Climbing the Ladder of Misconduct
By Brian Goodlander
The USSF has publications to guide referees in defining a trifling infraction (some know that as a no-call), a foul, a yellow card or cautionable offense and a red card or sending-off offense. I think of those as the ladder of misconduct. Players may climb the ladder one rung at a time or they may vault themselves to the top rung. Key words (trifling, careless, reckless and excessive force) define the rungs of the ladder.
On The ground (Trifling). The USSF Advice to Referees provides help on decision-making for fouls that you consider trifling. Advice states that you have the duty and responsibility to avoid needless stoppages for trifling fouls. For example, A9 has the ball and B2 throws out a leg in an unsuccessful attempt to trip A9. No contact is made and A9 need only vary the movements to completely avoid the awkward attempt. By definition, that is a foul (trip or attempting to trip) but it has no impact on the match. Acting on the Advice, referees should not stop play. B2 has figuratively stepped up to the ladder but has not yet scaled a single rung.
The lower rungs (Careless). Free kicks are given for 10 direct free kick or eight indirect free kick offenses. Six of the direct free kicks require contact that can be careless, reckless or use excessive force. The remaining four direct free kick offenses and all indirect free kicks are non-contact offenses. A careless foul is an unintentional or accidental foul resulting from a lack of skill. Those fouls are common in youth play, particularly younger groups. Using our above example, if B2 reaches out to try to reach the ball but, due to a lack of skill or experience, trips A9 to a point that A9 can no longer play the ball, the referee should stop play and award a direct free kick at the point of the foul for team A. This time, B2 has taken the first step up the ladder of misconduct.
The middle rungs (Reckless). For the six contact direct free kick fouls, escalating from careless to reckless pushes the player up to the middle rungs of the ladder. Reckless involves a deliberate intent to foul the player as an attempt to disrupt play. The referee must first determine if a foul has occurred — and then whether there was sufficient skill possessed by the player to avoid the foul. Reckless fouls warrant a caution (show a yellow card). At a minimum, the offenses deserve a public scolding for the misbehavior. Back to our example, A9 has beaten B2 and B2, realizing that the goal is now exposed, reaches out with a foot to trip A9, stopping A9 from progressing toward the goal.
The top rung (Excessive Force). The final rungs are reserved for players who perform a contact foul with excessive force. Those are especially heinous fouls that must be promptly and effectively punished with a send-off (show a red card). Excessive force involves not only a reckless attempt but also the player demonstrates a desire to harm or injure the opponent they are fouling. Excessive force often results from frustration, anger and retribution against players that have caused them embarrassment or injury. If our example, B2 has been beaten by A9 repeatedly, and is determined to stop A9 by any means. B2 vents his frustration by not only tripping A9 but also exposes his cleats and goes over the ball with intent to send a message or injure A9. B2 must be sent-off. B2 has risen to the top of the ladder and now must step off the field of play.
The slippery rungs (Advantage). Most decisions made by a referee involve gray areas. The proper application is a perfect tool for handling gray areas for fouls and misconduct. The Laws provide referees with chances to use advantage — yet still allows referees to return to the player who committed the foul and penalize misconduct, if warranted. Once again, A9 beats B2. B2 trips A9 in a reckless manner. A9 stumbles but manages to stay upright and maintain possession of the ball with open space ahead. The referee should elect to signal advantage and shout, “Play on!” The referee must also remember B2’s number and return to B2 at the next stoppage to deliver a caution. Remember, referees may not administer the card if they allowed play to be restarted with their permission.
Soccer is a contact sport that involves considerable emotion and passion by players, coaches, fans and referees. Sometimes that emotion results in misconduct that referees must assess. USSF has provided language to guide you to the proper decision. You must determine where on the ladder of misconduct the offense is — and act accordingly.