Referees taking the easy way out?

Was the defender really inside?

For many years, I have had a ‘pet peeve’ regarding a situation that handball referees are facing and far too often decide incorrectly.  It involves the situation where an attacker with the ball frontally approaches a defender who is standing just outside the 6-meter line.  If the attacker simply runs into the defender, or possibly tries but fails to pass him on either side, chances are that both players will fall to the floor inside the 6-meter line.  And what happens?  With a straight face, the referee gives a totally unwarranted 7-meter throw to the attacking team, often showing with a magnificent gesture that supposedly the defender was standing inside the line before the collision.

The correct decision in most of these situations is an offensive foul, and a free-throw for the defenders.  An exception is if the defender anticipates the collision and uses illegal means before there is body contact.  It is a big difference between a 7-meter throw, with a good chance of scoring an easy goal, and the loss of possession.  In other words, the consequences of a bad decision in this situation are much greater than a wrong call in most other situations.

While this situation has frustrated me a lot over the years, I have always been somewhat prepared to defend the referees or at least to find a reasonable explanation.  With multiple points of focus, it can happen that the referee looks away precisely at the moment of the collision and does not know where exactly the feet of the defender actually were.  And I have also speculated about the possibility that the cynical attackers fool the referees to believe that the defender must have been inside, simply by their act of running straight into the defender.  The referee may think: ‘surely the attacker would not do so, unless he saw clearly that the defender was already inside.’

But after having been preaching about this situation together will all my colleagues on the IHF Referee Commission for decades, I am now getting tired of finding excuses.  In part because it is not getting any better, and in part because I now often see another situation, with a common element, where the referees far too frequently get it wrong.  This situation is a seemingly easier one:  an attacker is trying to penetrate and shoot at the 6-meter line but is fouled (from the side or behind).  Sometimes the player maintains the balance and scores a correct goal.  But often the foul causes the attacker to touch the floor inside the 6-meter line with an arm and/or leg (or even the ‘whole’ body) before releasing the ball.  Clearly the correct decision is then a 7-meter throw, and a goal cannot be allowed if the player manages to ‘score’ from this position’.  But far too often, the referees happily signal ‘goal’.

I am beginning to feel quite strongly that the explanation in both the situations I have discussed in more sinister than I used to think.  I am now ready to believe that the referees consciously/cynically, or at least subconsciously, chose the easy way out. In other words, they know that in these two situations not many persons will have observed with certainty what the facts were.  So it is easy to ‘get away with’ the convenient but wrong decision, especially if it is indicated with firmness and conviction.

What I mean by ‘convenient’ is that in the first situation it is easier, i.e., less likely to cause protests, if I give a 7-meter than if I call an offensive foul.  And in the second situation, it is easier to allow a goal if the ball is already in the net, rather than to disallow the goal and order a 7-meter throw.  BUT, the job of the referees is not to look for the easy way out and to concentrate on avoiding (justified or unjustified) criticism.  On the contrary, showing courage and ‘call it as you see it’ are the trademarks of a strong referee.

Given my decades of involvement in refereeing, I am not entirely comfortably about ‘accusing’ referees of this behavior.  I would probably prefer to stick to a less sinister explanation.  But I can no longer remain quiet about my suspicions.  And I am encouraged in this, when I listen to my old colleagues who still remain on the IHF Referee Commission and are beginning to sense the same thing.  And clearly they have no tolerance for this kind of action, especially among their top referees.