The Moral Dilemma for Referees


Continuation article to: The Fine Line a Referee Walks On: CLICK HERE

The Grappling Referee: The Moral Dilemma

By David Karchmer


It’s probably easy to understand why being a grappling referee might be considered a difficult, thankless job.  Often nominal pay, long travel, difficult promoters, unruly parents, and unreasonable coaches and competitors can often make any referee question why they would undertake such a job.  Despite these things, it is an obvious necessity that someone needs to correctly and fairly apply the rules, maintain proper decorum at an event, and ensure the safety of the competitors.


This being said, I think the moral complexities associated with refereeing are not often explained or discussed, and it may be worth such exploration.   Be forewarned this article may not be for the average grappling student, casual competitor, or an apathetic coach, but rather for those that are serious about competing or refereeing at the higher levels.


Merely understanding and applying the rules is a minimum standard applicable to refereeing.  But assuming there are levels of skill measurement, what separates good from bad referees, or what even separates a good referee from an average one?  I contend it is understanding the moral complexities of officiating, applying those standards in advance of real-time situations, and staying a student of the game serious about improving your abilities.


What are these moral complexities you ask? How complicated could it be if you know the rules? Let’s explore.

The Human Factor.  Although admittedly cliché, referees are human.  This means that they are not officiating robots without opinions, feelings, and outside influences that can impact their decisions as whole or down to individual calls in the ring.  Oh yes, and they make mistakes.  The question becomes how each individual handles his humanness, accept its limitations, and either try to nullify it or work within its limiting parameters.


Officiating is not a nameless, faceless endeavor.  Often you see the same competitors, schools, coaches and parents at many events.  This is both positive and negative as the experience with these individuals can creep into the ring as influencers in the decision-making process.


A story I always think of relates to an experience I had early on as a referee.  Early in the day at one of my first events, a well-known coach I recognized was seated at my ring to coach a six year old student of his.  The match began, and this six year old attempted a sweep that did not meet the minimum requirement to have points scored, and I scored an advantage only.


Immediately, this coach began screaming at me at the top of his lungs:  “That was a sweep ref!  Jiu Jitsu 101! Don’t you know anything about Jiu Jitsu? What the hell is wrong with you?” The tirade continued for the rest of the match, mostly with four-letter expletives I will not repeat. He did not offer one bit of coaching to his student, who despite his screaming at me, went on to score about 20 points against his competitor and win the match easily.  After raising his little hand in victory, I felt obligated to go over to the coach and offer an explanation for the early score that he seemed to object to so vigorously.  Before I could get barely any words out, he raised his hand at me to dismiss my explanation and as he walked from the mat said “Don’t worry about it, just doing my job”.


As rattling as this was to me to have a well-known black belt coach/competitor publicly chastise me, it proved to be a valuable lesson that I have kept with me ever since.  Basically, outside influences can have an impact on not only immediate decisions, but also long term decision-making.


Besides evidence that this person could be a real jerk, the implications uncover some of these moral complexities I previously mentioned. Firstly, this coach made an effort to impact my immediate decision-making by perhaps scoring points for his competitor against my better judgment.  This undermined the confidence in my decision, and caused me pause in all my subsequent decisions in that match.  Additionally, it made me believe that each time I saw this particular coach in my ring, I was potentially exposed to this public humiliation even when I made the ‘correct’ calls, which put added pressure on me.  Lastly, it tainted my opinion of this entire school, who I knew was under the banner of this particular individual.  This made me question how I might feel each time a member of this school entered my mat, and whether it would skew my decisions from an unfavorable light.


Actually, while somewhat unique, my story is not all that uncommon during an event, as objections to calls can be common.  But the ‘Human Factor’ is two sided in the sense that competitors, coaches and parents also cannot robotically compete, coach, or spectate without an emotional element.  Sometimes, these challenges to referees are out of ignorance, sometimes strategic, sometimes just plain mean, but sometimes not necessarily unfounded or wrong.  The required challenge to a referee is how to handle these objectives real-time as well as over the long term.


While it seems logical to tally the negative experiences as more memorable, sometimes it is the reverse. There are an equal or greater number of polite, respectful, and knowledgeable competitors, coaches, and parents that are a pleasure to be around.  Sometimes your teammates, affiliate schools, fellow refs, or well-known competitors that you admire are in your ring.  These can be the kind of people that you can be naturally inclined to internally root for and to wish only success.


