Referees. Proponents of Hobbes or Locke?


Soccer Linesman, via Wikimedia

A referee, umpire, judge, linesmen, and time-keeper all different words for the same general position. In each sport, people in these positions are in charge of maintaing the rules or “covenant” between two teams in sport.  They are responsible for keeping the order of the game and keeping the athletes, coaches, and teams in line, and out of their self-interested states of nature.  However, one question that has plagued me and some of my fellow colleagues is whether referees are aligned more with Hobbes’s social contract theory or Locke’s social contract theory.

Hobbes, via Wikimedia

In order to answer this question, one must dive into the history of officiating.  Most sports did not have referees until 1863, when professional soccer in England began using referees in order to settle in-game disputes that were until then settled by team captains. This worked well for soccer and many sports soon followed suit.  Thus the idea of one supreme official became the accepted norm in sports.  This early practice of having one supreme official whose decision stood and whose call there could be no argument against, could be seen as Hobbesian.  As Hobbes’s idea of social contract says that there should be an “absolute monarch” to assure that the citizens (teams) are following and obeying the covenant (rules of the game).  Thus clearly early versions of referees can be seen as more Hobbesian than Lockean.

Locke, via Wikimedia

However, as sports have evolved, over time the use of referees has evolved as well.  As sports became more serious, arguments became more frequent, and it became clear that there needed to be more than one referee officiating a single sporting event.  Thus in professional sports leagues today it has become common to have a group of referees officiate a game.  Also with the inclusion of technology, more specifically instant replay has added basically another official who is right 100% of the time and gives the human officials a chance to make their calls 100% correct.  In addition, it has also led to a challenge system in which the teams (citizens) can challenge the officials (judges).  The idea of having more than one referee officiating an athletic competition and having an instant replay challenge system can be seen as Lockean.  In his social contract theory Locke says that a covenant must be enforced by a group of impartial judges.  Thus, by creating a group of impartial referees (judges) that work together to enforce the rules of the games, modern-day professional sports referees exhibit John Locke’s social contract theory.

Groups of impartial officials help get calls right and limit arguments, via Wikimedia


Thus, it would be easy to say that referees are now all Lockean.  However, there is one problem not all referees officiate professional sports.  In many youth and rec league sports today there is only one official, who has unlimited authoritative power, and there is also no instant replay in which the official can be challenged, so his or her call always stands.  It is hard to find a little league or youth soccer game in which there are more than one referee per game.  Thus we can say most local sports referees today are Hobbesian in their approach while professional referees are Lockean.

In summary, it is almost impossible to tell if referees are either Hobbesian or Lockean, but it is more a matter of the league they officiate in and/or the resources they have to officiate with.


One thought on “Referees. Proponents of Hobbes or Locke?

  1. As you make clear in your post titled, “Referees. Proponents of Hobbes or Locke?” the role an officiating crew has in professional sporting events is indisputably significant. Referees have determined the results of many Super Bowls, World Series, and Stanley Cup Finals, but rarely is total impartially present. I’d argue that’s it’s impossible to truly create a “group of impartial judges” who act can act in accordance to Locke’s social contract theory. The only way to implement unbiased officiating is with the use of technology; unfortunately, modern day software doesn’t yet exist affording us that flexibility. Thus, I’d disagree with the assertion that referees follow the theories of Locke.


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