What can a 2023 refereeing controversy teach us about power dynamics?

13. What can a recent refereeing controversy teach us about power dynamics_ (770x409p)

Key Points:

  1. Authority usually comes with increased power, privilege, or pay, which leads to increased scrutiny around behavior.
  2. In some cases, however, those with soft power enjoy no accompanying perks, but are still held to a higher standard of conduct.
  3. Reactions to a recent refereeing incident in English soccer highlights this concept perfectly.

Estimated reading time: 8-16 minutes

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On Sunday, April 9th, 2023, an assistant referee in England’s Premier League elbowed a player in the face.

At least, that’s the most dramatic and inflammatory way to interpret the situation, because video footage proved inconclusive. Certain angles appeared to show linesman Constantine Hatzidakis making contact with Liverpool defender Andy Robertson’s chin completely unprovoked, while others suggested he barely grazed Robertson, who may have touched the referee first in an attempt to get his attention.  

Hot takes abounded, and if you watch the above clip, you can certainly hear pundit Roy Keane expressing, shall we say, little sympathy for Robertson. As an interesting sidenote, for all of you Ted Lasso fans out there, Roy Keane is the real person upon whom the show’s Roy Kent is based. Lack of subtlety in naming aside, their mannerisms, career trajectory, and even physical appearance bear some similarities. But I digress.

Unlike Keane, many people were outraged.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Robbie Earle, one pundit whose input I generally respect, said that the linesman should be fired and banned from ever refereeing again. This wasn’t exactly an uncommon position to take, but, yikes. Talk about an overreaction for a level of force that wouldn’t bruise a banana.

Thankfully, something like common sense prevailed. Hatzidakis was only relieved of duty for one match while the referees’ governing body, the PGMOL, conducted an investigation. They decided on no further punishment, Hatzidakis apologized to Robertson via a Zoom call, and Robertson accepted his apology.

Wow! Adult behavior all around. In a high-stakes sporting event with a ton of money involved, no less. What a nice change of pace, huh?

The reason this whole situation weighed on my mind had to do with a question it raises about larger society.

When is it okay to hold individuals in power to a higher standard? But first, some context.

In early March, Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes escaped any sort of punishment for a frustrated but fairly gentle one-arm shove on an assistant referee. About two weeks later, Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic was suspended eight matches for doing this. In case you don’t feel like watching the clip (it starts at around the 0:45 mark), he twice put his hands on the referee in a very aggressive manner, pointed in his face, then squared up and lightly chest-bumped him.

Both incidents illustrate why I couldn’t understand the initial uproar over the “elbowgate” incident. Most people seemed to agree that Mitrovic’s suspension was probably about right but could have been harsher, and that Fernandes was lucky to have gotten away without a one game ban, or at the absolute least, a yellow card.

My interpretation (which could very well be wrong) of Hatzidakis’s actions goes something like this. He felt a hand on his torso or shoulder from behind, then lifted his arm in the universal, “Get the heck off me,” manner, but did so slightly faster and with a touch more force than necessary. In doing so, he made slight contact with Robertson’s chin and this shocked the Liverpool left back into an agitated reaction.

In my mind, Hatzidakis’s actions were less egregious than even Fernandes’s, simply because Fernandes initiated contact with a ref unnecessarily and knew exactly what he was doing. What Hatzidakis did was certainly nowhere near the level of Mitrovic’s actions, so if the assistant referee had been given a lengthy (let alone lifetime) ban, it would have felt incredibly unjust.

And yet, I can see why some people were so outraged. We often do expect more of our  authority figures and should place their conduct under greater scrutiny. However, I think there’s a crucial difference here.

Positions of power often come with accompanying advantages in financial compensation, privileges, access, or even respect, especially when compared to those over whom the person in question has authority. These perks can be seen as a reward for leading, an often incredibly unforgiving and challenging job. “Heavy lies the crown,” and all that. With this in mind, it seems logical to hold those in power to a higher standard of conduct so they’re not tempted to abuse their authority.

But…when it comes to referees, that simply doesn’t apply.

I can’t imagine many people would argue that referees have more privileges or access than professional footballers, who are some of the most well-compensated and highly marketable individuals in the world. And the less said about the level of respect afforded to referees, the better. And at the risk of being hypocritical, this is coming from a guy who had no qualms telling refs what I thought of them during my playing days. Regardless, the difference in compensation between players and those who supposedly have authority over them, the refs, really drives this point home.

The median Premier League player salary for the 2022-23 season (at today’s conversion rate) sits at roughly $3.5 million dollars. By contrast, the referee in the 50th percentile makes just under $88,000. And for assistant referees, pay is significantly lower. So in the case of Hatzidakis vs. Robertson, you have the supposed authority figure making roughly $38,000 per year, while the player under his authority pulls in a comfortable $125,000 per week. Yes, you read that correctly. Robertson’s weekly salary is over triple that of Hatzidakis’s annual compensation.

Top premier league referees (of which there are currently only three) make around $250,000 per year. Quite a good living, to be sure, but still less than 10% of what the average player makes. Also, hardly enough to justify regularly receiving social media death threats directed at you and your family.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago in a two part piece about winning, unless you’re a professional athlete, if the way you play a game makes it miserable to compete, you’ll quickly run out of willing opponents. In that same vein, why the hell would anyone want to be a ref these days? Seriously. I fail to see how it comes close to being worth the stress and abuse they endure for “only” getting split second decisions correct around 95% of the time. And yet, it goes without saying that referees are utterly vital to the functioning of high-level sport.

