The Referee's Role in Conflict Resolution

Yonatan Yakir
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Yonatan Yakir

Last Saturday night, like every Saturday night, I sat down in front of the computer to watch the highlights of the day's Israeli Premier League games. Unfortunately, the quality is usually rather dire and I find it hard to spend more than a few minutes watching the games.

Nonetheless, this time something quite exceptional happened: As I began to watch the highlights of the game between Hapoel Be'er Sheva and Hapoel Tel Aviv, I was surprised to discover that a microphone had been attached to referee Eitan Shmuelevitch during the game, as is often done in the U.S. and, if I'm not mistaken, during basketball games in Israel.

Suddenly, we could hear the conversations between the referee and players. By chance, in the first such experiment in Israeli soccer we, the spectators, received a deep insight into another dimension of the relationship between referee and players: It happened when Shmuelevitch, probably mistakenly, awarded a penalty in favor of Hapoel Tel Aviv after Omer Damari fell, or was fouled, in Be'er Sheva's penalty box.

The moment he awarded the penalty Be'er Sheva's players surrounded him, pleading with him to change his decision. As usual, the arguments were mostly emotional, including that he was "damaging our chances to reach the upper playoff." The microphone enabled the viewers an audio glimpse of the mini-drama: One could hear that Shmuelevitch reacted decisively (albeit, probably mistakenly), explaining that he was adamant in his decision and even showed a yellow card to one of the players who touched him, an action naturally forbidden under the rules.

On the other hand, Shmuelevitch demonstrated impressive coolness by refusing to get entangled in an emotional storm with the players over irrelevant arguments. His conduct contributed to a quick end to the argument without need for any further disciplinary steps.

After the final whistle, we were again exposed to an interesting conversation, this time between Shmuelevitch and Eviatar Iluz, Be'er Sheva's captain. In response to Iluz, who was probably still fuming over the penalty decision, Shmuelevitch said: "If I was wrong and made a mistake, it's my loss as well. I want to succeed as much as you do, get it?"

In an era when Israeli soccer in particular, and the state of Israel in general, is in dire need of moments of human grace, self-criticism and mutual understanding, Shmuelevitch provided, with one sentence, all these ingredients, which are necessary for any conversation that aims to solve a conflict and in any process of building mutual understanding. Despite the fact that his "mistaken" decision was already irreversible, Shmuelevitch chose not to remain entrenched in his "justified" position, even though he had the right to put the player in his place.

From his position of power as the game's "manager," Shmuelevitch chose to actually contain the arguments, and intuitively exposed the problematic situation he would find himself in if, in fact, he actually took the wrong decision.

The main significance of Shmuelevitch's stance, in the context of solving conflicts, is that the referee chose to position himself on the same plain as the Be'er Sheva player, in terms of his professional mistake. He clarified that both of them would suffer the consequences if it was indeed a mistake – Iluz would lose league points while Shmuelevitch would suffer damage to his professional status.

This approach is in direct contrast to the "zero-sum game" approach, which is widespread in Israel and contributes immensely to the escalation and intensification of conflicts. According the zero-sum game paradigm, one man's loss is another man's victory. In his conduct, Shmuelevitch rose above this mindset.

Finally, one must ask if the mere presence of the microphone affected the referee's conduct. Did the fact that he was aware that his words were documented cause him to address the raging players in a more moderate fashion? The answer is probably yes, that the microphone did affect his behavior, and we might deduct that Shmuelevitch isn't usually that patient with players who disagree with his decisions. Then again, Shmuelevitch might be a tolerant person in general, who doesn't erupt at players who appeal his decisions.

In any case, the answer isn't that important. If events unfolded "because" or "without any connection" to the microphone attached to the referee during the game, and whether Shmuelevitch deserves the complements for this behavior, the most important thing is that we were exposed to a moment in which a referee managed, humbly and wisely, a situation that could have deteriorated (in sporting terms) and showed us all how "game managers" can correctly handle such situations. Despite the fact that the referee is authorized to be strict and deaf to complaints, Shmuelevitch demonstrated that alternative conduct can calm things down, cause the players to concentrate on the game and lead it to its conclusion without "irregular events."

We, in Israel, whether sports fans or simply concerned citizens, need more examples of such behavior.

The author is a mediator and guide of conflict groups in The Association for Civil Rights in Israel's education department.

Referee Eitan Shmuelevitch dealing with irate Hapoel Be'er Sheva players on Saturday. Did the microphone attached to him affect his behavior?Credit: Ilan Assayag

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