Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet

What an ugly word, huh? It makes me cringe just looking at it. It OUGHT to make all of us cringe just thinking about it. However, as the spring season has come to a close, all over this message board, a lot has been written about cheating, in particular cheating by referees. So, I will take the opportunity to use this forum to address the issue head-on.

At the outset, let me make one thing perfectly clear: unless some external structure imposes some form of self-interest, the only people involved in a water polo game who can be counted on NOT to have any interest in the identity of the winner are the referees. But if THAT is so, then why is there so concern about cheating? Is any such thing going on out there? And whether there is or is not, is it really cheating that is occurring? Perhaps something else is occurring that, to many, might look like cheating when in fact it is something completely different. What might be the difference between cheating (doesn’t it make your teeth grind just reading that word?) and all the other things out there, way too many things, in which we seem to be in so much of a hurry to define as cheating?

First of all, before we go any further, let us remember that the vast VAST majority of those who evaluate a referee performance are not referees. Most always they are either team-linked observers (fans, parents, friends, etc…) or coaches, all whom have a (sometimes strong) vested interest in the identity of the winner of any particular game. This bias must be remembered in all that follows.

So, let’s get on with it, and pretend that a game was played where there was lots of yelling and carrying-on, many protests, some outrage, same old, same old... and finally, someone concludes that the reason “their” team did not win was because a referee, or both referees, cheated. If you were a knowledgeable observer and did not care which team won, but you STILL believe that there was some less-than-neutral role played by the referee(s) in “determining” the outcome of the game, what are the options to best explain what was most likely to have REALLY happened?

Referees Lament: How Do I Not Cheat Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

Let’s go from bottom to top, from least to most resembling cheating.

  1. Poor skill or failure to know the rules:
  2. This is the easiest to understand. The referee just isn’t very good and is on a game over his/her head. In general, whistles (and non-whistles) favor the poorer-prepared and poorer-coached team because it is easier (for anyone) to NOT understand than to understand. In this case, the better team has more of an uphill battle to win. How do you get a “lesser” team to score more goals than a “better” team? Have referees who are sufficiently untrained or unsophisticated that the superiority of the better team is not rewarded. Result? A big upset. Cheating? Nope. Just poor decisions about referee appointments. Those referees should not have been appointed to whistle that game.

  3. Poor skill insofar as not understanding either the rules themselves or the flow of game:
  4. This is almost as easy to understand. Although the referee has adequate mechanical skills and knows the content of the rules, the referee is not good enough to understand (as opposed to just knowing) the rules so is likely to misidentify the player who might be at fault in any given situation. As above, whistles (and non-whistles) occur either in the wrong setting, the wrong context, at the wrong time, or in favor of the wrong team. Therefore, for the same reasons as above, the better team has an uphill battle to win. Good plays made by the superior team are incorrectly judged as bad plays, head-to-head battles between two players are incorrectly judged to be “won” by the inferior player, and if those things happen enough times, the “lesser” team scores more goals than the “better” team. Impossible? How many simple perimeter minor fouls, now misread as contra fouls leading to counter attack goals, does it take to alter the result of a game. A big upset. Yes. Cheating? Nope. Just poor decisions about referee appointments and/or poor training of referees.

  5. Poor skill insofar as not understanding the Advantage Rule:
  6. This is more complex and much more difficult for non-water-polo-people to identify. It often looks like a steady stream of “WHAT WAS THAT?” calls or non-calls. At other times, it can look like a series of “almost” got there, “almost” made the steal, “almost” got the shot off, was “almost” open long enough to receive the pass. Not unlike the preceding section, the offended team can be judged as the offending team. Alternatively, and this is more difficult to detect, although the offended team is awarded the foul, it is either the right foul at the wrong time or the wrong foul outright. How many “almosts” does it take to lose a close game? Not very many. Who is disproportionately punished? The more sophisticated team, the one with the ability to make a quick move, to get open at just the right time, in just the right place. A big upset. Rarely. A heartbreaking loss? Often. Cheating? Nope. Just an inability to understand advantage as well as the sophisticated players or teams. But the result is still that the superior team may not have won when it probably should have.
    Anyone, yet, see a common thread?

  7. Fear:
  8. We are now getting into the grey area between incompetence and cheating. The referee is afraid, afraid of a coach, afraid of both coaches, afraid of being blamed for the outcome, afraid in general. So, with the defensive coach in his/her right ear, the easiest thing is to call an offensive foul and send the ball to the other end. The coach in his/her right ear is happy, the other coach is elsewhere and ignorable, and the referee can claim to have done the right thing(s): blowing the whistle every time there is a lot of contact, thus minimizing the physicality and protecting the physical well-being of the players. At the same time, by continually sending the ball to the other end, the referee can claim to be holding to the common instruction not to have “rabbit ears” for what any of the coaches are saying.

    The outcome of this is very different. The team based on, and able to sustain, counter-attacks will thrive, the team based on any other team tactic will not. Simple. Is this cheating? Now it gets a bit touchy, and depends on the combination of coach(es) and referee(s). If you are a coach, with the right kind of referees on the game, this is EASY to accomplish. How? Just prepare your team to be based on a counter-attack, pressing-defense style, scream at the referees, notice the one(s) who can be influenced, and do EVERYTHING in your power to get that referee on the BIG game at the end of the season. The coach has clean hands. The outcome of that game is no longer “fair” (a particularly American word – I am not sure there IS such a word in the Italian language, for example), but it can appear to be so if you are not a very sophisticated observer. Thus, depending on your perspective, it is the functional equivalent of cheating, but it is hidden, whether purposeful or not.

