In football, players often argue with the referees.
What is the upside in allowing players to argue with referees in football? What are the incentives, for whoever makes the rules, to continue to allow this in the game?
Actually it is not allowed to argue with the referee. Most referees just tolerate it up to some extent and start cautioning players when they go too far.
The FIFA refereeing guide explicitly mentions this:
A player who is guilty of dissent by protesting (verbally or nonverbally) against a referee’s decision must be cautioned.
The captain of a team has no special status or privileges under the Laws of the Game but he has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of his team.
Objective is to avoid erosion of authority and the likelihood of the dissent spreading.
But instead of just enforcing this rule the refs use common sense, because they know about the psychology of players (stress, adrenaline, ...) and cautioning every word against their decision would probably end up in a lot of cards.
A good ref knows how to calm the players down in most cases without penalizing them. Controlling a situation earns the referee more respect than a bunch of cards. Therefore the goal is to calm down tricky situations by talking and explaining.
A good communication is the key. If that fails, you can still caution someone. It's like "you called it wrong." - shows card - "Why you hate me?! Now it's two bad calls!" .. Wouldn't it be better to explain the previous call instead of fighting off the players with cautions?
In no sport are players permitted explicitly to argue with the officials, and in most, including football, they are specifically disallowed from doing so.
The laws state that a player guilty of dissent must be cautioned - this is a mandatory discipline. However, what counts as dissent is for the referee alone to determine - providing the space for good officials to manage the situation as an interpersonal relations exercise.
The best officials work with players and understand their attitudes and responses, frequently because they are or were players themselves, and sometimes at the same level they officiate. Developing this rapport makes it much more likely that future decisions will be respected.
Especially as football does not often see red cards (sent off) and scores are quite low, these decisions can change the game; FIFA even calls them "game-changing decisions" in its documents and videos and public release material. Thus, understanding and accepting the emotions around these situations is important.
If the objective is to minimise dissent and encourage a flowing game, they can achieve that by making decisions as transparent as possible and encouraging players to understand the decisions, and showing empathy for their emotional side.
TLDR: As long as the referee establishes a clear line between requesting clarity and stating dissent, and enforces warnings or additional discipline for crossing that line, ignoring a little argument on occasion is not a problem.
It is already illegal for players to protest a decision (dissent), or use offensive, insulting and/or abusive language or gestures.
A player is cautioned if guilty of:
- dissent by word or action
A substitute or substituted player is cautioned if guilty of:
- dissent by word or action
A player, substitute or substituted player who commits any of the following offences is sent off:
- using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures
The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final. The decisions of the referee, and all other match officials, must always be respected.
Laws of the Game - Glossary [pdf]:
Public disagreement (verbal and/or physical) with a match official’s decision; punishable by a caution (yellow card)
Offensive, insulting or abusive language
Verbal or physical behaviour which is rude, hurtful, disrespectful; punishable by a sending-off (red card
Now to answer the question as to the incentives as to why it occurs, based on my experience refereeing various levels of football.
If referees at the highest levels took stronger action on dissent, it would only take a few competition rounds before new expectations were set, and dissent was reduced. Unfortunately, there would be significant public and media pressure on the football authorities to drop referees who had taken stronger action (think about all the hit pieces that already are written with comments such as "the referee ruined the game", "the referee was hungry for attention", "referees are taking passion out of the game", etc.)
An alternative solution that would allow referees to keep all 11 players on the park, yet disincentivise dissent would be allowing referees to award free kicks or advance free kicks for dissent that is low-level, i.e. not public, personal or persistent without requiring a caution (yellow card). However, I don't see IFAB making such a change anytime soon. A similar initiative was trialled in 2000 and had positive feedback from referees:
Statistics from the Auto Windscreens Trophy this season show that in 40 games, there have been 850 free kicks and 16 'advancements'. The FA say that its real value is as a deterrent to bad behaviour, however. One referee reported that 'dissent was non-existent 30 metres from goal,' another that players 'ran away like scalded cats'.