By Rod Symington, WSF Referees and Rules Committee
The Rules of Squash (18.1) state: “A Referee, assisted by a Marker, normally controls a match.” In international softball squash, this was always the traditional officiating system, but as the sport became much more competitive in the past two decades, dissatisfaction with the single referee system grew.
While a competent referee can provide a measure of consistency to the decision-making, there are considerable drawbacks to having only one person in the hot seat: the enormous stress (that can lead to errors), and the impossibility of correcting a bad call (which often occurs under stress).
In the early 1990s the 3-referee system, familiar to all players of the hardball game, was brought to international softball. Despite a promising start (it was employed successfully in the Women’s World Championships in Vancouver in 1992), within a couple of years the system, unfortunately, fell out of favor when too many players got into the habit of appealing every decision made by the central referee. This gave the sport a bad image, and the fact that the system had originated in the USA meant that it had never really been accepted wholeheartedly by the conservative squash-playing nations. By the mid-’90s the 3-referee system had been abandoned.
So we were back to square one. But the unsatisfactory nature of the single referee was still apparent to all who had an open mind, and another experiment—this time using a Referee and an Appeals Referee (whose decision was final)—was attempted for a while. This proved, however, to be totally unsatisfactory. When the two referees agreed, it looked like collusion; and when they disagreed, spectators wondered what was going on. So this experiment, too, was short-lived.
Dissatisfaction with the single Referee (assisted by a Marker) persisted and, in fact, the complaints became chronic, especially at the highest levels of the sport. All these concerns came to a head this past year at the US Open, where the referees were positioned with their heads at the level of the court floor. This proved to be both disastrous (for the quality of the decisions) and fortuitous, because it finally persuaded players, officials and promoters that change was needed.
Thus, at the Windy City Open in Chicago in January, the 3-referee system was reintroduced. But in its reincarnation the system underwent some changes. Now, when a player requests a let, all three referees vote at once (by means of hand signals) and the central referee announces the decision. The player has no right to appeal: the decision is final.
Since that time, the 3-referee system has been used in major professional events in New York, London, Kuwait and Qatar—in every case with considerable success. The “bad” calls were virtually eliminated, the players accepted the decisions much more readily, and the promoters and spectators were happy with the caliber of the decision-making.
But the 3-referee system is far from perfect: it will always suffer from the flaw that, in the event of a split decision between the first two referees about an episode on one side of the court, the deciding vote is cast by the third referee on the other side of the court—who inevitably has the worst view of that episode. Furthermore, the system can only work effectively if all three referees apply the same standards in regard to such things as backswing interference, blocking, and minimal interference. Ensuring that all three have the same ideas about such intangible matters is a major challenge.
However, despite such issues, the crucial and only relevant question is this: Which system of refereeing will produce, over time, the highest percentage of correct decisions?
At the present time, the 3-referee system is the answer to that question. There are still things to be settled by experimentation—such as the best location for the three referees, whether or not there should be a Marker, who has the responsibility of calling balls down or out, etc.
But it is now agreed at the highest levels of squash that the 3-referee system is the way forward. It may be a case of “back to the future,” but we should be thankful that the sport of squash has finally entered the 21st century.