photo by SG

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Anarchist Referee

Reposted from my anarcho-pal Brian H:

I am a soccer referee. I ref little kids’ games where everyone crowds around the ball and more often than not end up just kicking each other, (more often) games between youth old enough to not understand why their parents won’t just shut up on the sideline, and occasionally adult games where the players are good enough not to crowd around the ball, but nonetheless more often than not end up kicking each other.

This last Saturday, I worked (notice the verb we referees have been trained to use, even though we mostly do it for love of the game) two matches in the first category – 3rd and 4th grade girls. These are not my favorite games to do – not because they are particularly challenging, of course, nor even because they don’t pay well, but because I also happen to be an anarchist[1].

This game was the first of the season for the teams involved. This also meant that for many of the players, it was their first experience playing with a referee on the field. In 2nd grade and before, they had only played at recess, with friends and family, or at most in a league with parent or volunteer monitors without whistles and funny uniforms.

It did not take me long to realize on Saturday, between teaching the players (not to mention the coaches) how to properly (“properly” being a word I use in referee mode, not anarchist mode) take a kickoff or where to place the ball for a goal kick, that these players really didn’t want or need me to be there. Many hadn’t been trained yet to stop on a dime at the sound of a whistle, and after I got over the annoyance, I was envious. And I realized my presence was really doing more harm than good. I, their first referee, was but one in a long line of figures meant to foster respect for all authority, chronologically somewhere between first schoolteacher and first boss.

So – would I be better off quitting this gig? I’ve pondered it a lot. I really don’t enjoy one bit higher-level games where it’s necessary to exert a level of authority I’m not comfortable with in order to fulfill the job description.

The obvious argument in favor of referees is: didn’t everyone agree to have this setup? The players – presuming they’re old enough, and not the 3rd graders of last weekend – all paid their dues and voluntarily associated themselves with this particular soccer association. Isn’t that consent?

I don’t think it’s any more real consent than entering the world of wage slavery is done by real consent. Who really wants to pay to play a game? Plus, the pickup games that take the field after my game (language check, again: no, even as a referee, I don’t own the game, much less the 22 players on the field) finishes seem so much more fun.

The argument I keep turning to against referees is this: when I played soccer in high school, the practices were almost always more fun than our (official) games. This may be partly because my team rarely won – but on those occasions, the joy was still delayed until after the game was over and we went to eat at McDonalds (the inextricable link between capitalist-organized sports and economic exploitation is an essay all its own). When I went to college, I immediately signed up for an intramural team, but quickly realized that it wasn’t as fun as it had been for me in high school. It wasn’t hard to realize why; now I wasn’t playing with the friends I had known for several years back home. A hard tackle was now an act of aggression, not a measure of respect, and it was assumed to come from hostility, not love.

The joy of the game comes only partly from the game itself. Like the rest of life, the best experiences come from living beings, not constructions. I prefer soccer to other sports largely because of the simplicity of the rules; the lawbook fits in my pocket whereas a pointy-football rulebook could easily squash a large rodent. But even though soccer has 17 “laws,” I can’t help but think that’s 17 too many. I think of the matches I used to play at recess – perhaps some of the most intense ever – and how none of us knew about the laws; we made our own on the fly and they changed frequently. I also think about how incredibly annoying it was when the two meanest, biggest third grade boys autonomously decided to play rubgy instead. But then I think about how the only real conflict resolution skills we had been taught involved violence and coercion, two ineffective strategies when facing rugby players with the power of the state, er, playground monitors behind them.

Why do I keep refereeing, then? I have many excuses. It’s pretty good money – not enough to live on, but more per hour than almost any other job I could get right now. And as long as not working isn’t a choice for me, this is a hell of a lot more fun than almost anything else I’d be doing to earn money. I do love soccer, after all, even if I hate what capitalists and other authority figures have turned it into. Also – and I know this from my playing experience – the character of a referee can be the difference between 90 minutes of fun and 90 minutes of frustration and anger. On the field, I try to let as much of my authority go as possible and make the players the focus; as long as my job has to exist, somebody doing it well will make a whole lot of difference. For the kid who is yelled at all day at school and yelled at all day at home, the last thing she needs is to be yelled at on the soccer pitch – if I can do my part to make the encounter more of a fun, friendly game and less of an exercise in dog-eat-dog capitalist-training, this might well be the part of a players’ day that enables her to stay sane, and enables her to retain a better vision of what this world could be. This is reformist, but potentially very important to the affected individuals; draw the appropriate analogies to a good teacher or prison activist.

Very rarely do my politics come out explicitly on the field. (I’ve scribbled some slogans on my shoes, but so far either nobody’s noticed or nobody’s said anything.[2]) Implicitly, they come out all the time. I encourage players to call me by my first name. (The first time I was called “sir” was by a librarian in fourth grade, and it has freaked me out ever since.) I try to chat, joke around, and generally lighten the mood as best I can. If I fuck up a call, as every referee does, I will usually admit it. I will not be a jerk and stop the play if you lift your foot three inches when taking a throw-in, and I won’t even mind if you take it a few yards downfield from where the ball went out. I will not be a jerk and make you go off the field to take off your wristband, because although the rules do say no jewelry, it really isn’t going to hurt anybody, and we all know it. I will not be the hard-ass referee who acts as if you’ve insulted my mother when you ask me a question.

In short, I’ll do what I can to subvert my job while still keeping it as long as it’s useful for me – which is what I’d be doing with any job, anyway. And I’m open to being convinced to quitting altogether, burning my badge and keeping solely to pickup games instead. That decision is still up in the air.

[1] On the field I get to wear all black! (Probably more often than the rest of the time, actually.)

[2] Perhaps they’re afraid I’ll be quick with the red card? OK, no more color puns.

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