Monday, December 7, 2009

Whose Call is it Anyway?

There has been some debate about Thierry Henry's "honor" and his admission about the controversial goal that sent Ireland packing and France into the World Cup. Henry admitted after the game that he handled the soccer ball before kicking it to a teammate who then headed the ball into the goal. But by then, the game was history. The referee didn't see the violation, the goal was allowed and one wonders if -- even if some have suggested would have been more honorable -- Henry had assertively turned himself in right then and there, the outcome would have been different.

For the most part, referees and umpires are trained to call what they see. Not what they think might have happened, not what someone told them happened (just think what that would look like with an umpire listening to players, coaches and spectators to determine what actually occurred), and not what they think probably happened. It would have been unprecedented for the referee, in this situation, to have changed his call had Henry come running up to him saying "I fouled, I fouled, it shouldn't be a goal!" It would have put the soccer world (and other sports) on its head.

One of the defining characteristics of most team sports is that each participant has a clearly defined role to play. Players play, coaches coach, spectators spectate, and umpires umpire. When people go outside their role, it makes people nervous. Coaches are often heard telling players who question their decision-making "you play and I coach." I have heard umpires say (and I have said and heard this myself as a former coach and umpire) "Coach, you do the coaching and I'll call the game." So is there any room for people to cross those clearly marked lines?

A purist (or a golfer) might say that there should be room for a player to call a foul on him or herself. For the integrity of the game, the right call is most important and that it would justify people straying outside their closely defined roles. Others, the pragmatists, I guess, believe that allowing that sort of "self-foul calling" is unrealistic and would undermine the game and result in an uneven playing field. After all, the teams that called the most fouls on themselves (or the most honest teams) would clearly be at a disadvantage. No different than most tennis matches, I would argue. But wouldn't that be kind of cool? To allow individual players to call their own foul in a game when they see that the referee has missed it -- and have the referee actually adjust the call accordingly?

Instant replay has addressed the concerns of those who believe the right and most accurate call is critical to the integrity of the game. But where does that leave the integrity of individual players? Both those who try and cover up a foul -- or even more disheartening -- those who own up to the foul but are ignored by the referees.


  1. I'm pondering the intersection of "Players calling their own fouls" and "The ponytail yanking incident". Let's say the soccer player did not receive a red card and instead removed herself from the game for her infraction. What happens the next time she is involved in an incident where her opponent ends up on the ground? Would the opponent then be looking for her to remove herself again?

    The role of officials as the objective deciders would be blurred beyond repair if all players were asked to police themselves and then let the officials decide the sentencing. The skill set of officiating needs to be appreciated as much as the athleticism of the competitors.

  2. An excellent point. Good and pure competition relies on all those involved performing their role with skill and integrity. The umpire has a role that, in part, assumes that players (and coaches) will not -- and cannot -- fulfill that role. Even as a former umpire, it hadn't occurred to me that relying on players to call their own fouls might actually cheapen the skills that good umpires have. However, too great a reliance on that structure allows some players to justify cheating. After all, a good umpire will catch them!