When is it Right to Argue With Referees/Officials? Part 2

We’ve had such great conversation in the comments section over on Part 1 that I thought I would address some of the questions here in a separate post.  So thankful for Tim Challies linking to our post and exposing people to this provoking topic!

When is it right to argue with referees/officials?  My answer was never.  As you can imagine, not everyone agrees.  I’m so thankful though for the feedback and response.  I think it’s great when people wrestle with these topics.

Below are some reasons I’ve heard regarding appropriate times to argue with referees/officials followed by my response.  As always, would love your feedback.

1.  It’s the job of a coach to fight for justice…

This by far has been the most popular exception to my “never” rule.  It’s also one I’ve heard in the past.

I think most coaches fool themselves when they say it’s about justice.  Here’s why: Justice, by definition, has to be blind. It can’t be prejudiced or biased. If a coach really cared about justice, then he/she would not just argue with referees about calls that went against his/her team but also calls then went for his/her team? Make sense?

Say for example that you’re coaching baseball and one of your players is called “safe” at first base when clearly they were out. If you are truly about justice, then you would argue with the umpire about that call. Even at the expense of your own player, and your team’s own performance, you would just as adamantly complain about that call as you would a call that went against you.

I’ve never seen a coach come even remotely close to this. This is why I don’t think most coaches’ motivation is justice. I suppose you could call it selective justice but, again, that’s not really justice. I know from my own heart when I’ve coached that it’s not been about justice for me. It’s about how the call an ref/official/umpire makes impacts me and my chance of winning or performance.

Think about this as well–how much true injustice happens on the field/court?  Is a missed call at first base injustice?  Perhaps.  Think about the type of reactions missed calls often elicit though.  For coaches who argue with referees, do you think justice issues like poverty, sex trafficking, or abortion elicit the same reactions?  If coaches are honest, I think most would say that the level and passion to which they argue with officials is disproportionate to other issues of injustice in their lives.  And, if that’s true, then you would have to admit that there’s more to the issue than just injustice.

Theoretically, could justice be a valid reason to address an official?  Absolutely.  I don’t think it would require arguing though.  And I don’t think the anger and excitement would accompany it like often is the case when coaches argue with officials.

2.  Arguing with refs/officials is a part of the game.  It’s a strategy to improve your team’s chances of success…

I’ll agree that arguing has very much become a part of sports.  It doesn’t mean it’s right.  Can arguing with an official improve your team’s chances of winning?  Sure.  Would cheating improve your team’s chances of winning?  Would having your players take steroids improve their chances of winning?  The answer is yes on both accounts.  As you can see, this is not a good argument.

Arguing may prove to be a good strategy to win the game or even have your team perform better.  However, we need to be careful to not let pragmatics drive our coaching.  The question shouldn’t be, “does it work?”, but rather, “is it right?” As a Christian, the job of a coach is not to win but to glorify God [this doesn't mean wanting to win is a bad thing, see Winning: A Bad Goal but a Good Desire]

3.  Shouldn’t we want the referees to do the best possible job that they can?…

Absolutely, for the glory of God an official should work hard at being the best referee he/she can be.  Should arguing be a part of helping an official reach his/her potential?  I don’t think so.  As I’ve said, I can see a place for a calm and collected conversation with an official about their job performance.  I don’t think it requires arguing though.  This type of conversation would look and sound far different than arguing.

All too often, I see players/coaches addressing a referee’s job performance after a game, calmly criticizing the calls that were made.  Rarely, is it a winning team’s player/coach having this type of conversation.  Almost always it is the losing team’s player/coach.  This tells you that it’s often not really about the job performance as it is about something else.

See Part 3 of this series when we address other exceptions that I’ve heard…


About the Author

Tim Briggs is the Creative Media Pastor at Church at Charlotte in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Church Sports Outreach. He also regularly writes about ministry, the church, technology, culture, and creative stuff. He is married with two children and is currently pursuing a M.A. in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

3 comments on “When is it Right to Argue With Referees/Officials? Part 2”

  1. Zach Reply

    So here’s a question, which will expand on #2: To what extent should we allow the rules of a game to “suspend” our normal beliefs about right/wrong?

    For example, stealing is right there in the 10 commandments as a no-no. But I don’t know anyone who would argue it is a sin to steal the ball in basketball.

