How Jonathan Adler Gets It Wrong, and Soccer Gets It Right:

[As VC's resident soccerphile, I am of course busily preparing myself for the World's Greatest (By Far) Sporting Event beginning next week in South Africa. I'll be posting regular reports on the games, all of which (along with this post) come with the following request: Those of you who seem unable to elevate your discourse or analysis above the level of "Soccer Sucks!!!" are gently requested to avoid anything and everything I write, if only for the sake of your blood pressure]

Co-blogger Jonathan Adler has suggested that baseball needs to increase its use of instant replay to correct blown calls (such as the one last night that deprived Armando Galarraga of his perfect game) to become more like hockey (which allows a wide range of replay review during stoppages in play). Here’s the sentence that caught my eye:

“The outcome of the game should turn on the performance of the players, not the performance of the referees.”

That may seem obvious, to some. But to my eye it is not obvious at all — and indeed soccer is the exception that disproves the rule.

First of all, how do we know what the outcome of a game “should” turn on? If Adler is simply saying: “I only like games in which the outcome turns entirely and exclusively on the performance of the players, and not the performance of the referees,” that’s fair enough. But he’s making a much more general, normative point about sports and games, and what they’re about, and I think he’s on thin ice.

Let’s take a look at some facts:

1. The outcome of soccer games turns on both the performance of the players and the performance of the referees. Even a casual soccer fan understands this point. Not only does soccer have no replays, it places all calls in the hands of a single referee (assisted by two assistants on the sidelines), who is responsible for following the actions of 22 players racing back and forth over a 110 yard field for 90 minutes. (Hockey and basketball, by contrast, with a lot less going on and a much, much smaller place to monitor, use 3 on-field refs; and football, of course, has an entire platoon of referees seemingly monitoring each and every player’s every movement). Soccer referees make mistakes — lots of them, every game. Everyone knows this. The Offside Rule is particularly problematic; a study published in Nature several years ago showed that almost 30% of the offside calls in a large sample of professional soccer games are erroneous. Handball calls, fouls, balls crossing or not crossing the touch lines, etc. – even the best refs blow them time and time again.

2. Soccer is, by orders of magnitude, the most popular sport in the world. Not merely in terms of participation (which can perhaps be explained simply on the basis of the ease with which a soccer game can be started — a ball, a little open space, a few rocks to mark off the goal, and at least 2 people willing to go at it), but as a spectator sport; I would guess that the number of people across the planet watching soccer on any given weekend (live or on TV) is somewhere between 100 and 10,000 times greater than for any other sport. An objective visitor from another planet would have to conclude: human beings love one particular sport, and are mildly fond of a number of others.

Now, these two facts may be unrelated to one another — but I am convinced they are not. It is — oddly and paradoxically, perhaps, but there you have it — part of the appeal of the game; the refs are actually a part of the game, and their performance gives you more to be angry about or amused by, and more to talk or argue about after the game is over. Nick Hornby had it right, in his wonderful novel “Fever Pitch”: one of the necessary ingredients of a truly great soccer game is that the ref makes a horrendous call against your team — a penalty against you, say, awarded on the basis of a patently-obvious flop inside the box — but you win anyway! Not something a football fan is likely ever to experience.

Adler’s claim really goes to the question of what games are about, and why we love them. Soccer is like life. It can be terribly, brutally unfair; if you have any Irish friends, ask them how they feel about the blatant handball that enabled France to defeat Ireland and make it to the World Cup finals. It’s full of error and mistake. We (soccer fans) don’t like it when refs blow calls, any more than we like the fact that life deals out tragedy seemingly at random, or that good and virtuous people don’t always get their just desserts. But it’s part of the game, and part of what we respond to in the game, part of why we care so passionately about it. Football and hockey and the rest of them try to eliminate that element from the game — good luck with that, by the way. Nothing a priori better or worse about either approach, I suppose – but when one starts to talk about what sports should or should not have, perhaps the principle of vox populi, vox dei should inform our judgments.