Two football teams run out onto the field and take their positions. Who is the most important person on the pitch?
Is it one team’s star striker going for a record number of goals? Is it the other team’s veteran midfield general? Or is it that agile new goalkeeper, widely expected to be one of the best in the world? Perhaps the most valuable person isn’t a player at all — could it be the very canny coach on the sidelines whose team selections and formations always befuddle his opponents?
Perhaps we should look away from the pitch altogether? The most important people in any sport are the fans, you might argue. The game is paid for by them, and is played for them. It is their passion, their support, their money that keeps teams going.
Or let’s cut out the sentiment, and follow the money. Surely the key fellows are the owners of the clubs — the (usually very rich) principal shareholders who bankroll all the player purchases and the stadium builds? They matter most, don’t they?
I would argue the most important person in the game isn’t any of the above. Not a player, not a manager, not a fan, not an owner. The most important person is that person in the centre holding the whistle and the yellow and red cards — the referee.
When the game kicks off, the teams expect the referee will be neutral, fair and wise. He (she) will apply the rules of the game without fear or favour; he will call out all the fouls and punish them as appropriate; and he will treat each team equally. Then the game can run; the players can exert themselves to the full; the fans can cheer; the managers can instruct; the investors can reap.
What happens instead if the referee is biased? In one particular game, not too much; a particular result is swayed one way or the other. The complaints at the time will be bitter, but if it’s a one-off occurrence, people will move on. But wait: What if the institution of referees is not neutral? What if their decisions can be bought by the highest bidder; what if they systematically favour one team for whatever reason?
After just a few games, the players of the teams at a disadvantage will notice that the game is rigged. They will see that they are playing against not 11 opponents, but 12 - including one super-opponent no can defeat.
No matter how well they play, an ill-awarded penalty or a false red card will undo them. If the referee does not want you to win, you can’t win.
If the game stays rigged, match after match, the players will stop trying, including the favoured ones. Why exert yourself if winning or losing is pre-decided?
Fans will tire of the sad spectacle and move on to supporting foreign teams or other sports where proper refereeing is done. Investor and television money will move on to where fair returns can be achieved. The rigged sport will collapse, in other words.
That is why the referee is so important. But the institution of refereeing must be sacred. All those in the profession must be selected, trained and monitored to the highest standard possible. Not a whiff of bias or wrong-doing must be detected.
And when referees turn out to be incompetent or corrupt (as they occasionally do) they must be rooted out immediately. Why? Because without good refereeing there is no game.
Now replace the word ‘referee’ with the word ‘regulator’. Or with words like ‘judge’, ‘adjudicator’ or ‘arbitrator’. We weren’t really talking about football, you see.
Without independent, neutral, fair-minded and strict people running any competitive activity — a game, a market, an industry, a courtroom, an election — the activity collapses. Investment dries up; supply is curtailed; the law is disregarded; democracy withers.
That is why the thinking person does not just cheer on a team; he or she pays great attention to the creature put in charge of regulation and adjudication. If that person is flawed, everything else is futile.
That is why thoughtful societies place great emphasis on proper regulation; and impose severe penalties on those who perform the role badly. Everyone’s future depends on credible institutions and fair outcomes.
Bad referees don’t just damage particular teams; eventually, they bring the whole game down.