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World Cup Intermezzo: Reflections on Law, Football, Ethics, and Technology

In the wake of the 2006 World Cup finals, I blogged a bit about sport and institutional governance, trading thoughts with William Birdthistle, who was guest blogging at the VC. You can find my posts here and here, and from there you can follow the links back to his.

Then, as now, there was quite a bit of public gnashing of teeth over inept referees, missed calls, and misplaced discipline (red cards) of players. This time around, a blown call in Germany’s win over England has prompted renewed calls for some form of technology-enabled judging.  Even Sepp Blatter, head honcho of FIFA, is now open to the possibility that a machine could be used to determined whether a ball has crossed the goal line.  One could argue that such a device should be reserved for use only when the Germans meet the English, or that England have had a taste of the medicine that helped them raise the Cup in 1966, or both.

Up on Capitol Hill, however, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan recently dealt a devastating if not fatal blow to the idea that adjudication is a “robotic” matter of right and wrong. By elevating the idea of judgment in judging, she has expanded the scope of the inquiry; the question — in sport as well as in law — is not only the behavior of the neutral, but the behavior of the players. Rather than revisit arguments about the role of the referee (or umpire, to borrow the metaphor used by now-Chief Justice John Roberts) in governance of an institution, this time I offer links to recent arguments about the role of the players:

Does a football (soccer) player have a duty to own up to his or her knowledge about the “right” outcome of a given play? Should the German goalkeeper, Neuer, have told the referee that Frank Lampard’s shot had crossed the line? 

Peter Singer says yes (read the comments to his essay to see an important qualification to his claim):

Yes, we can deal with the problem to some extent by using modern technology or video replays to review controversial refereeing decisions. But, while that will reduce the opportunity for cheating, it won’t eliminate it, and it isn’t really the point. We should not make excuses for intentional cheating in sports. In one important way, it is much worse than cheating in one’s private life. When what you do will be seen by millions, revisited on endless video replays, and dissected on television sports programs, it is especially important to do what is right.

How would football fans have reacted if Neuer had stopped play and told the referee that the ball was a goal? Given the rarity of such behavior in football, the initial reaction would no doubt have been surprise. Some German fans might have been disappointed. But the world as a whole – and every fair-minded German fan too – would have had to admit that he had done the right thing.

Neuer missed a rare opportunity to do something noble in front of millions of people. He could have set a positive ethical example to people watching all over the world, including the many millions who are young and impressionable. Who knows what difference that example might have made to the lives of many of those watching? Neuer could have been a hero, standing up for what is right. Instead, he is just another footballer who is very skillful at cheating.

For a different view, read Henry “Chip” Carey:

There are all sorts of measures of political and social corruption, including Transparency International’s famous annual index. And world soccer has more than its share of corruption-related headlines: recent months have seen criminal investigations into soccer corruption in Germany and league-wide corruption scandals in Italy. And, of course, every single soccer match is replete with examples of players bending and breaking the rules. A comparison shows that fans are right to give credence to some of the less savory national stereotypes — but they should also probably show more composure when confronted with bad behavior on the pitch.

Given national stereotypes and corruption statistics, we would expect South American and southern European soccer teams to be more prone to corruption and cheating in soccer. And, indeed, Argentineans and Italians, players and fans alike, have been known to embrace deception on the field — at the least, they prefer to push the limits of what they can get away with when the referee isn’t looking.

Fans and players in these countries tend to be nonchalant about time-wasting, clever tricks, and dissimulation — like diving in the penalty box to attract a penalty kick — accepting them as “part of the game.” In South America, soccer fans admire precisely the very tactics (for instance, the pulling of shirts and tugging on shoulders during corner kicks that are near impossible for referees to spot) universally condemned by soccer’s rule enforcers. It is no coincidence that Lucio, Maicon, and Samuel — the most notoriously sneaky stars of this year’s Champions League victors, Inter Milan (note: an Italian team) — hail from Brazil and Argentina. These are countries with a long tradition of El Gueguense, the game of deceiving colonizers. The rules of the game are simple: never tell a lie, but never tell the whole truth.

Hmmm.  Universalist ethics?  Economic or cultural determinism?  For more on North/South and East/West issues in football, read through this account of the history of the ball itself — a rather different view than I took here.

1 thought on “World Cup Intermezzo: Reflections on Law, Football, Ethics, and Technology”

  1. For that once every 11/12 WCups, when desperately needed, a goal line judge would work better than technology.

    and ‘fessing up in sport? It’s not like real life. Too much is at stake.

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