Talking to officials:
BAFA Rules Committee, BAFCA and BAFRA
UPDATED 14 July 2022
This is a guide to how coaches and players may more effectively communicate with officials during a game, and what they can expect in return. The aim is to reduce the number of teams who adopt a negative approach that can lead to antagonism, which is one of the reasons often reported as to why officials are leaving the sport.
∑ a team (even the head coach) does NOT have the right to question officials' decisions (despite what many players and coaches think), especially in a combative fashion Ė that is dissent
∑ officials are normally happy to provide answers to sensible questions when asked in a measured manner, but this should not include implicit criticism of their judgement
∑ normally, communication will be between a sideline official and the head coach; or between officials in the middle of the field and a team captain
∑ there is a process for correcting a misapplied rule, but that does not apply to judgement calls
While much of this relates to the rules, it is important to remember that this is part of the BAFCA Code of Practice and must be adhered to by all members.
The following sections set out expectations for some common scenarios, then we talk about the right and wrong ways to communicate.
Rule 3-3-4-e gives the head coach a process by which they can legitimately question the application of a rule.
The coach's conference procedure should only be used to query errors in rules application. It cannot be used to question the officials' judgement. For example, it is OK to use it when the officials march off 10 yards when it should only be a 5-yard penalty, when they apply postscrimmage kick enforcement when it doesn't properly apply, or even if they think the officials have forgotten the rule that players blocked into the catcher have not committed kick catch interference. It is not appropriate to use a coaches conference to disagree about whether contact between players constituted pass interference, or whether the pass was catchable, or whether there was holding or whether it affected the play or not. Those are examples of judgement calls.
Note that a team that does not have any timeouts remaining can still request a coach's conference. If their challenge is not successful, they are penalised 5 yards for delay of game. However, the officials have discretion to ignore a request if they believe it is made to gain a time advantage.
A more common option for teams is to make a polite enquiry Ė out of curiosity not frustration. For more on this, see the section below on how best to ask a question.
Unless there is a video judge (see separate section below), there is nothing a team can do about this. Nobody is perfect - missing a foul happens and is more likely to happen:
∑ the smaller the officiating crew (4 officials have the same number of players and area of the field to watch as 8; officials are trained in what to prioritise)
∑ the less experienced the official (but even the most experienced don't see everything)
∑ the more tired or stressed everyone is (officials, players, coaches)
∑ when the team doesn't know the rules properly and the foul they think was missed wasn't actually a foul (some analysis a few years ago showed that this was the most frequent cause of allegedly "missed" fouls)
∑ while technically the action was a foul by strict application of the rules, the officials have been trained to apply it less strictly (the officials' textbook, Manual of Football Officiating, has a whole chapter on this) Ė e.g. officials are advised not to call holding that they judge doesn't affect the play, and to ignore marginal formation problems that don't provide either team with an advantage
This splits into two sections: (i) what the rules formally entitle them to and (ii) what informally officials are trained to do in addition to that.
First the formal bit. Rule 3-3-8-c requires that whenever the clock is stopped during the last two minutes of each half, the officials must notify the captain and head coach of the time remaining. (This doesn't apply if there is a visible game clock in the stadium, but that's rare in domestic football.) This also includes the two-minute warning. This doesn't mean that the official has to stand face-to-face with the captain/coach to do so Ė calling out the time in the general direction is sufficient, provided it's reasonable to expect it to be audible. This principle also applies when a team uses its final charged timeout of the period Ė the referee should inform the head coach of this.
The consequence of Rule 3-3-8-c is that a team doesn't have a right to know the time either before the two minute warning or when the clock is running after it. However, at other times officials will normally try to respond to reasonable requests. Reasonable requests are those that occur:
∑ when the officials haven't anything else to respond to (i.e. not while the ball is live, just before it will do so, or just after it has become dead)
∑ a reasonable period of time after the last request
∑ when asked by the head coach (and especially not when asked by random players in the team area who are simply curious)
Before an official can answer a request, they:
∑ need to perform other dead-ball duties (e.g. getting into position, counting players on the field, dealing with chain crews and ball persons, administering penalties)
∑ need to find out the time from the one official who keeps the game clock on the field (this is nowadays usually done by radio, but is then dependent on that official not being busy and then the clarity of the radio communication)
∑ even if the official you ask is the one with the clock, they have to share the time with the other officials (usually by radio) so that the other team can be equally informed
There is no "right" in the rules for a team to know which of its players committed a foul, but officials are trained to supply this information whenever possible.
