The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Out of Tune and Harsh

Let’s not confound the time with conference harsh:
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?

— Mark Antony, Antony and Cleopatra I.1

What do we mean when we say a referee’s decision is “harsh”? A harsh judge in action-figure formIn talk about soccer it’s a term of art, having shades of meaning it lacks in other contexts. Consider the red card Australia’s Harry Kewell got in Saturday’s match against Ghana. On ESPN’s halftime show, Ruud Gullit and Roberto Martinez debated it. “It is a red card,” Gullit said, “he stopped it with his hand.” (Not true, actually: it was his upper arm, which was nearly pinned to his side. But I digress.) Martinez didn’t simply disagree with Gullit, but said that he thought the red card was “harsh.”

But wait—isn’t that a disagreement? In discussions of soccer refereeing, not exactly. Do a Google search on the phrase “penalty was harsh” and you’ll begin to get a sense of what I mean. For one thing, you’ll see how closely associated the phrase is with soccer: it’s used in other contexts but rarely. You’ll see that it is usually found in a British context, though that may be because there is so much more writing about soccer over there. You’ll see that it is almost always used to describe a penalty or a red or yellow card, almost never for a mere foul or a non-call.

And if you go through the examples Google provides more closely, you’ll notice that when people claim that a referee’s decision was “harsh” they’re rarely saying that it was simply and straightforwardly wrong. When that’s what they think they express themselves rather more boldly: not “harsh” but “shite” or “bollocks.” (I didn’t hear anyone say that Kaká’s sending-off yesterday was harsh, but rather that it was “ridiculous,” “absurd,” and—Dunga’s phrase—“totally unjustified.”) No: “harsh” is a term exceedingly subtle in its application. It means something like this: Under a certain and extremely strict interpretation of the laws of soccer this verdict can, I suppose, be justified, but a referee who took into account the full circumstances of the moment would have swallowed his whistle and let the game play on, or at the most would have imposed a lesser sanction. And that’s why I say that Martinez wasn’t simply disagreeing with Gullit.

In the fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces the important concept of equity (epiekeia). Anyone who makes legal judgments needs the virtue of equity, Aristotle says, because laws are by their very nature general: “the law takes account of the majority of cases, though not unaware that in this way errors are made.” It is because in a minority of cases errors are made that equity must be invoked as “a rectification of law in so far as law is defective on account of its generality.” Sometimes, and precisely because laws are necessarily general, following the strictest letter of the law results in injustice. Therefore judges are necessary, in order to identify situations in which injustice is arising, and those judges, including soccer referees, need to possess the virtue of equity.

Curiously, soccer is the only sport I know of that has built something like a principle of equity into the rules, through the concept of playing the advantage: referees are actively encouraged to evaluate situations in which a strict following of the rules—say, calling a foul on a player who has certainly fouled, but at a time when the whistle would interfere with a scoring opportunity for the other team—would produce injustice. Giving a just decision is given priority over giving a legally precise one. But this particular rule is unusual if not unique.

And what do we say about a player who is the recipient of a harsh decision? We say he is unlucky—and we mean that in two senses. We mean that through no fault of his own he found himself in violation of the letter of the law (or, in a softer sense, that he may have been at some fault but not sufficient to earn the judgment that he in fact received). And we mean that he was unlucky in being at the mercy of a referee who was deficient in the virtue of equity.

The nuances here are wonderful, and are among the many reasons I love soccer. But all that said, the red card for Kewell was total bollocks.


Out of Tune and Harsh

by Alan Jacobs · June 21, 2010

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