Agreeing with a lot of what has been said here. Despite not referring FRC much (and no FTC ref experience), I referee high school football and some of the dynamics are the same. There’s some worthwhile points made that I’d like to add my own views on as well, that apply to both program levels.
The job of a referee is overly-simplified as “enforce the rules”. Abstracting that a bit, one could say it more as “enforce fair play”. While I won’t say that there aren’t folks out there who like being rules sticklers on every single thing, I think most of us who referee any kind of sport are there primarily because we love the sport, and to make it safe and fair for the people playing. Same for FRC and FTC, referees want to see the teams and the students succeed, and play the game as fully as possible. We aren’t there because we like giving fouls, and the goal of referees is to be “invisible” while still keeping things fair.
Referees are human, as has been said multiple times. We cannot and will not call every possible penalty every possible time; we’re all here to play the game, not have a penalty contest. We also can’t see everything, don’t see every interaction start to finish, don’t always have the best view angle, and don’t always have exactly the same understanding of when something is a foul. There are several philosophies we use when refereeing football that aren’t in the rulebook, but provide good insight on how things happen for referees, many of the same apply to FRC and FTC, here are a few…
- Safety first. Regardless of where something occurred on the field, if it put someone’s safety in jeopardy, it needs to be called.
- If you didn’t see the whole thing, you shouldn’t call it. Without seeing start to finish what happened that was against the rules, you don’t know that a foul occurred. Observing an outcome but not it’s cause means you don’t know if the cause was a foul or not, beyond a guess. We don’t call guesses if at all possible.
- It needs to affect the play. This one is big, and the hardest for many players to understand in many sports. They were fouled, so that should be called because it affected them. But sometimes, many times even for football, in the larger scheme they were not involved in the play, so them being fouled didn’t affect the outcome of the play, so it doesn’t need to be called (unless it’s safety related).
Let’s dissect a few of these a bit more. In FTC/FRC, safety first definitely applies to human interactions (or potential human interactions like the FTC scenario here), but I’d also extend it slightly to include robots and significant robot damage. Football is a dangerous contact sport, but there are things that go beyond to cause a real risk of injury for other players, and those are not okay (targeting, certain blocks, etc.). Same for robotics, there’ll be contact, and damage as part of normal play, but things that carry a high likelihood of severe / match affecting / robot future affecting damage are not okay.
In football, there are 22 players on the field, with anywhere from 3 (or less sometimes) to 7 refs for high school. That’s at best a 3-1 player to ref ratio. In FRC, there’s 6 robots and 5 refs (let’s say 4 regular for argument’s sake), which is a 1.5:1 ratio. FTC is closer to the football ratio. That means you can’t have every robot being watched every instant of every match. Building the discipline to only watch things in your assignment area, get used to other refs so you don’t overlap each other when possible, and to only watch things that are important as potential fouls is one of the hardest pieces to learn. We call it “don’t officiate air”. In many sports, there are those “woah” moments that attract everyone’s attention, even if they aren’t illegal. In FRC, it’s easy to watch a robot doing some great shooting, to the detriment of watching two other robots in contact elsewhere in your zone. It’s also easy for multiple refs to start watching the same thing because it looks concerning rather than staying focused on their responsibility, to the detriment of seeing something else happening elsewhere on the field.
The biggest one to me is the “it needs to affect the play” philosophy. I’m sure there’ll be disagreement, but I don’t think anyone wants to play a game in any sport where every possible rule violation is called 100% every time. We’re here to play robots, not to play “how clean can the game be” or “how many penalties can the refs call”. That doesn’t mean refs can ignore things though, it just means we focus attention and whether we call a foul or not on things that would likely affect the outcome of a match. In football, a good example is a player on my side of the field getting held severely, but the ball is already gone down the other side of the field. Thus, the holding foul over here didn’t affect the play over there, so we wouldn’t call it. This usually makes the person getting held mad, but goes in to we’re here to play the game, not call every foul.
FRC/FTC have a lot more of this; there are a LOT of things that could impact future performance of a robot in the match and affect the outcome, since we aren’t play-by-play like football or other sports. Scoring one more object now not only directly affects the score/outcome, it may affect being able to do some other action later as well that affects the match.
