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Why context is crucial in evaluating referees

Each game is a snowflake.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Another week passes in [insert league here], and refereeing controversies abound.

I mostly refrain from writing about referee performances as a rule, because I think much of the teeth-gnashing is overdone, and also because it's basically a truism that no matter what league you're in, a fair proportion of folks think the officiating is sub-standard. Logically, if so many leagues have terrible refereeing, then the problem is less a league one and more just a problem with the quality of officials overall, the expectations placed on them, or a combination of the two.

All of this wind-up is to introduce my point: The role of context in discussing referees' performances.

One of the pastimes of a select group of MLS fans is to look at the past statistics for referees ahead of a game.

"He gives out an average of a red card every two games!"

"He gives penalty kicks at a higher rate than these other referees -- he's clearly got a quick whistle."

Here's the problem with looking at statistics in a vacuum. They don't tell you much about how soccer games work.

Sometimes, games have four penalty-worthy events. Some games have zero red card incidents and others have three. The context of games is so crucial when evaluating referee performances.

In the main, I think many fans understand this, and there are legitimate discussions of "Was this really a penalty?" or "Should this have been a red card?" You can examine a particular play, refer to the laws of the game, and make a decision of whether it was right or wrong.

But you cannot simply look at numbers like 0.67/penalties a game and determine if a referee is too quick or too slow with the whistle. Without a granular examination of key plays, you're setting an invisible baseline.

Even if you take a "good" referee (I would bet there is not a single referee who would get full marks of approval from any quarter) and use his/her statistics as a baseline for others to refer to, what you would then be doing is changing the way the game is officiated. If a "good" referee gives out three yellow cards a game, other officials would then be looking to use or withhold yellow cards accordingly to hit that three mark. And that's not conducive to better officiating -- it's a recipe for muddling the picture even more.

So please, disregard refereeing statistics if you aren't going to painstakingly break down each and every play. Maybe some day we'll get into officiating analytics, but the pure numbers minus the context in officiating will tell you absolutely nothing about how an actual game of soccer works.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!