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-= PUBLIC ENEMY No. # 1 =-

"Public Enemy No.  # 1"
Television, Commentators and Our Perceptions of Referees…
By Sharon Colwell & Patrick Murphy, CRSS
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The Center for Research into Sport and Society at the University of Leicester
First published in 2001 by Singer & Friedlander Investment Funds Limited,
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" The harder you train, the harder it is to quit!!! "

When international referee, Arthur Ellis, wrote: "I call television the referee's Public Enemy No. 1!" back in 1962, he can little have imagined the changes televised football would undergo in subsequent years. At the time, Ellis's concern was that "all the modern, scientific instruments are being used to try to prove [whether] a decision was right or wrong. [The referee] could have refereed perfectly for 89 minutes and 59 seconds, but no one would remember that. Instead, people would remember that vital second when the camera proved him to be wrong" (Ellis, 1962, 116-117). Of course, since Ellis was writing, the number of games shown on television has increased dramatically and the nature of that coverage has changed too. Today's 'modern scientific instruments' give us, the viewers, and instant statistics about the number of corners, shots on target, fouls conceded or percentages of possession time between teams. On-screen graphics indicate the 'offside line', how far from goal a shot or free kick is and how far back the defensive wall should be. We watch this highly technical coverage whilst having the action described and analyzed by the commentary team, usually including a former player - the expert summarizer. The commentators can access instant, slow motion replays of incidents, taken from any of 20 different camera angles and, as a result, referees and players have their performances scrutinized in more detail than ever before. The preoccupation identified by Ellis in 1962, with the use of action replays to establish whether a refereeing decision was 'right' or 'wrong' is writ large today.

In this article, I look at a number of incidents from televised matches during the 2000-01 season, and consider the effect that this highly sophisticated coverage may have on our perceptions of referees. In particular, I examine the role commentators may have in shaping our views of match officials. In this paper, I present a mini 'case study' using a Martin Tyler and Andy Gray match commentary and other remarks about referees made by Gray in order to illustrate my argument. The points raised here are not, however, intended to imply that these issues could only be raised in relation to Tyler and Gray. Rather, the examples used here are held to be representative of many television commentaries on football.

Just a week into the 2000-01 football season, many journalists, commentators and pundits were discussing referee Graham Poll's handling of the match between Arsenal and Liverpool, which was televised live by Sky Sports. The 3 red cards Poll showed during the game became key talking points and the focus of intense media scrutiny 1. During his live match commentary and in his post-match comments, Andy Gray voiced his criticisms of the red card decisions, all of which he thought were "harsh" (Mirror, 26/8/00). Kevin Keegan, the then England manager, publicly criticized Gray who said: "I thought Gray's comments were ridiculous. He has got slow-motion cameras, 12 different angles, referees do not have that" (Independent, 25/08/00). In turn, Gray defended his comments in his newspaper column: 'Give Me A Break Kevin, I'm Paid To Give My Views', claiming:

What Kevin obviously doesn't realize is that 99% of the time I judge an incident as it happens, not some time afterwards. I always try to call it the first time I see it so I am reacting in the same way as the referee (Mirror, 26/8/00).

If Gray - making a split-second judgment, just like the referee - criticizes the match official for making a 'wrong' decision on an incident, he invites us, the viewers, to question the referee's judgment. As a gifted ex-professional, international footballer and as a pundit and match commentator on Sky since the Premier League's inception in 1992, Gray is an authoritative, experienced 'voice' on the game. This, coupled with the 'instant' reactions to incidents he describes above, may well make his judgment of refereeing decisions seem highly credible. We know he knows what he's talking about - he's played the game and he calls the action 'as it happens', 'first time', reacting to incidents 'in the same way as the referee'. We may then see the incident replayed, and become absolutely certain that the referee has made a 'wrong' decision. Here, however, with the kind of hindsight afforded by the slow-motion replay, I question the accuracy of Gray's assured and apparently convincing claims about the way he commentates on matches. I question his claims to be 'reacting in the same way as the referee' and I look at the way his opinion of how the game should be refereed informs his analysis of whether a referee has made a 'wrong' decision. Finally I ask what credence can be placed on Gray's claim to judge the action 'as it happens'.

Whether Gray can be said to be 'reacting in the same way as the referee' when he commentates on matches is questionable for a number of reasons. First, this ignores, for example, that from live TV pictures or from the commentary position high in the stands and some distance from play, commentators have a different view of the game to that of the referee. The referee has a unique perspective on the pitch and, as such, any other view of incidents will differ. The angle from which an incident is seen may have a significant bearing on how it is perceived; for example, how serious or otherwise it looks. So, sometimes we might question why play has been stopped, only to see on a replay from an alternative camera angle that the referee has spotted a foul that we have missed. Alternatively, a referee may award a penalty, for television pictures or replays from alternative angles to indicate that no contact has been made by a defender on a forward and that the referee has made the 'wrong' decision. TV pictures sometimes show 'controversial' refereeing decisions to be 'right', sometimes to be 'wrong'.

