The Omnipotent Referee
Many interactions with referees and players over the year have taught me that the vast majority of people involved in the game of squash are quite unaware of the full dimension of the powers of the Match Referee. Far too many players are still unfamiliar with the principle that the Referee's decision on all matters is final (some players try to “appeal” the Referee's decision—to whom? God? The Referee is God!). This even excludes in major tournaments the intervention of the Tournament Referee in the decisions made by the Match Referee. Only the Match Referee is competent to judge the situation at the time of the decision; there can be no later appeal on the basis of eye-witness accounts (or even on the basis of the Tournament Referee's own observations). Once the players have left the court, the match is over, and all the decisions made during it stand.
This supreme power of the Match Referee extends to all the circumstances surrounding the match—including the behavior of the spectators. The Match Referee is in total control—and if he or she feels that some aspect of the match is not appropriate (e.g., crowd behavior), then the Referee has not only the power, but also the expressed duty to intercede.
These thoughts were occasioned by the following e-mail I received a while ago from the Tournament Referee of a Regional Tournament:
“I was the official tournament referee and we encountered a disturbing crowd control issue that left us quite frustrated and we are not sure if we handled it correctly. Specifically, a group of about 10 spectators began cheering very loudly, even jeering when their player's opponent began making errors, for example when he would hit the tin or hit it out. The targeted opponents were quite disturbed and upset by this behavior, as were other spectators, possibly even to the point of impacting the matches. The tournament director and I ended up dealing with the problem throughout the tournament as this group was supporting two players who made it through to the finals of two separate divisions. We confronted these spectators explaining proper sportsmanship and etiquette but their behavior continued. We subsequently told them they would be asked to leave the venue if the behavior continued. Their behavior improved somewhat in that they stopped cheering when the opponent made an unforced error, but they cheered and shouted even more loudly every time their player won a rally. We made it through the rest of the tournament but the opposing players in each case were not at all pleased with what they had to endure during their matches with these two players. Some ugly backlash behavior resulted during one match on the court and during others off the court.
In the future, how would you suggest that we handle this situation? Is it possible to invoke rule 17, penalizing the player that these spectators are supporting? Or should we suspend play until the spectators actually leave the venue? This seems to penalize the opponent as well.”
This was clearly a most unfortunate situation, and elementary common-sense would dictate that such behavior ought to be stopped. In fact, the Rules list such an action as one of the “Duties of a Referee”:
"20.2.3 [The Referee shall exercise control] when the behavior of any spectator, official, manager or coach is disruptive to the play or offensive to the players, officials or spectators. The Referee shall suspend play until the disruption has ceased, and, if necessary, shall require the offending person(s) to leave the court area."
The behavior described in the e-mail above clearly falls under the provisions of Rule 20.2.3. The correct course of action would be for the Match Referee to warn the offending spectators about their unacceptable behavior (and the consequences), and then to take corrective action if that behavior continued. At that point the Tournament Referee should be informed and should support and confirm the actions of the Match Referee.
There is a further provision that would stop this kind of behavior immediately: penalize the player on court. If I were the Match Referee in such a situation, I would first ask the spectators to modify their behavior. If it continued, I would say to them, “The next time you express such inappropriate behavior, I will penalize the player whom you are supporting by awarding a stroke to the opponent.” (Obviously you can only do this if you are absolutely certain whom the offensive spectators are supporting.)
I don't think it would take many penalty strokes before the crowd fell silent.