Too Many Whistles!

Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet

There are lots of sayings about referees, and each one of them contains at least some grains of truth. Who has not heard it said, or who themselves have never said:

A well-refereed game is one where no one notices the referees.
The referee is not supposed to be the show.
Why can’t the referees just let the players decide the outcome?

We have all heard those, and others, with a similar theme. What is the common thread? The referees call too many fouls, or at least blow the whistle too much. What does this really mean? Let’s consider some of the different things it means to different people, starting first from the easiest to explain.

Pardon Me Boy Is That the Chattanooga Choo-Choo's Whistles

A well-refereed game is one where no one notices the referees. What is the manifestation of this? During the game, none of the coaches gets up off the bench to appeal to either referee for any kind of modification of a decision. None of the players glares at either referee after a decision impacting their play. None of the spectators is so moved by what is happening that they scream at the referees for having determined the outcome. In short, everything is as it should be, right? Perhaps, but it is not really that simple. And why is that? Because the simplest way for the referees to be not noticed is if they are not there at all, instead they are down at the coffee shop enjoying a cappuccino and a pastry. Wait a minute, that can’t really be what is meant by this, is it? Well, in a way, it is. Because, taken to its ultimate end point, the only way to not be noticed at all is to not be there, or if there, to just stand there and not blow the whistle. So this cannot REALLY be what is meant. And it isn’t, at least if pushed hard enough to really think this through. Pushed that hard, what is really meant is that none of the decisions are at odds with the expectations of any of the coaches, any of the players, or any of the spectators. So what is REALLY meant is that all the decisions are judged as correct. How anyone learns to define “correct” is the problem, isn’t it? And I would be lying to you if I told you I had a simple solution to that. However, for lots of reasons, at least partly due to the fact that we do not have generations playing water polo as generations play other sports in this country, the vast majority of people involved in water polo do not REALLY have any way to tell if a game was, or was not, well refereed.

The referee is not supposed to be the show. This is a little bit less clear, but not all that much more difficult to understand. What is the manifestation of this? Just as I wrote above, none of the decisions need appeals nor generate negative questioning. But this is not as much an issue of “not noticed,” it is more an issue of being noticed but not as the center of attention. If the referees are down at the coffee shop enjoying a cappuccino and a pastry, although they will not be “the show,” they are not doing their job. So this is clearly not acceptable. So what does this really mean? It means that during those inevitably tense moments during a game, the referees shrink into the background so they are not “the show.” So, what does it REALLY mean if the referees are not “the show?” It means that when a decision is made, and there is some sort of appeal, the referees do not respond with a disrespect foul, a yellow card, or a red card. They just take it. Whatever you THINK it means, the reality is that the only way for a referee to avoid being the show is to stand back, let the appeal happen, then move on. Simple, right? Nope. What happens now to the other coach, the player on the other team, etc… who now must consider that an appeal to a referee results in a call in their favor? (S)he must go after the referee to make it even. It escalates, quickly. How to prevent it from happening in the first place? The referee makes it clear (s)he CAN be the show if pushed, hard enough, and like magic, no one bothers to even try, and peace reigns. And if peace reigns, again like magic, the PLAYERS are once again “the show.” Unless of course the referee is wrong… but that is for another editorial some other time…

Why can’t the referees just let the players decide the outcome? This sounds reasonable, right? In another lifetime, way too many years ago, I remember whistling an Eastern Final between two teams that did NOT like each other. They were two very physical (old time Eastern water polo, remember?) teams. And with about 2 minutes to go, in a tie game, an alum of one team yelled down at me “for the first time in your life, just let the players decide the game.” I (correctly) took that as anything but a compliment. Had I done what he wanted, what would it have looked like? What would I have had to do to make him happy? Probably, although I did not stop to have the discussion, he wanted to hear NO whistles, NO “intrusion” by the referees, and that way, the players would indeed “decide the outcome.” Right? No, or at least the answer is “no” unless you are a card-carrying member of the Small Brain Society.