The Moral Dilemma.  There has been a lot of scrutiny about refereeing in certain organizations, often the IBJJF since they are the highest profile, with the accusation of bias against either certain competitors/schools or favoritism towards others.  While personally I would like to believe that is not a reasonable accusation, I cannot confirm it with any confidence other than to say I hope it is not the case. But, the implication transcends all grappling events and is a demon that I suspect all officials have to wrestle with at one time or another.


A personal story I reflect on involved a finals match in a purple belt gi division from some time ago.  One of the competitors was a very nice, respectful competitor from a well-known school.  His opponent was a teammate of mine.  The circumstances did not dictate at the event that I could recuse myself, and both competitors felt I could run the match fairly.  Well with 30 seconds remaining in a long, tough battle, it became immediately clear to me that the score would remain 0-0 and I would be forced to make a referee’s decision to determine the outcome.  Despite my highest hopes of a last second score, the match did, in fact, end in a tie. Being so close, it is safe to imagine that any decision I made could be scrutinized as being biased – if I chose my teammate, the implication of my bias would be obvious; if I chose his opponent, it could be perceived as my effort to ‘appear’ unbiased.  While I won’t reveal what I did decide, I will tell you that I felt I made a very objective decision based on the match, but one side was unhappy for the reasons I indicated.


Another applicable story relates to a gi match between two savvy black belts.  Each competitor represented well-established schools, and the match had a ton of spectators encircling the ring to watch.  Without drilling down into the complexities of a particular call I made, I will tell you I was a little uncertain about the accuracy of my call when I awarded a competitor a guard pass.  After giving the three points, I received a ton of feedback from the crowd that I had made the wrong call, but the circumstances did not dictate that it was a clear error, but rather something in more of a grey area. But the continual feedback from the crowd, some being from people I knew, some I respected, and some I didn’t like, gave me enough pause to reconsider my decision as the match continued.  Initially, my reaction was to stick to my decision to show I was not being swayed by crowd feedback.  But my experience made me overrule that notion with the desire to be as correct and fair as possible.  Giving myself a full minute to reconsider, I felt I had, in fact, made the wrong call, and removed the points and scored it as an advantage-only.  As it turned out, the competitor that I had scored the points for ended up losing the match 2-0 based on my removal of his three points.


In the end, my reversal of the call had resulted in the correct scoring of the match, which in itself would appear to be the best cause of action. Naturally, the competitor and coach that was the victim of my error did not see it that way.  Their claim was that I was swayed by the crowd, and had caused the competitor to fight differently when he thought he was up three points, ultimately causing him the match.  But when I reminded them that the match was scored correctly, and if I had kept it that he would have won by my error, they acknowledged that they would have been fine with that.  At that point, I had to concede that I could not continue to discuss the match with folks that were more interested in winning by error than through a fair application of the rules.


Earlier I discussed fictional measurement criteria between good, bad and average referees.  I think it is a fair statement that bad referees cannot even apply the rules consistently, and/or let their moral compass stray and let outside influences shape their decisions.  You absolutely cannot officiate by fear or bias.  Clearly, understanding that these outside influences exist is an important step into becoming a good referee.  But more important is the ability to accept and manage these complexities proactively.  With experience comes confidence, which I believe is a referee’s greatest attribute.




“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes” – Oscar Wilde


So I’m hopeful that I’ve effectively laid the groundwork that just knowing the rules cannot adequately insulate a referee from making the wrong decisions and distinguishing himself as good, bad, or just average. Our humanness dictates that even good referees will make mistakes. But I think the yardstick to measure the quality of a referee is how often mistakes are made, and the reasons behind such errors.  Once you know the rules, understand the goals of your particular tournament organization, it is critical to understand and effectively manage the moral complexities to make sure each competitor receives a consistently fair experience.



About the Author

 The Moral Dilemma for RefereesDavid ‘Silverfox‘ Karchmer is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under 2nd Degree Black Belt Steve Kardian, and has been training for over 13 years. David’s martial arts background spans over two decades, and includes a black belt in Tae Kwon Do he received in 1993. His BJJ journey began at Gracie Thornwood in 1999 after he took a seminar with Royce Gracie and knew he was hooked on the art. In addition to training and instructing, David has focused the last five years on officiating grappling competitions and has officiated nearly 2000 gi and no-gi matches for multiple organizations. He is a certified referee for Grapplers Quest, IBJJF, ADCC, Copa Nova, and US Grappling organizations and routinely officiates these events around the country.



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The Fine Line a Referee Walks On: CLICK HERE

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