A rugby match in England at the weekend featured a player being sent off early in the second half. One point of interest was that the team now reduced to 14 men was sitting low in the table, but fought back to within just seven points of the much higher-placed opponents, all the more creditworthy because rugby is a sport where a one-man advantage counts for a lot.
That, however, isn’t the point of this post. The thing that struck me when I saw the report of the match was the reasoning for the red card. To quote The Times: “The pivotal moment came when a towering kick was launched towards Le Roux… As he leapt high and early, Le Roux made contact with Heem’s shoulder, his body twisting out of control and he landed with a sickening thump… There was nothing that Heem could have done to avoid the collision, but such matters are judged on outcome rather than intent and the referee had not option but to brandish a red card.”
Really? The reporter here seems to give every indication that the “offender” (Heems) was innocent in all of this, and the graphic photo alongside rather confirms his role as a relative bystander. I should state here that I am a supporter of neither side, but as usual flag up the incident as a general point about sport and perhaps life.
I guess I was particularly struck by the story because it followed my recent observation that football is also tending to take the “outcome rather than intent” line. One very good example occurred recently in a game between the Republic of Ireland and Wales, when the Welsh player Ramsey turned and tried to control a bouncing ball with his foot (involving what the press next day called a pirouette), only to find that an Irish player had ducked his head down towards chest height, receiving a kick in the head for his effort. Ramsey was promptly given a yellow card (caution), but it should have been obvious that there was not the slightest intention to kick the opponent, whose head was put in a dangerous position.
Even more obvious is the problem where attacking players carry out the bicycle kick, a sort of stationary Fosbury flop where they are facing away from the goal but then fall backwards and kick the ball over their own head. Or, of course, miss it and land flat on their back! But the odd result here is that if the shot comes off it is hailed as a wonder goal – most fans could describe the scorer and circumstances for one of these rarissime events – whereas if there is a slight miscue and the boot hits an opponent (for the above reasons, almost certainly on or near the head) the attacker is likely to get a yellow card. This is not sensible.
More than in the past, I think, we see referees run over to an injured player and then, on seeing something serious, produce a yellow or red card for the offender. The natural effect, surely, is to encourage players to over-react when injured.
These are just some reasons for wishing to see these sports move away from the “outcome” criteria. No doubt there could be a problem with an insistence on intent. For example, people weren’t happy some years ago when it was suggested that players could be booked for wild but unsuccessful challenges – in other words, a skilful opponent might have jumped over a flailing leg, avoiding injury himself, but it still wasn’t enough for the culprit to be saved. That way you wouldn’t hear the expression “It’s just as well he didn’t make contact there…” But the more I see these things, the more I suspect that that focus on intent (a scything tackle, or a punch that misses the target) should be the criterion, and not the outcome.