Thank You Sir!

If you’d been around rugby for a while you’ve likely had Dr. Bruce Carter as a referee for a 7s or 15s game. Bruce was a knowledgeable  referee, fair and to top it off humorous. He called a lot of games in the thirty plus years as a rugby referee and so we were sadden to hear that Bruce has hung up his whistle. However, we were still able to connect with him recently and ask him about his times as a referee and to bestow some advice on players.

Here is how the interview went.

Dr. Bruce Carter Bleeds the Game. Photo by Hail Pelicus (April 2009)

Dr. Bruce Carter Bleeds the Game. Photo by Hail Pelicus (April 2009)

The Rugby Republic (RR): How many years did you referee?
Bruce Carter (Bruce): I started refereeing when I started playing, in 1977.I had officiated basketball, my previous sport. In Georgia in those days, referees were not assigned to B-side matches, and often not for the A-side. My coach had a law book, so I read it and started helping out.
In the autumn, we played on Sundays. Saturday's an SEC day in the South. But I already had the Jones, so I started refereeing women's games on Saturdays, picking up games at tournaments, that sort of thing.
An injury caused me to quit playing in 1988, becoming a full-time ref.

I did my last game this past April, so I didn't quite get to forty years with the whistle. I did more than 2,700 games (including Sevens) and yes, I have a list of them.

RR: What did you like the most about being a ref all those years?
Bruce: One of the secrets of happiness is to find the thing that you are best at, from which you derive the most satisfaction. If you can get paid to do it, you've got a career. If not, then you have a lifelong source of deep satisfaction, accomplishment and camaraderie.

I was fortunate to play at the Army and United States Combined Services level, but I was able to referee at higher levels than that.

And, of course, referees can have longer careers than players, and we all know that there can never be too much rugby.

RR: What is a great memory you have from refereeing a game (a great game, or seeing a great players, or crazy conditions).
Bruce: The best game I ever did was a Rugby Sevens match. (I'm definitely a Sevens man.) It was at the Las Vegas Midnight Sevens.
OMBAC, who had won several recent national titles, played Samurai, a Barbarians-style invitational side of professional players from England. It was a game that people had made a mental note to watch, and I had no lack of very good referees volunteering to AR for the match.

It was like refereeing a whirlwind: constant and continuous play, few errors, all done in a great spirit. The ball flew from side to side, the players flew from end to end, and the time flew by as well.

When the dust settled, my wide-eyed ARs and I compared notes: four tries each way (the outcome decided on conversions), no penalties, no scrums, no lineouts, and no mauls. It was the purest essence of Sevens: restarts, tackles, rucks, phases, turnovers, open play with all advantages gained and the Object of the Game: scoring. This day the game played in Heaven came to Earth.

RR: What’s a bit of advice you’d give to a new referee?
Bruce: Keep a diary of lessons learned. Add to it every Sunday and review it every Friday!

Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. You don't want to make the same mistake twice. The players deserve your best and you need to get there as fast as you can.

RR: What is a bit of advice you’d give to players from a referee standpoint?
Bruce: Worry about playing and let the referee worry about refereeing. If you are interested in becoming a referee, that's a conversation for afterwards.

If you don't know the Laws of the Game, don't question or argue with the ref. It's easy enough to find and read them on-line.

Once you do know the laws…still don't argue. You might direct a question through your captain based on the law and you might be surprised sometimes when the ref thinks it over. Perhaps the next call won't be wrong.

But most player/ref disagreements have to do with who saw what. Two people often see two different things. Your job is to play fairly and to try to win. The referee's job is to see that the game is safe, fair and played in accordance with the laws. These are quite different perspectives and what we see is often influenced by our perspective.  

Refs often suspect when they've made a bad call - usually a second too late to do anything about it. Mike Saunders, who was an Eagles captain, had a very effective technique for dealing with bad calls against his team: He would applaud them. Literally, stand there and clap and say, "Good call, ref."

I can't tell you how embarrassing that was.

RR: What’s one of the “strangest” experience you had as a ref?
Bruce: This one comes immediately to mind.

Most referees, unfortunately, can recall a game that had to be abandoned due to lack of player discipline, or players who seem more interested in fighting than playing rugby. 

This one, I believe, is unique in the history of the game: I had to abandon a tournament semi-final over a dispute involving the coin toss!?!

It was back in Vegas at the Midnight Sevens. Both teams had won their pools and were in the winners' semis. However, it had been 3 or 4 hours since their previous games and at least one of the teams smelled as if they had begun celebrating prematurely - and mistakenly, as it turned out.

The celebrants built up a 3-try lead in the first half, only to yield just as many points in the second half. They were somewhat disappointed that overtime would be necessary. And overtime, of course, requires a new coin toss.

We were on one of the fields which only had lights on one side. It was quite dark, and remote from the tent where the officials hung out. My coin at the time was an Eisenhower dollar: the reverse had a full Moon and the obverse had a bald-headed former General and President. I can see how they might be confused in the conditions.

One captain tossed, the other called. I announced that it was tails, put the coin in my pocket, and offered the winning captain his options. At that point the other captain said, "You're lying. You're cheating. That was heads."

This is a player that I had known for years. I thought he was kidding, so I turned back to the other captain for his choice. But they the aggrieved fellow cursed at me.

This is not something a referee can tolerate and still expect a fair match to be played according to the spirit of the game. So I advised him that he was no longer the captain, and asked his teammates who would now be the captain. At this point, he not only elevated his choice of cuss words, but he threatened me.

When the new captain-nominee arrived, I issued a red card to the original captain and said we would be starting with a penalty kick to their opponents. The first captain refused to leave the pitch, and then the new captain, who had been 20 yards away during the coin toss, said, "That was heads. You're a cheating ____, Carter."

Now I had two beer-breathing angry men in my face, threatening violence. None of their teammates appeared the least bit interested in playing peace-maker. My touch judges seemed oblivious to what was going on. If I could somehow restore order and avoid being assaulted, we faced the prospect of starting with a penalty to a team with a 7-on-5 advantage. At this point, I was worried that I was going to be punched or worse, so I started walking back towards tournament central, where there were other refs and tournament officials. A group of players followed me, calling me names, threatening to kick my ass.

Photo by James Hinkin for Hail Pelicus

Photo by James Hinkin for Hail Pelicus

As I approached the scoreboard Neil Knappenburger was there, whom everyone knew was a Las Vegas cop. He sized the situation up immediately and activated his walkie-talkie. My shadows vanished into the night, like vampires at dawn.

They were, of course, declared the losers of the match after I related the circumstances to the tournament officials.

In all my years of rugby nothing else like this ever happened to me, and I have gotten a lot of mileage out of this story when referees play 'top this'.

On behalf of all the ruggers out there who got to experience Bruce call one of their games, we say Thank You Sir!!!