged in professional sports do have human rights. Many of the current anti-doping efforts seem to get dangerously close to infringing on them. That is bad for the dignity of athletes no matter what the tests show.

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9 Responses to The dignity of the referee

  • Matt Sharp says:

    Anders, unfortunately no matter how rational and fair your argument is, rationality and fairness are not things FIFA,UEFA and national Football Associations are renowned for. They’ve taken a ridiculously long time to introduce goal-line technology, even though players and managers have been asking for it for what must be well over a decade. Their record on basic human rights is also rather pathetic; recently UEFA fined Manchester City more for being one minute late onto the pitch than they did Porto for failing to crackdown on racist chanting. Corruption seems to be rather widespread within FIFA. Perhaps your arguments will ultimately have an impact, but I suspect football authorities will continue to lag behind the rest of society.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      Well, the job of an ethicist is to try to analyse things. Whether people care to listen – even when they should – is their business.

      • Matt Sharp says:

        Of course, and I enjoy reading your analyses. I also enjoy ranting about irrational and irresponsible institutions that seem to consider social-ethical problems as none of their responsibility (see also: some scientists). Perhaps I’m being harsh though. Is it reasonable to hold football authorities and football clubs responsible for homophobic, racist and sexist chanting towards players and officials? How far should they go to counter such abuse?

  • Christopher Wareham says:

    You say that ‘referees are not competing against anybody.’ However, there is competition amongst referees. For instance referees adjudged to have done a better job are more likely to oversee finals and ‘big matches.’ This means that referees that use enhancements have as much of an unfair advantage as players that do so.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      But would it be unfair if the more competent referees got the more prestigious matches? That process is not *intended* to be a competition, just a matter of merit. Maybe being a *good* referee in the dignity sense should factor in.

      When writing the post I actually looked for referee competitions. I did not find any, but there are certainly prices for best referee of the year. I got the general impression that the view is that referees should show collegiality and work *together* rather than compete: while no doubt there is some striving, the incentives seem to be aligned with doing a good job, i.e. making fair judgements even in hard cases. The incentives for *winning* seem far stronger for athletes than referees.

      • Michael Blatherwick says:

        I agree with Christopher: referees are- and should be- selected on the strength of their performances, and that means competition.

        Where allowing referees to use performance-enhancing drugs falls down is an aspect of fairness in competition which I don’t think you really mention in your article: that of the opportunity to compete.

        When it comes to doping athletes, I have heard a case made- perhaps flippantly- that instead of attempting the impossible task of eliminating doping, the doors should be thrown open and we should allow them all to compete on a level playing field of all the drugs they can eat. As well as removing the unfair advantage of the few athletes who break the rules, we would get more entertaining sporting spectacles as our athletes could now vault buses and throw footballs the full length of the pitch.

        The downside is that athletes would now be forced to take performance-enhancing drugs in order to compete at the highest level, and I think that’s generally accepted as a Bad Thing; two level playing fields separated by a moral barrier is not fairness overall. And this is exactly the situation we have with referees: sure, the World Cup Final will be improved by being reffed by Alan Steroid, but at the cost of all the other referees, who are now competing for a job (or a chance to pursue their passion, if money’s not a problem for them) not on the strength of their ability but on their own choice of whether or not to take performance-enhancing drugs. And I don’t think that’s a problem society should be comfortable pushing onto anybody.

        • Anders Sandberg says:

          But there is an important difference between practices where the competition is the point (like sports) and practices where competitions is just a means to an end (such as meritocracies). The former are much more sensitive to unfair competition since the whole point is to have one, while the latter really only care about the result. In reality most activities are somewhere in between. I think referees would be more close to the meritocracy end than the sports end, Michael and Christopher think the opposite.

          One important question is whether we would be happy if they moved further. Would it be good if referees openly competed for positions? It seems that would cast in doubt their game judgements, since they might make strategic decisions not on the fairness of the game but their own career chances. But perhaps people would find the referee metagames worth following? (a kind of striped black and white reality soap…)

  • Darcel says:

    Let’s not fool ourselves, referees are out the high and people think they are just making bad calls, I discovered referees getting high at halftime and before games in many sports. I haven’t came across that in soccer yet but they are people with problems and vices and have neen under the radar. I guarantee you if there were random drug tests at every level from youth sports to the NFL and beyond, we would gind the real answer to some of the bad calls, not all but some

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      Most recreational drugs seem to have the opposite effect of the enhancers I discuss: they do not improve the practice of refereeing. So if they were used less by referees it would presumably improve sport. This would be a valid reason for drug testing of referees, but (as argued in the post) I’m not convinced one should also screen out the enhanced referees unless the drug-freeness is important itself.

      I am reminded of how American juries can be fairly drunk or high without a mistrial being declared: once their verdict is done it cannot be overturned just because they were out of their mind (according to the supreme court). This is very similar to the finality of referee decisions. We might want them to be good, but once made they have to stand. Drug testing must hence prevent drug-using referees from future refereeing rather than overturning past judgements.


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