Bob Corb, The NCAA Water Polo National Coordinator of officials addressed the Athletes, Coaches, Fans and Referees with and open letter that we present you in full:

“June 7, 2018

To All Athletes, Coaches, Fans, and Officials Involved in NCAA Water Polo,

As the NCAA National Coordinator of Officials for Men’s and Women’s Water Polo, I am writing this open letter to all of the stakeholders in our sport. Last month the University of Southern California hosted the 2018 Women’s Championship, defeating Stanford in the final game to win their sixth women’s NCAA championship. Many in attendance felt the game was intense, physical, competitive, and very entertaining. Others had very different feelings about the game, describing it as too physical, too much theatrics aimed at tricking the referees, and so much physicality that only rarely was the amazing athleticism of the players on both teams put on display. And this was a game featuring the top two teams in the country and officiated by two of the top referees in not only the United States but internationally as well. This is not about this game or these two officials; this is about the state of our game, both men, and women, from 10&U through Masters.

From my perspective these two very dichotomous views of the same game mirror the crossroads facing our sport at all levels. Every governing body within our sport from FINA to USA Water Polo, from the NCAA to the NFHS, is grappling with how to increase the emphasis on athleticism over physicality, action over acting, and extinguishing the mantra that, “It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.” FINA is considering a myriad of rule changes designed to make the game more fan friendly, especially for television. Here in the U.S. we currently have three sets of rules, which can be confusing for everyone involved in our sport. While it has always been the goal of referees to have one set of rules, for the first time in my 40+ years in the sport, the three governing bodies in the United States are actively collaborating to make this dream a reality.

As important as it is that we strive for one set of rules for high school, intercollegiate, and USA club water polo, I believe it is not so much our rules that are the problem, but rather it is the application of the rules as written that is lacking. Until we actually try applying the rules as they are currently written, we will never know if they will work to make water polo the “beautiful game” we have seen glimpses of when the stars align just right. Perhaps the most exciting play in any ball sport is the fast break or the counterattack. But how often in our sport do we see one, two, or even three pairs of players tangled up, in the backcourt, fighting for positional advantage, and clearly in violation of one of the cornerstones of every water polo rulebook, Rule 7-9, which states that it is an exclusion or contra foul to “To hold, sink or pull back an opponent who is not holding the ball.” And then this note, “The correct application of this rule is very important both as to the presentation of the game and in arriving at a proper and fair result. The wording of the rule is clear and explicit and can only
be interpreted in one way:…” I beg to differ.

In the referees’ defense, there is another rule that many consider the most important rule in any of our Rulebooks, Rule 3-5, the Advantage Rule, which states, “The referees shall have the discretion to award (or not award) any ordinary, exclusion or penalty foul, depending on whether the decision would advantage the attacking team. They shall officiate in favor of the attacking team by awarding
a foul or refraining from awarding a foul if, in their opinion, awarding the foul would be an advantage to the offending player’s team. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent.” From my perspective it is the (mis)application of the first and last sentences of this rule as written that gets referees in trouble and leads to excessive physicality, embellishment/simulation of fouls, and coaches feeling compelled to teach their players how to take advantage of the situation when the rules are not being applied as written.

Which brings me to the main point of this very long letter. Every two years the NCAA Water Polo Rules Subcommittee considers suggestions from the membership for new rules and/or changes to the current rules. This year, the Subcommittee added only three new rules, only one of which (Simulation) actually has anything to do with the way the game will be called. But the Committee did initiate a “radical” new standard for instructing and evaluating officials: REFEREES ARE TO APPLY THE RULES AS WRITTEN.” At first glance one might say, isn’t that what we (should) have been doing all along? The answer of course is yes, we should always strive to apply the rules as written. And if we do that, and we don’t like what our game looks like, then we can go tinker with the rules. But the reality is that we (the referees) have for many years taken our cue from the international game when it comes to (mis)applying the rules as written. We don’t, and never will, know if the rules as written will create a beautiful game until we the referees actually make a consistent, organized, and persistent effort to apply the rules as written.

As always, the devil is in the details, so here, in a nutshell, is the plan to implement what feels to many like a major paradigm shift in the way our sport is officiated, and which hopefully will lead to a change for the better in the way our sport is coached and played:

(1) There will be five Points of Emphasis (PoE) in the new Rulebook entitled:

(a) Applying the Rules As Written.

(b) Applying the Advantage Rule.

(c) Applying the Rules to Acts of Simulation.

(d) Applying the Rules on the Perimeter.

(e) Applying the Rules to the Women’s Game.

These PoE have been reviewed and approved by the Rules Subcommittee.

(2) Working with the National Evaluator Group (NEG), we have created a set of “Talking Points” which are currently being reviewed by the Rules Subcommittee. Once finalized, these Talking Points will be the framework for the script of a six part instructional video, produced professionally by the NCAA production staff. The video will include clips from previous men’s and women’s championships, as well as “staged” situations where needed.

(3) Every two years, in concert with the new Rulebook, there is a required referee school for anyone wishing to officiate NCAA Water Polo. This year it will be offered in three locations across the country (Long Beach State, Stanford University, and Villanova), one (very) full day, August 25, 2018, 11:00-8:00 EDT . This video will be the first item on the agenda.

(4) Crucial to the success of any new idea is buy-in from all of the stakeholders, beginning with those who instruct/evaluate the referees. I have already begun to poll the evaluators in the NEG about their willingness to evaluate based on the guidelines prescribed in the PoE, even if they don’t 100% agree with everything that is contained in the Talking Points. Thus far, every one of them has said in writing that they can and will do so. If any of them decides they cannot abide by these guidelines, they will not be assigned to evaluate NCAA Water Polo. [Note: The NEG is comprised of twenty dedicated and highly experienced Water Polo people. I fully expect and encourage dialogue and discussion both within the group and with others outside of the NEG. But central to the success of anything we undertake, there must be a willingness to evaluate to the standards established by the Water Polo Rules Subcommittee, with interpretations coming from Brian Streeter, Secretary-Rules-Editor (SRE), and instructions and clarifications coming from Bob Corb, NCO.]

(5) Obviously the coaches need to know how the referees are being instructed, and towards that end I have begun to ask every conference commissioner to make registration on the ADVANTAGE website, along with viewing this video, mandatory before the season begins. And of course, coaches are welcome to attend the referee school.

(6) The final group that needs to buy-in is the referees. We know from psychology’s social learning theory that role modeling is a powerful instructional tool, so the plan is to conduct a series of conference calls with the top 15-20 officials across the country to garner their buy-in. It is my belief that if they buy in, the rest will follow. As I have done with the NEG, I will be asking these officials to make a formal commitment to following the instructions we have established in order to apply the rules as they are written.

I admit that what we are attempting to do with the support and assistance of the Rules Subcommittee and the National Evaluator Group is ambitious and perhaps unrealistic. But I also firmly believe that at every level our sport is at an important crossroads and that the United States can and should be at the forefront of any changes being made for the betterment of our sport. Given that the NCAA is
arguably the highest level of domestic competition available, this initiative makes sense. I hope that all of the water polo stakeholders will work in collaboration to see if applying the rules as written makes a positive difference.


Bob Corb
NCAA National Coordinator of Officials,
Men’s and Women’s Water Polo
Cc: Water Polo Rules Subcommittee
National Evaluator Group”