This plays in to this specific FTC scenario. If most of the cones are “completed” and/or the match is close, then something like moving the cone outside of the perimeter, or even (regardless of safety implications) robots entering the zone while a human is there becomes more likely to confer a possible advantage, and possibly be match affecting, so the scrutiny of those actions becomes correspondingly stronger. This is where I think regardless, a conversation in the question box is warranted. One hand, it’s important on the team to avoid even the perception of possibly committing a foul, because it’s at such a critical juncture in the match and possibly match affecting, the ref may probably skew towards “if it’s that close, it’s a foul” in that situation. They also, as you mention don’t have the benefit of replay or putting our brain on slow motion. We get one shot to see it, from whatever our vantage point is, and have to make a split second decision on whether or not it was against the rules, and then whether or not it was match affecting. On the other hand, it’s then on the ref as well that if it was just “close”, particularly if the ref didn’t have a clear view of it, it’s probably something they could have stayed away from calling. Also factoring in here, the rule seems pretty plain. If the human player is over the line while the robot is in the zone, it’s a foul. There’s not much open for interpretation there. Either the condition was seemingly satisfied to be a foul, or it wasn’t. The referee I would assume saw the event, and from their view determined it satisfied the condition and thus became a foul. Having to go to slow motion on video to confirm it wasn’t tells me it was close enough to be within the realm of human error/judgement either way. The ref may have technically gotten it wrong after review, and that’s fine, it’s going to happen now and again. Consider what may have been their mentality at the time… coming from a place of “did this cause the match to be unfair or give this team/alliance an advantage with breaking this rule?”, they had to decide on an answer to that in a split second, and their judgement was that it did. Enough to cross whatever threshold they set for themselves on whether they would or would not call that foul. Maybe the ref did see the rule broken definitively from their perspective and viewpoint. They saw what they saw, and had to act upon that as is. The team’s intent was not to break the rule, but most teams don’t typically intend to break the rules, it just happens, that’s why refs are there. Again, this is a good conversation for the question box to understand and improve for the future, but I wouldn’t go with the expectation of having it overturned.
For approach on the question box, I always encourage people to start from just understanding.
The referees want to understand when we make a call that the team doesn’t agree with, what they don’t agree with, or what they may have seen or interpreted differently so that we can improve going forward. As a team we want to understand what the referee saw and what rule it violated (and any interpretation leading to that conclusion if there was any). If you start from there, it’s a conversation for both sides to understand the what and the why and take that and get better. Either side can also go from that point in cases of interpretation of a rule and it’s application and get appropriate insight, and resolution, one way or another. What doesn’t do any good arguing about is what each party saw. It’s perfectly possible for the referee to have seen one thing, and the team to have seen something completely different (though hopefully here the ref would also admit if they didn’t see something fully and take appropriate action). If what the referee saw violated a rule, then they were correct in calling the appropriate foul. They’re the referee, they have to go by what they saw, which is necessary because they’re impartial and will see things the same way for all matches, providing consistency. In the absence of video review to counteract what someone sees, those kinds of calls will always stand, so while a team can accomplish the understanding of what was seen, they can’t change what the referee saw. Again though, if the interpretation of what was seen actually violating a rule, or it’s application, is in doubt, that’s a valid point of discussion, that hopefully the referees are open to.
Consistency is another key. In football, it takes a full season worth of working games with a crew to really know how the other referees with you operate and gel as a crew. FRC/FTC/FLL refs don’t have that level of experience working together usually, and there are usually new folks as well that may have different interpretations or things they focus on that need to be brought into consistency with the other refs and with the program as a whole. This is another place where teams can help. As a ref, I’m always willing to hear if there’s something that a coach thinks is being called differently by different people, because either I can take that to the crew to discuss later, or if I know what was going on I can explain why some situations are a foul while other similar ones may not be. Students coming to the question box can be the only insight into that sometimes, and that’s information an HR wants to have to improve their crew. Key again is bringing it in a positive and constructive way, that you as a team want to get better so as to not get those fouls in the future, and you want (and the ref crew wants) to get better in their roles so everyone has a better event experience.