And why is that? Because whether the referee does or does NOT blow the whistle, the referee IS letting the players decide the game. Either way, the referee is merely responding to something a player did, and thus the whistle merely announces the enforcement of a rule that the player broke. In the most fundamental way, the referee IS letting the players decide the outcome of the game. In fact, by NOT blowing the whistle, all that would be guaranteed is that the bigger tougher meaner, maybe even dirtier, player(s) would win. So, back to my story, by not blowing my whistle, I would virtually guarantee an outcome. Perhaps it would not be the outcome everyone would define as a fair or just outcome, but I would have most assuredly have determined the outcome just as if I had never stopped blowing my whistle. Which, by the way, I kept blowing, and eventually, the team associated with the aforementioned alum did win… on a foul I called… hmmm…

Anyway, I told you it would get more complicated, didn’t I?

So let’s move away from what they yell from the bleachers and now move to some of the instructions referees receive during their training. Every referee has heard these, somewhere along the line.

For Those Natural Goals I've Got My Fare and a Trifle to Spare

What we want are “natural goals.” Well, who doesn’t? A few months ago, Manuel Estiarte, the greatest and most skilled offensive player since Farago Tamas, was enshrined into the ISHOF. His enshrinement was testimony to his virtuosity. And as a small perimeter player, many of his goals were natural, meaning not as part of an extra-man or penalty situation. Who wouldn’t want to see more players like Estiarte? OK, back to the theme. What is the simplest way to get natural goals? Simple: the referee does not blow the whistle. Presto! The only way the ball goes into the net is via a natural goal. Whoa, this can’t be what they meant, can it? They can’t possibly mean that the referees should not call any fouls, that players like Estiarte would have to fend for themselves, can they? Well, no, it isn’t what they meant at all. What they meant was considerably more complicated (remember, I told it would get more complicated). What they meant (unfortunately not said, just meant) was that in any given situation, it would be best if the attack were allowed to finish their play to the end point of a natural goal. And if that is not possible, then a penalty would be the next best thing, an exclusion next best to that, and keeping the ball (as opposed to losing it) the next best to that. I remember hearing this addressed explicitly, that the referee should withhold the whistle as long as possible to allow the greatest possible completion of that particular attack. Simple, right?

Nope. Let’s consider only some of the many complications, using examples I have seen recently:

  1. A right-handed center establishes position and gets an entry pass from O4 good enough to allow a strong-side turn. The defender is vertical and on the center’s right shoulder. Oh oh… The defender grabs and pulls back, separating the center from the ball. “Ah hah, a pull-back, I’d better call an exclusion or they will think I am blind” thinks the referee, and does so. What would have happened if the whistle had not been blown? Maybe the center could have fought through the pull-back, reached the ball, picked it up and shot. If no whistle had been blown and this had happened, the referee can walk back to the center of the pool brimming with self-righteousness. But what if the center missed? Then what? Was waiting on the whistle the correct decision? There is no way to know, for that moment anyway. But we can be confident that the next time that situation occurs, the defender will remember that no whistle was blown and will be emboldened to foul even harder. So, no whistle in the first case escalates the physicality in the second case. Hmmm… this is not so simple, is it?

    But I’m not done yet. Same situation, same no call, same fight through, a second foul. “Ah hah, gotcha now, bang, penalty foul” thinks the referee, and calls it. No worries, right? Who could argue with a penalty foul? Well… it’s not a natural goal. So maybe the referee waits even longer… and the center eventually picks up the ball and shoots (maybe scoring, maybe not) or worse, fumbles the ball to the goaltender. Same as above, but worse, a near certain goal from the penalty throw did not occur and the next time, the defender uses a much bigger hammer. On the other hand, this can be balanced by the knowledge that accumulation of major fouls can dramatically alter how a player can afford to play. A center defender with two fouls that is ALSO needed as a perimeter shooter is no longer available to defend the center.