    Were I a coach of a counter-attack team, a team that can swim and press and play for the perimeter steal, and I could GET AWAY with this, I would do it EVERY time, winning most of the time as a result. The coach is not the problem, at the first level, the fault lies with the cowardly referee is. Why? (S)he should not be on that game. But at the second level, the fault, if there is any, has NOTHING to do with the referee and has EVERYTHING to do with the organizational structure that provides this kind of influence. Thus, in any structure that allows this to occur, the structure ITSELF is the agent that creates a bias in favor of one coach or team. Do these organizational structures exist? Yes, and the reality is that they are MORE common in their existence than in their absence.

    And it gets worse now:

  9. Cowardice:
  10. Now let’s move to a situation where the coaches, or team representatives, determine (in any way whatsoever) the identity or future of the referee. Lest you think this is impossible, that this would be the rough equivalent of the inmates being polled to select their jailers, we allow this to happen in many settings. The reasons are myriad, ranging from the expedient (in a small sport, these people have many duties, including event organization) to the preposterous (the coaches or team representatives actually believe they OUGHT to be in this role and legislate their organizational constructs in this fashion). So, the referee on a game that might be close now has to walk onto the pool deck KNOWING that the losing team will vote against that referee in the future.

    Eeeeekkk… what to do?

    The choices are ugly, but predictable. They include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) whichever team gets ahead, by the middle of the third period, stays ahead. No chance of a close call at the end making you appear to be at fault, even for allowing it to get close; (2) the team with the greater power (ranking, power of the coach, home facility, budget, whatever) wins, or at least gets lots of chances to win; (3) game ends, the “wrong” team wins, the “clever” referee walks by the losing team and says something like “sorry, I saw it too, but (s)he just did too much to hurt you and there wasn’t much I could do” hoping to dodge being blamed for the loss and discharging “blame” on the partner referee. This can be managed, but not easily, and generally requires a VERY STRONG but equally HIGHLY RESPECTED (by the referees being managed) hand doing the managing. It is abundantly clear that any other management structure begs for this to be perpetuated. Just look at what happens in settings where the coaches or team representatives have power over the referees and a referee has to red-card a coach. What usually happens is that the “structure,” in the guise of “protecting” the referee, moves to keep the two of them separated for a while. If it is coach likely to be on the championship game, all that just happened is that the coach managed to get the organizational structure not just to remove a referee able to stand up to the coach, the message is sent to all referees that controlling behavior gets you punished.

    And still worse:

  11. Opportunism
  12. This is when the referee directly contacts the coaches he wishes to impress and solicits assignments to events where that coach has assigning authority (before you go any farther, try imagining that occurring in the NBA or the NFL). As above, it depends on, and actually can only happen within, an organizational construct that has placed coaches (the ones with the greatest enlightened self-interest in a particular result) in a position where they control this kind of power. This opportunism manifests itself when the opportunistic referee is put into a situation where (s)he can use the whistle to reward the more powerful coaches for personal gain. Perhaps there is also a component of fear (see above), but at its roots, it represents the dark side of the quest for personal advancement and personal gain when it becomes clear that the future of the career of a referee can be in the hands of coaches.

    Does this happen? In many settings, it happens regularly. Although it may appear, initially, to be an exercise of hard work on the part of the referee or expediency on the part of a coach-event-organizer, it is a very small step away from an ethical miasma. What can it look like? It can look like an otherwise out-of-place series of questionable decisions, late in a game, all one-sided, whose effect is to eliminate chances, or to even up the stats on exclusions. In any case, when it is done with opportunistic self-promotion and advancement at its core, it is something that can only exist within an organizational construct that allows it to occur. Put a stop to this method of assignment, and so ends the opportunism.

    Finally, we get to where no one wanted to go:

  13. Corruption:
  14. Is there corruption among the ranks of referees? REAL corruption? No, or at least not much. The problem is that corruption, if it is real, can only be hidden where there is no one really knowledgeable watching. Even nationally, it is probably impossible to ever find a meaningful game with NO ONE knowledgeable watching, and if you are ever caught, even once, you are finished. And furthermore, for what PURPOSE would a referee intentionally alter the outcome of a game? Money? In this sport? HAH! Outside of some of the top pro teams, there is just not enough gain to risk it. Years ago, I was directly threatened by a referee (foreign country not to be named) to be “very careful” refereeing his country that night because he would have the USA later in the event. As bad as this was, I did not then nor think now that this was corruption, although it probably was overzealous nationality. I ended up doing that particular game, without problems, his country won (“fairly” I should add), so there is no more to report. Does it happen, ever? Maybe, but I doubt this is an issue worth doing anything other than mentioning to make the point that it is NOT an issue. There is just not enough to gain to weather the risks.

All Bets Are Covered Except for Snake-Eyes

So, we are left only with two areas: games being played over the level of the referee or games being played where the teams themselves are grading and judging the referees. Those are the only areas where there can be any concerns:

If You keep Placing the Fox in Charge of the Hen House You Will Get the Same Old, Same Old!

In summary, to the extent we do not do this, to the extent we do not make these separations explicit in our structure, we invite exactly the kinds of accusations that have recently been thrown around on this message board about what occurs in college water polo. If we want the sport to thrive, to be viewed from the outside as legitimate, this separation is essential. If not… the other path is equally clear… and so is how outsiders will view us in the future.