Inevitably, some fouls are committed where the player (or players) involved cannot be identified. This includes:
∑ where the official's view is partially obscured, or they lose sight of the player after the foul is committed
∑ where the player is one of many in a small area
∑ where a team's uniforms don't make the numbers clear (this is a reason for the rule on jersey number contrast, but it also makes it easier if players' numbers appear on their shoulders as well as front and back of the jersey, and perhaps also on the back of their helmet)
∑ where the official has a memory lapse and can't remember the number(s) Ė common when there are multiple fouls
Where known, the player's number is given during the penalty announcement by the referee to the crowd, but it should also be passed on to all members of the crew (via radio) so that the nearest official can tell the offending team's coach. There is no duty to tell a coach of the identity of an opposition player who has committed a foul.
When a player is disqualified, the referee will come over to the head coach and inform them personally of the player's identity and (briefly) the reason for the disqualification.
The principle of keeping the head coach informed also applies to situations where there is an unusual enforcement or judgement, though of course what is regarded as "unusual" will vary.
There are appropriate ways in which a team can seek information if it genuinely does not understand a ruling (but is not seeking to have it changed). However, we don't want to detract from the game by:
∑ permitting conduct that demeans the officials (e.g. by expressions of dissent with their decisions, including "appealing" for penalties)
∑ delaying the game unnecessarily or repeatedly
∑ allowing any or every Tom, Dick or Harry to interrupt the officials' normal duties and concentration
From the unsportsmanlike conduct rule (Rule 9-2-1), it is clear that for a player or coach to address an official about a ruling (or anything else):
∑ except for players, they cannot come on to the field or go beyond the 20-yard lines to do it (without permission from the referee)
∑ they cannot use abusive, threatening or obscene language or gestures
∑ they cannot do anything that provokes ill will or is demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game
Also, based on other rules, they cannot:
∑ stop the play clock (if it has started) other than by calling a team timeout or a coach's conference
This means that queries are best raised while the game clock is stopped and the officials are not otherwise engaged (e.g. during team timeouts, injury timeouts, the interval between periods, and the gap between a score and the subsequent kickoff).
Queries should be expressed as genuine questions. Ironic or sarcastic questions are not acceptable (they provoke ill will).
Normally, only the head coach or one captain should be addressing the officials. However, it is sometimes reasonable for an assistant coach or another member of sideline personnel to act on the head coach's behalf, as long as it is clear that they are doing so. Similarly, a player may act on behalf of their captain. The crucial thing is that only one person should be talking to an official, and that multiple voices if not controlled tend to lead to undesirable situations.
It's worth remembering that not all questions that are asked are heard Ė particularly in noisy stadiums or where there is considerable distance between the questioner and questioned. Accents and the fact that officials usually have a radio earpiece in at least one ear can also inhibit communication.
Assuming the question is heard, the official must make one of three decisions, whether to:
1. ignore or defer the question because they are doing something else (e.g. the ball is about to become live)
2. ignore or defer the question because it was not an appropriate question (e.g. it questioned an official's judgement)
3. immediately answer the question
Normally the official should be able to answer the question themself. Occasionally they may need to bring the question to the referee's notice, or get information from another official (e.g. the timekeeper for timing questions).
What can a head coach do to help the officials?
1. Adopt and enforce a team policy that limits the number of assistant coaches and players who the coach authorises to speak to the officials. If someone who is not authorised does speak to the officials, their coach or teammates should remind them of their team's policy.
2. Not ask questions at times when the officials are obviously busy, or when the ball is about to be made live.
3. Address questions to the nearest official, not the Referee. (However, we appreciate that often, due to various factors, the nearest official is not able to provide an answer.)
4. Use the coaches' conference procedure in Rule 3-3-4-e whenever they genuinely believe the officials have enforced a rule improperly.
5. Never complain to one official about another official.
6. Keep an even temper and not use words, volume or gestures that might be judged (by either the official or, more importantly, by spectators) as provocative or antagonistic.