    So what is the poor referee to do? Or what does the coach tell the center? Simply “letting the players decide the outcome” seems way too facile now, doesn’t it? Maybe the referee HAS to blow the whistle, a lot sometimes. But… but.

  2. A missed shot leads to a counter attack, let’s keep it simple for now and consider a standard right-handed counter, release pass to the former X2 now O5. The team now on defense is a pressing team so they press everywhere, challenging every pass, including what might be a long lead pass from O5 to the right-hander leading the break. This particular challenge is one of those “foul and drop” kinds of challenges, sinking O5 and causing the ball to squirt away. “Ah hah, sink, maybe even striking, the coach is yelling ‘HEY’ so I’ll call the exclusion” thinks the referee, and does so. The coach on the attack calls time out, the coach on defense mutters at the referee “you call THAT but don’t call the stuff in the hole?” and it all looks normal. What if the referee does NOT call this foul? Maybe the attack, up 2-on-1 in front, maintains this, gets the ball and converts. Maybe not. Hard to know from here, hard to know even with the whistle, I assure you. But the question is really not what would have happened, but what SHOULD happen. Should the referee blow the whistle?

    If the whistle is not blown, the attacker is rewarded to the extent (s)he can stay high on the legs, maintain ball and pool awareness, and control the ball. But the defender is not punished for being clumsy. If the whistle is blown, the attacker is not motivated to learn to stay high on the legs, maintain ball or pool awareness, or control the ball under pressure. But the defender is punished for being clumsy.

    OK, sports fans, WHICH is correct? To paraphrase the Colonel Nathan Jessup character in the movie A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the answer.”

    Why? Because whatever answer you chose was the WRONG answer – they are BOTH correct… and both INCORRECT at the same time. And THAT is the problem with any instructions to referees about how often they are to blow their whistles.

Don't Let Those Percentages Get Out of Line Keep Them Straight on Track Twenty Nine

It’s now time to go deeper into this problem. WHY do people complain about too many whistles? Because they would prefer the referees to have no part in the game whatsoever, as if it were not a water polo game but instead a pole vault competition, just measure the height of the bar, and if it falls on the ground, the vaulter missed, if it doesn’t fall on the ground, the vaulter made it. Pole vaulting… now THERE is a sport where no one notices the referees!

OK, so why do people prefer the referees to have no part in the game? Because they do not TRUST the referees… and just to assure all of you out there, Tim Donaghy could occur in the NBA because of all the money at stake, that is not so in water polo. Go back a few issues and see what I mean about that. Anyway, so why don’t people trust the referees? For one big reason only: they do not understand what the referee, or at least a good referee, is doing. I assure you, if EVER a referee does something I don’t understand, it was an error by the referee. How do I know that? Because I know what they are taught as well as where (and at what) they are taught to look. Coaches do not, players do not, and most certainly spectators do not. And how do I know that? Because neither coaches, players, nor spectators ever attend referee training sessions, so they have no idea what referees are being taught, on what criteria they are being judged, or to what degree what the referee is doing is a deviation from those instructions. So, the knee-jerk response is that the referees must be, if not cheating, at least some combination of blind and stupid, and they just keep blowing their whistles for no apparent reasons, making a mess of an otherwise great game.

Is there a solution? Well, sort of. Like the Lone Ranger, my old buddy the Advantage Rule comes riding into town at just the right moment. What does this have to do with anything? Simple… to the extent the referee can make EVERY whistle, the whistle is for a foul remember, exact maximum pain, the fouling ought to, if not stop, at least slow down. Simple, right? Just apply the old Advantage Rule.

Well… not really… let’s consider the simplest of situations, item #1 above. What are the percentages at work in this play? Let’s take it backwards, ok? And like the MasterCard commercials:

Minor foul, timed just as the drop arrives, pass to open teammate, shot on goal scores about 15% of the time.
Exclusion foul, extra-man, full 20s possession scores 40% of the time.
Penalty foul, penalty throw, 5m line scores 80% of the time.
Turn move, shrug off the defender, point blank shot, natural goal: PRICELESS !

