As I watched the women’s soccer world cup final unfold, I noticed that I had not noticed the refereeing for the game. The sheer pacing and beauty and power of the game unfolded with remarkable fluidity. No major mistakes, no second-guessing, a fair number of no calls on both sides and a remarkably degree of sportsmanship from both teams.
Both teams smiled and laughed with the referee Bibiana Steinhaus, a professional referee and police officer from Saxony. She ran a taut game with constant reminders, clear looks and clear hand signals, but within that game she kept it loose and flowing. This game was not dominated by the referee nor determined by the ref, nor marred by the referee.
She made two calls, one yellow and a red,on an obvious denial of shot at the very end. But what struck me the most was how vital and central a good referee is to the skill, beauty and fairness of athletic competition.
Ms Steinhaus earned the players respect, and her demeanor and calls discouraged Brazil-like faking and play-acting. The game proceeded with very little wasted time or effort. The play unfolded clean, hard and precise, much like the tone of the referee. The game was decided by players, their mistakes and successes, not the referee.
I have pointed out how fundamental rules and good referees are to the “game” of sports. If the referees are bad or corrupted, the entire moral and athletic purpose of the game gets subverted. European soccer, like American basketball, has had its recent experience of dishonest referees destroying the integrity of the game.
Athletic competition depends upon rules to define its excellence and to create the predictable domain of action. That predictability permits individuals to practice and perfect their skills and play, not focus upon cheating and faking. Good referees legitimize the outcome and a commitment to high quality play; they make sports real with unpredictable, not ordained outcomes.
The attitude and commitment of the players takes their cues from good referees who provide consistent and transparent calls as well as hold the emotional tone and respect of the game in hand. This helps athletes stay focused upon the game and devote their energy to the game and play.
The women’s soccer world cup demonstrated many fine aspects, one of them was the moral centrality of good referees.