Where I end and you begin

February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

There are three kinds of refereeing decisions: the Good, the Bad, and the Maybe. Of these, the first two are crushingly boring: if he’s got it right, excellent, carry on; if he hasn’t, no use bitching about it. Yes, they probably should introduce video technology. Hush now.

It’s the third that’s of interest. There are a certain number of decisions every game that could go either way; depending your interest, interpretation and allegiance, the decision will be wrong or right. These are the Maybe. Not the blatant decision that the most cyclopic can always find an excuse for — yes, he’s grabbed his neck and pushed him to the floor, but the ref should have booked the other bloke earlier, and anyway, he’s only just back from injury, and it’s not fair — but the genuine posers, that generate just as many shakes as nods.

As an example (and, please, without getting into the yes/no of it) consider Howard Webb’s penalty decision at Old Trafford, in the third round of the FA Cup. Those on the Manchester United side of things were happy with the decision: some contact; shouldn’t have stuck his leg out; certainly a foul. And those on the Liverpool side disagreed vehemently: not enough contact to go down; impact exaggerated; and anyway, the ref’s a notorious Manc.

What if they were both right?

The idea that an offence can be both committed and not committed is counter-intuitive but perfectly possible. The disagreement arises not from the incident itself but from the standard of proof used by each side of the argument, which is in turn determined by their interest. So, in the example above, a Manchester United fan is looking for reasons for the foul to be given, finds some, and therefore concludes that the foul has occurred. Conversely, a Liverpool fan is looking for reasons for the foul not to be given, finds some, and so concludes the opposite.

There is an illustrative parallel with the legal system, and the different standards of proof utilised in civil and criminal courts. Criminal convictions require proof beyond reasonable doubt (though not, entertainingly, unreasonable doubt; the alien abduction defence won’t help). By contrast, a civil case is judged on the balance of probabilities, a weaker test, which is an assessment of whose version of events is most likely. Perhaps most famously, OJ Simpson was found not guilty of homicide and uxoricide in a criminal trial, but he was found liable for their wrongful deaths in a civil case. Not proved beyond reasonable doubt, but more likely to be responsible than not. (As an aside, the US system isn’t always expressed in the same terms, but will do for the purposes of illustration.)

So the United fan above adopts the weaker test — does the evidence indicate that a foul is more likely than not? — as it is the test most likely to arrive at the verdict she desires. At the same time, the Liverpool fan, looking for the opposite decision, asks herself: is it shown, beyond reasonable doubt, that a foul has been committed? The answers can be yes and no, and so the two fans will disagree, and will be right to do so. But the key question, of course, is: what standard of proof is the referee using? The laws of the game, after all, don’t set out a standard of proof.

It is worth acknowledging at this point that referees work on the basis of different evidence to fans, particularly fans watching on television. Instead of one angle on the incident, followed by a number of other angles at various speeds and magnifications, the referee has only the initial perspective, plus immediate recollection, plus information from assistants, plus a couple of slightly more abstract ancillary concepts: their reading of the run of play, their interpretations of the body language of the players, and their own footballing experience.

For a referee to need to be convinced of every decision beyond reasonable doubt would be too onerous a criterion. By their very nature, such decisions require reflection and analysis, both of which require time, which is the one thing referees have precious little of. Recourse to the balance of probabilities seems likely, albeit probably to a stiffer standard than that of the interested fan. (Fans of US jurisprudence might like to analogise with “clear and convincing evidence”.) It also seems likely that the standard of proof utilised by referees varies dependent on contextual factors: what is given inside the centre circle might not be inside the penalty area; what might be a red card in a normal league fixture might not be in the World Cup final. And so on.

Any contentious incident will be debated, and will of course inspire disagreement. By approaching the same question from different angles, with different standards of proof, exponents of both sides of an argument can take comfort in their rightness, despite their disagreements. And that, ultimately, is the point. Fans know that arguing over a refereeing decision is futile, since you can’t change the game. What you can do is comfort yourself that the outcome was just. Or unjust. Or both. Your call.

With thanks to @Sleepy_Nik for insights into the mind of a referee. An intriguing place.

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§ One Response to Where I end and you begin

  • Sleepy Nik says:

    This is quite simply the best thing I have read on refereeing! Fantastic! And I have in no way shape of form contributed to this piece my good friend! Was just happy to answer some of your questions! Great analysis once again! SN

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