If the referee does NOT blow the whistle, maybe, just maybe, we get the natural goal, and Nirvana. If not, ANY good coach will tell you that it is often smart to play those percentages, take the foul, prevent the turn, and prevent the point-blank range shot. So, NOT blowing the whistle would play right into this strategy and allow a team full of physical 2m defenders to take the center completely out of the game, referee or no referee.

Eeeekkkk… is there no hope for us?

Well, there is, but it does NOT include criticizing the referee, who, it should be apparent by now, is caught between a whistle rock and a no-call hard-place.

OK Master, what is it?

Grasshopper, it is simple, just change the percentages.

What percentages, oh great Master?

Silly Grasshopper, THOSE percentages, of course. Create a game that makes an open shot score 25% of the time, and an extra-man situation that scores 75% of the time, and LIKE MAGIC, down go the fouls, down go the whistles.

Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Have an Agreement in All States Including Chuck Hines's Carolina

So, how do we do this? Well, FINA is one step ahead already. FINA moved the direct shot line in from 7m to 5m and made it illegal for a field player to defend a shot with two hands. That is progress. FINA also moved the penalty line out from 4m to 5m, making it less of a sure thing… but because of the increased room for the center to maneuver, there are now more penalties being called, so again, there is progress. Finally, the combination of a reduction to a 30s clock and the near elimination of the corner throw has opened up the middle of the pool, and made it possible for there to be many more shots taken against unsettled defenses. Compared to the 2000 to 2004 years, these rules changes have done exactly what FINA intended, and those percentages are up.

But the REAL progress will come from extracting every little bit of benefit from the Advantage Rule so that every foul be called in such a way as to benefit the team being fouled as much as possible. The referee needs to time the minor foul, when it is being committed, at the very worst possible time so that there IS a wide-open teammate, up high on the legs, ready to shoot. The referee needs to call the exclusion foul at a time and place that makes it least likely that “taking the foul” gets paid off. Etc…

Simple, right? Nope, because this is water polo, and NOTHING is simple. The reason NOTHING is simple is that we, as a sport, have not collectively defined what is correct. The reason we have not done so is that we, as a sport, have actively avoided doing the most simple of things: putting those who teach players and those who teach referees in the same room with those who write the rules, locking the door, and not letting them leave until they all agree on the definition of correct.

At this point, you may be wondering how we DO define correctness. I used to wonder about this all the time until, during one of my many enjoyable chats with my good friend Jack Horton, it dawned on me: “correct” is defined differently by everyone, essentially by participant class. Referees define correct based on a combination of what they learned as players (what was or was not rewarded by referees), what does or does not get them yelled at while they are whistling, and what (little) they are taught during referee training. Coaches define correct based on a combination of what they learned as players (what was or was not rewarded by referees), what does or does not get them wins while they are whistling, and what (little) they are taught during coach training. Players define correct based on a combination of what they learn works for them as players (including what is or is not rewarded by referees) and what gets them playing time from their coach. If you go re-read this, you see that “correct” is largely governed by what referees do or do not reward, and unless we break this cycle somehow, and force ONE definition of correct onto ALL referees, we cannot make much progress.

So Chattanooga Choo-Choo Won't You Choo-Choo Me Home

But I am an optimist. I believe we CAN do this. I believe we CAN reach agreement that being up on the legs and having ball control and pool awareness is, or is not, more important than the defender flailing the arms wildly. I believe we CAN reach agreement that the center does, or does not, have to completely finish a play before a whistle is blown. I believe we CAN reach agreement that the referees should, or should not, enforce peace and quiet on the bench. Etc… And most importantly, I believe we CAN reach agreement AS A GROUP, a group concerned about the future growth of this sport, and that when we do, water polo will be better off.

Wish us luck.