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Sportsmanship Issues…

By Kirk Brooks
Sportsmanship Issues...

I have been thinking a lot about two issues surrounding the end of this soccer season.

The first incident of referee assault I have personal knowledge of. This followed by the unsettling revelation that ASL overturned every red card protested except one.

Frankly I have been trying to justify these two items. My initial reaction to the assault was anger and indignation. This was softened somewhat by the noises ASL made about "serious attention" to it or whatever they said they would do. They have a problem and seemed to be moving to address it. However slowly. Details of the incident were equally unsettling.

Then we come to hear that ASL has been overturning the red cards issued on the field. And the fault is really ours, we were lead to believe, because as a group we referees were simply not turning in good enough reports. So what would we expect?

The issue of reports may have some merit. The only instruction I have received for preparing reports was in my initial certification workshop and lasted about 15 minutes. In the years subsequent to that I have never had a report returned to me nor had any feedback about my reports either to say, "Nice reports" or to say, "this report is incomplete." So this may be a fair criticism of our report writing. Of all of the issues presented this is certainly the easiest and quickest to fix.

However, if ASL was using this technicality of documentation, which would have been apparent at the first meeting that overturned a card, as the reason for overturning the next 29 cards, and not bringing this immediately to the association's attention (so we could have fixed it then) seems to me to be a calculated move. On the field this is called "trickery" and cautioned as unsportsman conduct. Is it any less poor sportsmanship off the field?

There is a part of me that doesn't want to have to think about this issue at all. It is the part of me that loves the game for its own sake. The part of me that relishes the moment I blow the whistle to start a game I know will be intense and challenging. The part of me that loves the thrill of sprinting to keep up with a breakaway play, being close enough to a beautiful tackle to make no call, and feeling confident about doing my job well. It's the part of me that feels honored to share the field with some of the teams I referee and the part of me that makes me work as hard as I can to be as good as they are. That part of myself loathes having to deal with the politics and pettiness that accompanies organizations larger than two or three people. This is the part of me that just wants to walk out on the field and do the game and not worry about it.

I think when I am on the field I am pretty good at putting those things out of my mind. That is one of the personal satisfactions I get from being a ref, the combination of intense concentration and physical activity in a beautifully simple game.

I wonder if Doug had thoughts like this just before he was assaulted. There is nothing like getting beaten up to spoil the simplicity and beauty of soccer. For anyone.

My copy of Fair or Foul is copyrighted 1995. There is short essay in the front by Ken Aston that talks about the spirit of the game. I know that most of you have probably read it several times before but there is a short passage that I think about often:

The greatest problem the game faces is the steady breakdown of social discipline and its unwelcome intrusion into soccer. Hopefully the game can play its part in resolving the problem with its participants, for the game was originally designed by the schools not only for sport, recreation, and physical exercise, but to inculcate the disciplines of life. How to control excitement, frustration, disappointment, anger even. How to respect opponents, to work in a team, to be modest in victory and generous in defeat, to accept decisions you don't agree with and to conduct yourself properly at all times.

People who know me know that I am a hopeless idealist. So when I read about this marvelous little game that can help instill, "the disciplines of life" while running around and having fun I get really excited. In fact, I actually believe it. I see soccer games as wonderful microcosms of life that reflect various aspects of issues we all deal with every day. Some games more than others but I think I've learned something about the game or myself, or both, from every game I've done. Even the little kids.

The cynic in me would look at the actions of the league off the field and say, "yes indeed, we certainly are making sure that the game models life." That is, we don't have to accept things we don't like if we can find a way around it.

There is an essay on the FIFA website by Dr. Gunter A. Pilz, a sports sociologist at the Institute of Sport, University of Hannover, Germany. Titled "An attitude of mind or a question of expediency?" the essay examines contemporary attitudes of fair play by starting with the origins of fair play-namely the gentleman's game taught in English schools. Did you remember that the referee was introduced into the game in 1871 when the FA Cup was opened up to include all teams-including those from the working classes. More forms of social control were required beyond the gentleman's rules. Have you ever thought of your job as a ref as a means of "social control"?

It is around this time that fun became more serious and winning got to be really important. According the Dr. Pilz it was part of the war between the classes. (I read a story recently about the Kiev Dynamo. This was a team of Russian prisoners during WWII that was forced to play their German captors. Despite being told that "you win-you die" the Dynamo went on to beat the Germans. The eleven players were summarily shot, still in their uniforms, at the end of the game.) Following this was a rising social value attached to winning at sport and the increased media attention sports began to receive. "The idea of fair play", writes Dr. Pilz, " moved from being a matter of attitude to a question of expediency, a weighing up the costs and effectiveness: how much can I (still) allow myself to play fairly? Sport had adapted itself to the norms and values of modern society, more precisely, to those of a society where success means everything."

Admittedly a gloomy analysis. As Pilz points out, if this is the case then unfair play must be made so "expensive" that it no longer pays. He points out FIFA's attempts to accomplish this at the highest levels. Equally important, however, is the importance of education of fair play.

Does this really have anything to do with us, though? Here we are in little old Albuquerque. We aren't talking about sweeping social issues are we? We aren't at war. It's just a bunch of guys with their little piss ant soccer league and what the hell, why can't they just do what they like and let's all just have fun?

Whaddya say?

I suppose that is the reason I have been reading and re-reading all the books I have on the game. Why I have been reading the stuff on the FIFA website. Why I have been thinking about these two issues so much. I suppose it is the idealist in me that believes it really does make a difference that people learn about fair play. On the field and off the field. I do not see it, as coincidence that a season that saw the league regularly undermines its referee's authority should culminate in an assault on one of these referees.

The players and spectators I see at my adult games are the coaches and parents and spectators I see at youth games. What message does an adult player I red carded on Sunday take to his high school team the next Thursday if he knows he can pay $25 and have his red card over turned? I realize now he was taking them an entirely different message than I thought he was.

The truth is that what happens in the adult leagues flows, not just trickles, down to the youth leagues. Perhaps the adult leagues can't handle the responsibility for this. Like other athletes caught up in their own nihilism they just want to "do their own thing" and not acknowledge the impact they have on others in our community. I suppose that is their prerogative. It is not, however, a prerogative I think that we, as officials, can or should adopt.

You know, these issues are not just little technicalities. These are issues that are at the heart of organized soccer. They are important and I think we need to give them the consideration they deserve.

Kirk Brooks

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