    In football tackling, intercepting a pass, using a deceptive play to conceal where the ball is going, all of these things are considered acceptable and part of the game, despite the fact that similar actions in real life would usually be considered sinful.

    Arguing with an official may not be specifically written into the rules of any sport, but the rules do generally define lines, which once crossed result in some sort of penalty. To incur one of these penalties would probably classify as “sin” (although we don’t generally think that the basketball player who commits a foul or the football player who commits a hold “sinned,” so maybe even this is a stretch), but if that doesn’t happen, has the coached sinned?

    I don’t really have answers to these questions. I’m not sure there are bright line answers to these questions, much more shades of gray. My point is simply that there is an almost inherent tension between the necessary competitiveness of athletics and Christ’s call to humility and a willingness to die to self.

  2. David Jones Reply

    Tim, thanks for an excellent discussion. I also was referred here from Tim Challies’s blog. It sounds like our disagreement, then, is about the definition of “argue.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to argue is “to present reasons or facts in order to persuade someone of something.” On the other hand, the dictionary goes on to say that “to quarrel stresses hostility…. Wrangling refers to loud, contentious argument…. Squabbling suggests petty or trivial argument.” And “bickering connotes sharp, persistent, bad-tempered exchange.” So what you are call “having a calm and collected conversation” is actually arguing, and what you call “arguing” is actually quarreling, wrangling, squabbling, or bickering. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but words do have meaning.

    Regarding your well-made point about how people are often more passionate about “justice” on the field than they are about justice in the world, I don’t think that the best approach here is to discourage people from feeling passionate about justice on the field. If anything, the connection between justice on the field and justice in the world should make us want to encourage people to be all the more committed to justice on the field so that we can use that as a teaching point to encourage people to seek justice in the world. Indeed, justice on the field can be practice for justice in the world. Sports can be a great place for people to learn all kinds of great life lessons, including how to make a godly appeal to authority.

    As to the fact that coaches do not tend to point out an official’s error when the error works to the advantage of their own teams, I think that there is an analogy from the legal world that may apply to this situation. A defense lawyer’s job is to provide a defense for his client. Here’s the question: if a defense lawyer knows that his client is guilty, does justice demand that he lay out the case against his client? Of course not! In fact, spilling the beans about a client’s guilt would be a serious ethical violation. Just as it is the prosecuting attorney’s job to make the case against the defendant, it is the other coach’s job to advocate for his team. Of course, unlike a defense attorney, you can point it out yourself if you want. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you do, the officials may even be more ready to listen to you when it goes the other way because you have established a reputation for being fair. My point is that you are not obligated to point out the official’s errors that work out in your favor in order to be consistent and God-honoring, especially if the other coach is doing his job and advocating for his team as you should be advocating for yours. Your bias and the bias of the other team’s coach will in theory balance each other out.

    Of course the subtext in everything I am saying should be understood to be that all of the arguing that takes place is truthful, respectful, and ultimately submissive to the authority of the referee. That is, that it be arguing and not quarreling. And it should come from the coach, not the players. If the players have a problem with the officials, they should go to the coach.

  3. Jim A. Reply

    As a high school and college baseball umpire over the past 40 years…and, a Christian…I have appreciated both this and the previous discussion regarding “arguing” with officials. Lots of good points have been made. One of the most significant, in my opinion, is that everything we do should be for God’s glory.

    Officials do make occasional mistakes, though not nearly as often as coaches and spectators think. When an official makes a “bad call,” rest assured that most of the time we realize it just as quickly as anyone else. It doesn’t feel good! In most cases, it is simply not possible to just change the call and move on. Any good official will also tell you that you can’t “even the score” with a “make-up call.” That just compounds the problem and surely does not bring glory to God.

    There are two things that officials can do; however. First, as soon as we realize that we’ve made a “bad call,” we can increase our resolve to do a better job and get it right next time. God is glorified by our commitment to doing a better job.

    The other thing we can do is to avoid escalating the heat of the rhetoric when coaches complain about the call. It is human nature to respond to heated comments with your own heated comments. That does not bring glory to God. Just stepping back, listening to the coach’s comments and remaining calm can bring glory to God by defusing the situation.

    Glory to God for discussions like these and for the commitment of each of us to keep in the forefront of our mind how we can bring Glory to God in everything we do.

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