What is a Referee?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2019
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The referee is an example of a sports official that is charged with the responsibility of making sure that all the rules associated with the sport are properly observed during a live game. While the roles of umpire and referee are similar, different sports choose to make use of one designation or the other to identify the person or persons who exercise final authority on the legality of any given play that takes place during the course of a competition.

Soccer is one of the sports in which the designation of a referee is used most frequently. Originally, there was no referee included in the rules of soccer. During the infancy of the game, the two team captains would work together to resolve and conflict of opinion on a given play. Over time, each team was allowed to designate an umpire to protect the interests of the team, rather than leaving the final word to the two team captains. By 1891, it was evident that a non-partisan approach was needed in order to ensure that both teams had equal opportunity in matters related to complying with the rules of the game.


It was at this point that the role of the referee was introduced. From that point forward, the referee has functioned as a neutral third party that resolved conflicts. The former umpires became known as linesman or assistant referees. Today, it is not unusual for each team to designate an assistant referee who is expected to assist the neutral referee in the discharge of his or her duties.

Boxing also makes use of a referee. In this application, the referee ensures that the two competitors follow the rules applied to the match in a way that is considered to be within the realm of proper sportsmanship. This may include making sure that no punches are thrown that are considered illegal, ensuring that tags are done properly, and in general ensuring that the flow of the competition is conducted properly.

Both American and Canadian versions of football make use of the referee. The authority of the referee is considered law during a game. While most games have up to six people who are referred to as referees, the fact is that there is only one official ref. The other persons who make up this support network are more properly called a head linesman, line judge, back judge, side judge, field judge, and umpire.

Refs are also commonly utilized in a number of other sports around the world. Such popular offerings as various types of martial arts, Lacrosse, ice hockey, and cricket all look to the refs as the final authority when it comes to judging the propriety of a given play or conduct of an individual player.


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