Secondly, the idea that Gray is 'reacting in the same way as the referee' when he makes a judgment about an incident ignores the fact that referees will, for example, take verbal exchanges between players into account when making decisions. Even with Sky's all-seeing cameras, we don't hear or lip-read everything that players say to each other during the game. If the referee hears a player 'sledging' another, then play may be stopped so that the official can 'have a word' and try to 'cool things down' - rather than playing advantage and risking (just what the sledge wants) an escalation of tensions and tempers. Similarly, referees do not have to treat similar tackles/incidents in a game in exactly the same way. The Laws allow the referee, for example, either (I) to stop play and award a free kick against the offending team, or (II) to allow play to continue if stopping play is likely to give the offending team an advantage. So, when the referee stops play for a tackle which looks no different or no more serious than one which went unpunished 5 minutes previously, it may be explained in terms of this room for interpretation in the Laws.

This relates to the third oversight in Gray's claim to be 'reacting in the same way as the referee': the fact that the Laws of the Game are not 'black and white'. They have to be interpreted - and Gray's interpretations may well be significantly different from those of referees. It is important to recognize, as Gray argues, that he is paid to give his opinions and, as a former player, his insights into the game often add great value and entertainment to the experience of watching televised football. However, in his analysis of the way games are played and refereed, and of the decisions that referees make, it is also important to acknowledge that his views are not those of an impartial observer. As a commentator, he is there both to analyze the action and, at the same time, to entertain us and to make his commentary as interesting and lively as possible. As such, part of his role is to highlight 'key incidents', such as perceived refereeing 'injustices', to provide talking points and controversy. Similarly, he speaks from the perspective of a former player, educated in the 'soccer sub-culture'. So, his sympathies tend to lie most often with players rather than referees. Further, his views on how the game should be played and refereed do not necessarily match those of the game's administrators and the referees themselves - indeed, often they conflict with them.

Gray's view of how games 'should' be refereed was revealed in his comments on the press reaction to the Arsenal - Liverpool match. He suggested that, as a result of the criticism of Poll, "hopefully the referees will get together and realize that they have to let the games flow a little bit more. No one is suggesting they let crazy tackles go unpunished but a little common sense would be welcome in some cases" (Mirror, 26/8/00). This call to let the game flow is revealing in the sense that it highlights that Gray is not a 'neutral' observer. He indicates here his hope that referees will start interpreting the Laws in a way, which conforms to his view of how the game should be refereed - essentially, with more 'discretion'.

This kind of criticism of 'over-zealous' referees highlights the ongoing power struggle between different groups about how the Laws should be interpreted. It is a view, which ignores though, that, through changes in the Laws of the Game, referees now have to respond to specific incidents with mandatory cautions or red cards. FIFA, the game's administrators, have overseen changes to the Laws in order, for example, to afford players more protection against dangerous play. Referees are required to interpret those Laws in a way, which conforms to FIFA's view of how the game should be played - not in a way which conforms to how commentators or others think the game should be played. If we are to understand whether a referee has made the 'right' or 'wrong' decision when penalizing players, or whether a decision is 'harsh', we should perhaps bear these constraints in mind. One way of increasing our understanding of how a referee has come to make a decision and why a player has been penalized might be to utilize the experiences of former match officials as 'expert' summarizers alongside former players and managers. Whether the TV producers would adopt such an approach is doubtful. A better informed analysis of how a player has contravened the laws of the game, rather than a discussion of a what is seen (by commentators) as a blatant misjudgment by a referee is perhaps unlikely to qualify as 'good television'.

Having highlighted some of the reasons we might question the neutrality of Gray's interpretation of refereeing judgments, next I discuss some of his and his co-commentator, Martin Tyler's, specific comments on 5 incidents during the televised FA Cup 5th round match between Arsenal and Chelsea. Here I explore in more detail Gray's views on how the game should be played, and explore the third and final point: the extent to which Gray comments on incidents as they happen. For each incident, I note the 'live action' on the pitch, the commentary by Tyler (MT) and Gray (AG), and any replays.


By 'slowing the action down' here, and noting the sequence of incident, commentary, replay, it is evident that Gray does not, in this example, call the action 'as it happens'. His implication that the referee has missed something ("Ljungberg saying his shirt was pulled") is informed by the live pictures of Ljungberg gesturing to the referee that he has been impeded - not by Gray having seen and called the incident during the live action. Gray is, at that moment, unsure whether Ljungberg's claim is a legitimate one ("Was the shirt being pulled or not?"). When the replay makes it clear that Ljungberg was right, Gray's doubt is transformed into certainty ("I think that's a penalty. I think it's a penalty, end of story").


