I can’t prove that a player intended to foul his opponent, and the person shouting, “He didn’t mean it!” can’t prove it either.

Since neither of us has any idea about the inner-workings of the player’s mind, we are left with what the player did.

Intent is a very difficult thing to see as a referee, which is why it is not factored into our decision-making nearly as often as many people think. I can’t look into the mind of a midfielder who is about to crush another player who is nowhere near the ball. All I can see is the hit and the ball on the other side of the field. When I throw my flag for the illegal hit, I’m not trying to be mean to the player. He negatively impacted another player’s safety, so I punish him with a penalty that I judge to adequately fit the crime.

When I was little, I thought saying, “I didn’t mean it,” was my get-out-of-jail-free card. Even though it never worked with my parents or teachers, I kept repeating it until I realized that I should probably just own up to whatever I did wrong instead of making excuses or blaming someone else. I am surprised every time I hear “C’mon ref, he didn’t mean it,” because the people shouting that comment know that it doesn’t work. It didn’t work when they were kids, and the parents shouting it in youth games definitely know that it fails every time.

I don’t care what the player intended to do. I care about what he did. I’ve had players walk by me on their way to the penalty box and quietly say, “Sorry, Mr. Official. I didn’t mean to, but I caught him high and I’ll get my stick down.” While I marvel at the player for taking responsibility, I hear from coaches and fans:

  • “That wasn’t a foul!” (Yet the player agrees with me, curious.)
  • “You’re picking on him because we’re winning [or losing]!” (My lack of interest in the score would shock you.)
  • “He’s the biggest kid on the field! What is he supposed to do? Bend his legs when he hits someone smaller?” (Yes)
  • “He wouldn’t have done that if you threw a flag on the other team once in a while!” (Suddenly it is my fault for someone else’s transgressions.)

When I teach new officiating classes and speak to coaches and parents, I get the question: “Does intent factor into what you call?”

The answer is a resounding no. Take this situation as an example:

The red defender lunges on a check and the gold attackman dodges past. Seeing he is beat, the red defender throws a desperation check and violently stick-checks the gold attackman’s legs, back, or helmet. What is the call?

Having been a player and been in that exact situation, I can reasonably tell you that the defender is not looking to foul his opponent. He’s swinging his crosse while hoping that he hits the stick and dislodges the ball, but he doesn’t and he whacks the body of the attackman instead.

Should I not throw my flag because I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to slash based on my personal experiences? Absolutely not! Trying to discern intent in a player’s action introduces more inconsistency than simply judging what the player did. He slashed, my flag comes out. End of story.

We tell our young players to accept responsibility on and off the field, but they get mixed messages when they commit a penalty and the first words from their coach or the spectators are, “Come on ref, he didn’t mean to do that!” That excuse doesn’t work on me, and it will not work on a police officer or a judge. I’d rather players hear the message of personal responsibility on the field in the same way they hear it at home and in school so when they make a mistake as an adult, they can own up to it, intended or not.

Gordon Corsetti is the manager of men's officials education at US Lacrosse.

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