Outcome and Intent

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.

 

Red, Yellow… Orange?

I’m back to football for this post.  Sorry if you’re not interested in football (soccer for North American readers) but you have to admit that the game produces some good talking points, irrespective of the action.

What I’d like to suggest is the introduction of a third card for a particular kind of offence.  At present, as you probably know, there is a red card for various offences that can be categorised as violent or dangerous, or for collecting two yellow cards in a match.  The yellow cards are not exactly discretionary, but clearly have a greater element of subjectivity, as they range from late tackles through time-wasting and dissent, on to things like removing a shirt in that most curious form of goal celebrations.

This umbrella of yellow-card offences is a bit too unwieldy, it seems to me.  Of course there is a need for cautions, which is what the yellow card essentially means, but the current system doesn’t overcome the cynicism which players deploy to spoil dangerous attacks by the other side. You even (scandalously) hear TV pundits saying that a defender had no choice but to “take one for the team” as he pulls an opponent back, and recently a Manchester United player was openly criticised for being naive when allowing an opponent to go past him and set up a goal.

I reckon that there is scope here for a card between the current two – orange will do – with a correspondingly mid-range penalty of being sent off for ten minutes.  They do this for a yellow card in rugby union, which adopted the sin-bin from ice hockey.  Since a football match is longer than rugby, maybe the time off should be longer, 15 minutes, perhaps, but that’s a detail.

The important thing is that it would be used to punish and thereby deter the cynical late challenge when a guy would otherwise be running clear, typically in a breakaway run.  Oh, I know my proposal wouldn’t deter such cheating in the last minute of a game, such as the shirt-tug by a Manchester City player yesterday against Arsenal, but I’m not claiming it would solve everything.  What I do feel is that the blatant “I’ll take a yellow here” obstruction, at any point in the game, is not only unfair for opposition and fans, but also cheats the neutral, who is almost by definition watching the game to see some good action, and preferably goals.  Goals are so rare in football that any attempt to reduce the chances must be a bad thing.

And because goals are so rare, penalties will always have a big effect on the result, so the orange card could also be used for players who are seen to dive (that is, to simulate contact inside the penalty area and earn a spot-kick).  At the moment the balance of risk and reward is unfair: the reward for conning the referee is great, while the risk of punishment – if it comes at all – is likely to be a trivial yellow card.  Make that a temporary sending-off and it would be a fairer equation.  Referees can already give a red card for denying an “obvious” goal-scoring opportunity; so it makes perfect sense (does it not?) to introduce a lesser charge for a likely or probable opportunity.

Football is one of the slowest sports to evolve when it comes to accepting new rules, so I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this in the near future.  After all, ask any group of fans about using technology to review key decisions (as they do in cricket, rugby, tennis, etc) and they’ll almost certainly agree that there is scope for this; yet apart from some  isolated experiments such as in the Dutch league we seem to be no nearer doing anything.  But introducing a third card would not involve any technology, or cause any delay in the game.  All it would require would be a recognition – easy to see for any experienced referee – of the deliberate denial of a likely goal-scoring opportunity by means of an “off-the-ball” block, trip or obstruction.  Come on – as one might almost say, “The future’s bright, the future’s….”