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Referee vs. Arbiter: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 2, 2023
A referee officiates sports games, ensuring rules are followed; an arbiter settles disputes, often beyond sports, with authority.

Key Differences

A referee is an official in a sport who enforces the rules during the game, whereas an arbiter is a person who settles a dispute or has the authority to judge or decide on a matter. The term referee is specifically associated with sports and games, where the individual has to make decisions on the spot, often in real-time, to maintain the flow and fairness of the game.
In contrast, an arbiter is not limited to sports and can be involved in various fields such as law, business, or international relations. An arbiter may have a broader role that involves deliberation and may not have to make decisions as swiftly as a referee. Moreover, an arbiter's decisions are often binding and may be part of a formal arbitration process, whereas a referee's decisions, although final in the context of the game, do not usually have legal standing outside of it.
While a referee is focused on the immediate application of rules, an arbiter often engages in dispute resolution that requires a deep understanding of the context and the issues at hand. The role of a referee is active during the event they are overseeing, whereas an arbiter's role can either be active during a dispute resolution process or after the fact when a decision is required.
Referees must maintain objectivity and quick decision-making during potentially high-pressure moments in sports. Arbiters, too, must remain impartial, but they are typically afforded more time to consider the evidence and arguments presented by the parties involved before arriving at a decision.
Both referees and arbiters are tasked with ensuring fairness, though their domains and methods differ significantly. The referee's authority is often confined to the duration of a game or match, whereas the arbiter's authority can extend to the resolution of a dispute, with their decisions sometimes being enforceable in a court of law.

Comparison Chart

Primary Context

Sports and games
Legal, business, or other disputes

Decision Speed

Real-time during the game
After deliberation and evaluation


Enforces game rules
Settles disputes, sometimes legally binding

Scope of Decision

Within the game's confines
Can have broader implications beyond the event

Formality of Process

Informal, in-the-moment
Formal arbitration process

Referee and Arbiter Definitions


An official in a sporting event responsible for enforcing the rules.
The referee blew the whistle to signal a foul.


A person empowered to decide matters at hand.
The committee will act as an arbiter in the competition.


An official who watches a game or match closely to enforce the rules.
The soccer game ended abruptly after the referee issued a red card.


A person who settles a dispute or has ultimate authority in a matter.
The arbiter ruled that the contract was void.


A person appointed to supervise the proper conduct of a test.
The referee caught a student trying to cheat on the exam.


Someone whose judgment is considered authoritative.
In fashion, magazine editors are often seen as the arbiters of style.


Someone who mediates between opposing sides in a dispute (informal).
They asked their coach to act as a referee in their team dispute.


An independent person or body officially appointed to settle a dispute.
The two companies agreed to let an arbiter resolve their trade disagreement.


A judge of play in sports and games.
The basketball referee called a timeout to review the last play.


An individual who has the power to adjudicate on a certain issue.
The arbiter decided the compensation amount to be awarded.


One to whom something is referred, especially for settlement, decision, or an opinion as to the thing's quality.


One agreed upon or appointed to judge or decide a disputed issue; an arbitrator.


Sports & Games An official supervising the play; an umpire.


One whose opinion or judgment is considered authoritative or worthy of respect
An arbiter of fashion.


Is a referee only associated with sports?

Yes, a referee typically refers to an official in sports.

What qualifications are needed for an arbiter?

Arbiters often need expertise in the relevant field and may require formal qualifications.

Can an arbiter’s decision be legally binding?

Yes, an arbiter's decisions can be legally binding.

Is an arbiter part of a formal legal process?

Yes, arbiters can be part of a formal legal arbitration process.

What skills are essential for a referee?

Quick decision-making and a thorough understanding of the game's rules are crucial for referees.

Do referees make decisions after the game?

No, referees make decisions in real-time during the game.

Are arbiters involved in the sports context?

Arbiters are generally not involved in sports; they handle disputes in various contexts.

Can anyone become a referee?

Becoming a referee usually requires specific training and certification.

Are arbiter decisions subject to appeal?

It depends on the arbitration agreement, but arbiter decisions can sometimes be appealed in court.

Do arbiters have to make decisions quickly?

Arbiters usually have more time to deliberate before making a decision.

Can a referee’s decision be challenged?

Referee decisions can be contested but are often final in the context of the game.

What traits should an arbiter possess?

Arbiters should be impartial, knowledgeable, and able to analyze complex information.

Is a referee’s role active or passive?

A referee’s role is active, constantly making calls during a game.

Are referees’ decisions made public?

Yes, referees' decisions are made during the public event of the game.

Is arbitration a form of dispute resolution?

Yes, arbitration is a method of resolving disputes outside of court.

Is the role of a referee limited to the duration of the game?

Yes, a referee's authority is typically limited to the game's duration.

Are arbiter’s decisions always made public?

Not always; some arbitration proceedings and decisions can be confidential.

Do referees need to be neutral?

Yes, referees must be neutral and unbiased.

Do referees enforce rules or create them?

Referees enforce the rules; they do not create them.

Can an arbiter also act as a mediator?

Yes, an arbiter can act as a mediator, but their role in arbitration is to make a decision, not just facilitate an agreement.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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