With the money and stakes at their current levels, it’s laughable to suggest that players could self-police in a “call your own fouls” pickup game fashion. No, there needs to be a neutral arbiter overseeing the proceeds. But, until we use AI to develop Referobots (Refereebots? Pick your favorite), we’re stuck with fallible humans. This highlights a curious dynamic that’s played out time and time again throughout our species’ history.

Vital cogs of many systems are often kept down, so as not to understand the power they truly have.

Indulge me with a story for a moment. My first job out of college was working in the customer service center for Baxter Healthcare, a pharmaceutical company that manufactured thousands of different drugs and types of medical equipment.

One of the ways the company sought to differentiate itself was through exemplary customer service. To that end, my department’s key metric was “ASA” or Average Speed of Answer, and we targeted making customers wait no more than 30 seconds on hold before speaking to a real, live human. And generally, we were pretty successful. My first official month on the floor, the department’s ASA was a mere four seconds, and despite the nature of the work, I found it strangely fun to be part of a helpful, high-functioning team. The team’s success didn’t happen by accident, however.

Due to both the incredibly complicated nature of the Oracle-based computer system that handled orders and the sheer volume of different tasks we needed to memorize, all new employees received a month of intensive training (fully paid). Those who worked in the Renal home health department were required to take nine full weeks of training. It goes without saying, the learning curve was steep, and nobody would have been able to step in and navigate the system on Day 1.

This meant competent entry-level employees were valuable, and were therefore compensated above industry standard. But, we still made nowhere near as much as even low level managers with far less responsibility, and were subject to stringent standards like 10-minute, timed bathroom breaks and maintaining an order accuracy standard of greater than 99.5 percent.

Things were trucking along just fine until sometime in 2013, when a hurricane in Puerto Rico destroyed one of the company’s key factories. We fell way behind on meeting our “ASA” goal, and not just for a week or so. For a period of a few months, the call queue sat 30-50 customers deep from the second you clocked in until the second your shift ended. “Mandatory overtime” followed temporarily, then permanently. You couldn’t really catch a break, because the incessant call volume meant you had to try to help often irate customers as quickly as possible. Or (grimace) tell them there was nothing you could do. Morale dropped off a cliff, and many people started looking for the proverbial exit door.

During this time, it occurred to me on what a fragile house of cards this $20+ billion dollar pharmaceutical giant found itself. Had less than 100 people out of a company of 60,000 gone on strike, Baxter Healthcare could have been finished in mere weeks. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but severe, lasting reputational damage, unfulfilled contracts, and lawsuits would definitely have followed. There would simply have been no way to quickly train enough people to use the ordering system to avert disaster.

That’s sort of how I feel about the whole Premier League refereeing situation.

There are only 16 full time top-flight referees in England’s highest division, and I’d imagine, a similar number the next two or three leagues down. The three highest-paid refs make around 7% of the average player’s salary, and yet the games literally couldn’t be played without them. That’s a ton of power to wield for so little compensation.

And it’s not like the Premier League doesn’t have the money. It was projected to make over $7 billion in 2023, and it spent less than $2 million on head referees. That’s just under 0.03%, which for context, is the equivalent of someone with a $100,000 salary making an annual commitment of 30 bucks.  

Imagine if the top 50 English refs all went on strike. I think this hypothetical could have become closer to a reality if the powers that be had decided to make an example out of Hatzidakis. “So what”, you might be thinking, “They’d just bring in replacement refs, right?” The NFL tried that in 2012 and…let’s just say, it didn’t go well.

Hear me out on this radical proposal…

imagine the quality of candidate we might enjoy if referee salaries were tied to average player salaries. Clubs could be required to contribute to the compensation pool since they, you know, need referees in order to play matches.

Mistakes would still be made, of course, but it seems highly likely that the quality would massively improve if the best and brightest were incentivized to pursue such vital positions. At least this way, it would make a bit more sense to expect a higher standard of conduct from referees as “authority figures,” because they’d actually have some tangible reward to show for their power.

Perhaps this is too “tinfoil hat,” but why do we pay so little to the jobs that are needed to keep society functioning? Exhibit A: teachers. Or anyone else labeled “essential” during the initial stages of the Covid lockdown. Is it to keep them from realizing their power? To keep them stressed and down, them feeling small so as to not realize the influence they could wield? So, to answer my main question from this piece, I guess it’s only fair to hold authority figures or those with soft power to a higher standard if their position comes with perks that demand it.

We should have learned this lesson in the late 1700’s, during the American and French revolutions. A system can only oppress vital pieces so much and for so long before the whole thing breaks. This holds true for multibillion dollar sports industries, even though at their core, they’re just games. But then again, so is capitalism, in a way. The only difference is we can’t really choose not to play it. And that’s what we’ll be talking about next week.

See you then!

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about all of this? Should authority come with extra privilege and extra scrutiny, or neither? If you saw the Hatzidakis vs. Robertson incident, what do you think happened? Reply to this email and let me know!


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