New rules for punishing players are good – but only if the referees use them

I have earlier commented on the overall good performances of the World Championship referees. But I have also noted that there were concerns about inconsistencies from one game to another and from one referee couple to another. Separately I wrote about the beneficial and irreplaceable impact of experience and the reality that many of the elite referees today are relatively young and inexperienced.

The specific area where inconsistencies and inexperience could be observed was the way in which the referees utilized the recently modified (or clarified) rules for punishment of players in situations that go beyond the ‘routine’ fouls. I am talking about the new emphasis placed on having players sent off for 2 minutes without a prior warning (or before the team reaches the limit of three yellow cards). This was always possible, but the 2010 rules specify that this should be seen as a normal decision and not an extreme one. Moreover, very useful criteria are provided for fouls that should be seen as belonging in this category. The same thing applies for the serious fouls that should lead to an immediate disqualification.

This is a very welcome and necessary improvement in the rules, but it works only if the referees have the judgment and the courage to apply them correctly and consistently!! It seems that there are too many examples, both in World Championship, in the recently resumed EHF Champions League and in national leagues, where the referees are too timid or hesitant. Perhaps the traditional insistence on using the yellow cards systematically, three per team in the early part of the game, has become so ingrained that the referees use this old approach a bit like robots, without really considering whether a particular fouls deserves a more harsh action.

Alternatively, the referees in some situations may be too hesitant because they worry that they then set too high a level for the punishments early in the game, and that this will lead to an untenable situation as the game progresses. But what they should instead be thinking about is the preventive aspect. Most players are smart enough to make the same distinction as the rule book does; they will appreciate that a particular action simply went too far and warrants a more severe reaction. And if the players do not get this signal, chances are that the actions will escalate and the game will get out of hand.

Similarly, referees may hesitate to give a direct red card, especially early in the game. This may be even more likely if it involves a key player, and the referees start thinking about the impact for the team and perhaps the crowd reaction. But for many years now, we have had a definition of a disqualification that should make it much easier for the referees to apply the rules as intended. Some decades ago, we still had the same concept that makes a red card so drastic in football, i.e., that the team has to play short-handed for the rest of the game. But in handball we allow the player to be replaced on the court after two minutes, precisely because we want the disqualification to be a way of getting the cynical and dangerous players out of the game, without unduly punishing the team and distorting the entire game.

This means that, just like in the case of the direct 2 minutes, there must be no excuse for the referees when it comes to showing the red card in a situation where a player’s health is endangered and where a player simply has been too reckless. It should not be a question of courage, because it is not such a drastic punishment. I can have more understanding if it is a matter of a failing instinct, related to a lack of experience with games at a very difficult level. Here the responsibility must be shared between the young referees who aim to join the elite category and the supervisors/instructors who must use their position to help clarify the necessary instincts and actions.

I am glad to see now that EHF is strengthening its capacity for high-level education of referees through the use of new technology. They have started collaboration with FIBA Europe and are introducing a new super-efficient software that would greatly facilitate the feedback efforts for both the instructors and the referees through a web-based approach. (Apparently, it is also connected to a broader system for the game reports, statistics etc.). I hope, or assume, that the IHF will quickly follow this example!