Again, the sequence of events here indicate that, unlike the referee, Gray is not making 'split second' judgments on incidents as they happen. In this example, having missed the incident during 'live' play and then seen it on the replay, Gray reminds us how "easy" it is to "judge with pictures". It is interesting to note that Gray makes this admission when he has missed something. This kind of empathy is not usually in evidence when referees have missed incidents which Gray, or indeed other commentators, then spot. In the next section, two incidents are discussed together:



Once more, Gray's uncertainty ("Does Babayaro do anything?") becomes clarity on seeing a replay ("Yeah he does"). It is possible, of course, that in these examples, I have happened upon the 1% of incidents that Gray didn't call as they happened. However, having studied a number of match commentaries from the 2000-01 season, the evidence suggests that this is not the case. Most often a commentator's 'concrete' judgment on an incident comes whilst viewing the replay. Certainly a questioning, uncertain tone is often transformed into a persuasive, final statement about a 'mistake' after a 'second look'. Again, I would underline that by pointing this out in Gray's commentaries, the intention is not to dismiss wholesale his insightful and exciting style of commentary, which, as suggested, makes watching live football on television extremely entertaining. It is, however, intended to cast doubt on the neutrality of his analysis of refereeing decisions, and on his claims to be making the same kind of judgments as referees make. The replaying and analysis of refereeing decisions is a ubiquitous feature of television coverage and is something, which is likely to shape our ideas about the credibility of referees. Given this, perhaps we should think more critically about the ways commentators arrive at their opinions on referees. As Gray admits; 'It's easy to judge with pictures' - the kind of hindsight, of course, from which referees don't benefit. Let's rejoin the action one last time - as Gray suggests, the game is starting to "warm up":


This final incident again brings to the fore Gray's view of how the game 'should' be played. There's no room in his game for 'hand bagging'. As this gendered language indicates, football is, for Gray, a 'man's game'. 'Real men' don't push and shove each other; they tackle each other - 'properly' and hard. Despite the fact that we have had a spot of 'wrestling' (INCIDENT #1), an (accidental) stamping (INCIDENT #2), an 'off the ball' kick (INCIDENT #3) and 2 late tackles (INCIDENTS #4 & #5), for Gray "there hasn't been a tackle worth the name in the game so far". One begins to wonder exactly what Gray would see as a 'proper' tackle, or, indeed, what he would acknowledge as a foul tackle. A late tackle by Pires ("That's more like it. It's warming up now") and a bit of sledging by Wise ("Well done, Dennis"), are apparently just the sort of things Gray wants to see. That Dennis's remarks have the consequence of sparking off a bout of "handbags" (as Gray puts it) - seems to come as a surprise to him. He, of course, didn't mean for it to end this way ("I didn't mean it should warm up like this. This is ridiculous"). However, this kind of reaction (a brawl) is not exactly a 'shock' outcome of the kind of approach to playing the game, which he advocates - a late tackle here, a spot of sledging there.

The sequence of incidents highlighted in this paper, some seen and penalized by Barber, some unseen, have a cumulative effect. Tempers gradually fray and witness the result: a confrontation involving most of the players on the pitch. If referees were to use the kind of discretion which Gray calls for, it is highly likely that this kind of conflict would become a more regular feature of matches. Given this, when we next hear him criticize a referee for penalizing a 'nothing tackle', or for interrupting the flow of the game with a 'needless' free kick, perhaps we should try and understand, from a more objective viewpoint, why the referee might have stopped play. Is it over zealousness, or a case of referees managing players in order to avoid "ridiculous" "handbags"?


Ellis, A. (1962) The Final Whistle, Stanley Paul, London


1. Vierra and Hamman were both sent off for 2 yellow card offences. McAllister was red carded for a 2-footed challenge. Poll rescinded Hamman's second yellow card. McAllister's sending off and an incident not seen by Poll (a tread on McAllister's hand by Arsenal's Grimandi) were referred to the FA's Video Advisory Panel (VAP). The VAP was set up to advise the FA Chief Executive about charges brought against players either (I) as the result of an incident missed by referee, or (II) to review an incident which resulted in a player being shown a straight red card, leading to a 3 match suspension. McAllister's card was upheld by the VAP. Grimandi was found guilty of improper behavior and bringing the game into disrepute and was fined £3,000 and given a 1 game ban.

2. This incident, not seen by Barber, was referred to VAP. Babayaro was charged with violent conduct for the alleged stamp, but The FA Disciplinary Commission found the charge "not proved". Babayaro gave evidence that it had been accidental and the panel ruled that he was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

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