Players play with passion and emotion - coaches share the same traits. At various times, players and coaches can be happy or sad, joyous or disappointed, satisfied or frustrated. These are normal human emotions (officials have them as well), but need self-control.
Ideally, when a team is frustrated, they would just keep quiet and get on with it, but we accept that sometimes frustration gets expressed. Usually this is spontaneous, brief and moderate; driven by passion and emotion. However, by definition, this is dissent Ė which the dictionary says is "the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held".
Players and coaches are entitled to be disappointed. Usually, everyone can move on from it. It is only when it is excessive or challenges an official's authority that it becomes something that has to be dealt with, which moves us into the realm of "acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game" (Rule 9-2-1-a-1). At what point an official judges this to be worthy of action depends on the official, but the advice they are given is that the following should always be a foul:
∑ making an aggressive gesture towards an official
Persistent minor dissent can also be treated as foul-worthy. For example, an official may ignore the first time something is said, and perhaps even the second, but any more means a flag.
Of course, officials are encouraged to engage with captains and coaches to remind them of their responsibilities and to stamp it out at first sign. However, officials are not obliged to do this.
On the rare occasion when there is a video judge, teams have the privilege of requesting that a play be reviewed.
Normally, reviews are instigated by the officials, but a head coach can request a review provided their team has not run out of timeouts. A team however loses its review privilege if it requests a review and the play is not changed, so this is a valuable asset not to waste lightly.
Only certain aspects of a play are reviewable, but the BAFA list (see Rule 12-2) is wider than those provided by NCAA or NFL rules. As you would expect, review covers many situations, including: scores, turnovers, whether the ball was live/dead, touched/untouched, inbounds/out-of-bounds, who has possession, whether a pass is forward/backward and complete/incomplete. It also covers the legality of substitutions, passes and kicks, plus the location of the ball with respect to a first down and errors with the down number or clock.
However, our system also allows review for many fouls. In particular, a review can be used to create or cancel a foul, though this is restricted for most of the game to fouls with a 15-yard penalty or those on a specific list relating to passes and kicks. However, during the last two minutes of the game or in extra periods, all fouls are reviewable.
Teams need to bear in mind that the chances of a review changing the play are low if:
∑ there are only a small number of cameras, with limited viewpoints
∑ the action is obscured by players, officials or anything else, or the quality of the video is poor
∑ the camera was moving during the play (e.g. there is motion blur because it is panning)
For example, a review of a call at the goal line or end line is rarely going to be conclusive if the only camera angle is from the halfway line. This would be a senseless loss of the privilege to review. We advise teams to leave these sorts of review to the officials.
Yes, a team can always follow up with BAFRA about any issues they have with the officiating. The usual contact for this is the Director of Training (firstname.lastname@example.org). It helps if video of the incident(s) in question can be provided since this normally provides the most detailed and objective depiction of what happened.
While sometimes the video does show that an official missed an appropriate call, it also often proves that the call on the field was right (either by rule or that the official's judgement was supportable) and that the team has misunderstood the rule or the officiating guideline that underpins it. Equally, video is often inconclusive. Sometimes, there will be an opportunity for education, which is to be encouraged. BAFRA doesn't have the resources to guarantee to deal with all enquiries of this nature Ė like most clubs, the association is run by volunteers.
Teams should appreciate that many officials spend a considerable amount of time watching video from their own games and others, often spotting their own or a colleague's mistakes and learning from them. This is an important part of training and personal development. Teams are very much encouraged to provide game video to BAFRA for this purpose (contact email@example.com to agree the easiest way to share it).
This covers the situation where a team believes a rule has been improperly enforced.
This covers the requirement for the officials to notify the teams of the time remaining. Note that it only applies during the last 2 minutes of each half.
This is the general rule covering conduct, by anyone subject to the rules. Underlined sections are my emphasis.
The Football Code is one of the introductory sections of the Rulebook. It has this to say about talking to officials:
The next edition will update this to reflect the new BAFCA Code of Practice (see below).
BAFCA's Code of Practice also addresses the relationship between coaches and officials:
Breaches can be dealt with both by BAFCA and the BAFA Disciplinary Committee Ė the BAFA Regulations make breaching the Code of Practice one of the explicit ways by which the game can be brought into disrepute.
BAFCA's Level 2 coach qualification training includes the following:
It also says the following about having respect for officials.