[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 14, 2007 at 11:18am] Trackbacks
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 that referees have in their arsenal are too crude and too capable of determining the outcome of the game. The power of referees to work a game's bouleversement with one blow of the whistle — either by sending off a star player or awarding a penalty — places officials at the center of the game.

Players then have a strong incentive to attempt to influence referees, often by bearing false witness to the facts with dives and operatic petitions. This phenomenon appears to be exacerbated at the quadrennial World Cup, where teams play relatively few games for enormous stakes and where caution and calculation often trump free-flowing football. (In domestic leagues and even the Champions League, which involve many more matches, we still see wonderful games like Manchester United's 7-1 demolition of Roma last month.)

My proposals for addressing the situation, which I will also discuss further in future posts, focus primarily on ways of diluting and refining referees' power. For a start, more goals in the game would decrease the relative impact of referees' decisions. And if yellow cards are not sufficient deterrents while red cards effectively defang a team (in the World Cup, only one country scored after receiving a red card and that goal was, naturally, from a penalty), perhaps we need additional punishments of a severity somewhere between the two. Similarly, if penalties have a disproportionate impact on games and, indeed, may determine the outcome (as they did in six World Cup matches), perhaps we need a more finely tuned remedy.

In the coming days, I look forward to exploring this relationship between legislation and adjudication as well as the question whether too much law can ruin a game.

Because soccer is one of those happy topics on which many people will have an opinion, I suspect our comments will soon feature debates about whether Cruyff's Dutch teams of the 70s could beat Zidane's French ones at their zenith. In my next post, I'll propose an agenda for the week to organize our discussion. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this question: what team is being parodied in the clip above?