Author Archive | William Birdthistle


Before I tender my farewell, let me say how tremendously impressed I have been at the depth of knowledge and passion for soccer that I […]

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Sporting Sclerosis:

Any discussion of sport and law that grasps for comprehensiveness should consider what the two fields have to teach one another. The premise of such a consideration is, of course, that the two fields are separate, a claim that appears to grow ever more dubious. Rarely if ever will a season of professional sports pass by without the appearance of criminal allegations, contractual disputes, accusations of assault, claims of self-defense, defense of teammates, &c.

Witness this week […]

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Football Federalism:

If we believe that soccer could stand some improvement with a few changes here and there to the laws of the game, how would we go about testing new proposals? The ingenious system of federalism in the United States allows us, within certain limits, to wander into any willing laboratory to experiment with new regulations without heaving the whole system into chaos. The big challenge with sports, of course, is that unlike, say, parking meter policy, the playing and viewing public has a greater desire for uniformity. If we are to have a grand finale to determine the world champion at anything, presumably the world needs to play by the same rules.

On the other hand, different systems of baseball in the National and American Leagues haven […]

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Kulturkampf on the Soccer Pitch:

On Monday, our challenge was to figure out what soccer team the Guardian clip was skewering with its depiction of players being coached to dive, writhe, and plead for medical help. Of course, the exercise is something of a Rorschach test, since there are no identifying insignias anywhere and none of the players looks familiar. So, what are we to make of the prominence in the comments of confident nominations for Italy, Portugal, and Mediterranean nations generally?

Gross generalizations or hard-won reputations? Certainly, Northern European nations like to tell a story in which they alone uphold chivalric honor on the field against the encroachment of continental duplicity and sneakiness. This observation fits in nicely with broader cultural tales of Anglo-Saxon fair play, organizational abilities, and willingness to queue up versus Mediterranean penchants for eating dinner late, arguing about a 35-hour work week, and willingness to wear Speedos in public.

In practice (i.e., in pubs from Manchester to Munich), the argument is typically deployed with references to Mediterranean siestas, friends whose pockets were picked in [Rome, Marseille, the Algarve], and that time some guy cut the line at [the Coliseum, the Louvre, a Lisbon shrimp shack]. All of which results in this kind of behavior at the World Cup:

Of course, this isn […]

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Soccer Reform & Reforms:

Our political candidates might have us believe that nothing spruces up the country like a fresh coat of regulation, but rulemaking is of course far from a simple aesthetic matter of enacting “common sense” solutions. Even in the relatively rare cases where a problem is manifest and almost universally condemned, descrying its solution and then fixing it with new rules can be extremely difficult. And attempting to tinker with an already complex system, in particular, can easily exacerbate any original shortcomings.

Executive compensation readily comes to mind as one example. Although a few people think CEO pay is too low, I think it’s fair to say that plenty of Americans are put out by the more obscene packages. Yet almost every one of the repeated attempts to regulate compensation has backfired: the taxing of golden parachutes in the early ’80s popularized what had been a relatively rare perquisite; the cap on deductions for pay over $1 million quickly turned into a floor; and increased disclosure has allowed CEOs and boards to see what others are getting and to ratchet compensation even higher.

Soccer has its own delicate web of regulation, pieced together to patch over the evil ingenuity of players. For example, the current rule forbidding goalkeepers to pick up backpasses from teammates evolved to cope with chronic time-wasting. And the offside rule was intended to bar strikers from perching and poaching in the opposing goalmouth.

So should we adopt a Burkean approach to the matter and presume that our existing system is the ideal product of a century of footballing wisdom? I will allow that caution is warranted but won’t insist on quite so conservative an approach as my esteemed compatriot — I see the aforementioned rules as fairly good examples of how new rules can improve soccer.

And […]

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The Universal Game:

One of the joys of soccer is its universality, both geographically and temporally. Throughout most of the world, players abide by the same rules, and aficionados savor the same trove of historic moments. This pair of connections allows fans from all over the world to recognize footballing genius when they see it and, like well-tutored lawyers, to situate such brilliance in its rightful historical genealogy.

So, for instance, when the 19-year-old Argentine Lionel Messi scored for Barcelona in a Spanish cup match against Getafe last month, spectators everywhere immediately appreciated both the goal […]

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Football Most Foul.

At law schools throughout the country, late spring is the season when professors put away lecture notes and turn from coaching their students to refereeing them. As we pick through stacks of exam answers, we serve as arbiters of all the wisdom that can be legibly scribbled into a bluebook in a few furious hours. Each student’s grade rests to a certain extent on the decisions we make. But the outcome depends more than anything else on how the student performs. Surely?

To avoid that awkward question for a moment and to be honest, the final I’m most looking forward to these days is not the securities regulation one my students took two days ago but rather the Champions League match between Liverpool & AC Milan next Wednesday. Can we assume that contest will also depend most on how the players perform? Or is it fairer to predict that the referee will play the most prominent role?

Anyone who watched even a few minutes of last summer’s World Cup probably has a firm opinion on that question. Casual spectators of the tournament may not have been lucky enough to spot one of the 2.3 goals per game. But they stood a good chance of seeing a referee hand out one of the 346 yellow cards (at a rate of 5.4 per match). And what they could not have missed were the chronic and mortifying instances of world-class athletes writhing about the grass as if possessed.

This clip includes some demonstrations of the behaviour and perhaps suggests its origin:

(Hat tip: Eric Zorn)

In Football Most Foul
, I attempt to discern the cause of the deterioration of World Cup soccer into this deplorable state. My conclusion, which I’ll explore further in coming posts, is that the rewards and punishments […]

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