Feature photo by yourdon

I used to referee youth soccer. One of the most peculiar things about the constant abuse hurled at me was the difficulty parents had with understanding the offside rule. The rule, nearly in its entirety, is this: if an attacker is closer to the opposing goal line than the ball and two opponents, and attempts to play the ball, that player is offside. This is the single most complicated rule in the game of soccer.

Which is not saying much. Soccer claims two superlatives: it is the most popular and simplest sport in the world. The entire FIFA rulebook is less than 50 brochure-sized pages written for maximum brevity and room for interpretation. All government of gameplay consists of 17 laws. The movement of the ball is free, and the rules constraining its objective are too. We often hear politicians defining “liberty” as the absence of regulation. What, then, could be more American than this sparsely-governed sport?

Of course, soccer is not American. Many in this country have played the game and many follow it, but as is reiterated every World Cup, our sports-hungry public may never fully embrace it. Least enthusiastic about soccer in the United States happens to be the population that most abhors the specter of “European-style” government overreach.

What this fanbase does embrace, for the sake of argument, is the “big four”: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. All were molded in America, yet all are hugely regulated. The Official Rules of Major League Baseball clocks in at 240 pages; the NFL’s rulebook is almost 300. (The NBA’s regulations are super-American at a gaunt 50 pages, although with thousands of more words than FIFA’s.)

To govern 22 players on the field, soccer utilizes three referees. American football requires seven. Here are the ratios for on-field players to referees for a few American and international sports:

American Football: 3.1 players per ref
Baseball: between 2.5 and 3.25 depending on baserunners
Basketball: 3.3
Hockey: 3
Soccer: 7.3
Cricket: (including video official) 7.3
Rugby: (including video official) 10

In other words, the gameplay of sports developed in the United States is tightly controlled and the players are watched like hawks, much more so than sports from places that supposedly exemplify government intrusion.

The contradiction is striking if you accept the proposition that the aesthetics of a sport arise out of underlying cultural mores in the place of its origin. For example, in class-static England, sports fans permit the fact that only five elite teams have ever won its 20-year old standings table. In the United States, that would be an outrage–eleven teams have won the World Series in that time. American leagues even institute salary caps and revenue-sharing to strive toward parity. So in addition to condoning the redistribution of wealth in the name of equality, the aforementioned role of referees seems to indicate that American sports fans want more government of their game than does the soccer-watching world.

This point is reinforced further by looking at the types of calls referees are responsible for making. Every call in the game of soccer is a subjective judgment by the official. Compare that to a play in last Sunday’s Colts-Cowboys game, when a defensive lineman attempting to block a field goal sailing well over his head leveraged himself on the back of an offensive lineman. The illegal action had no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the play, yet the penalty changed a field goal attempt into a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, and eventually five additional points. In justifying the penalty, the referee used the most beloved two words in any official’s employ: “by rule.”

The effect of invoking “by rule” is to exonerate all human judgment by deferring to the prearranged commandment of Football God. This provides what Americans actually crave from highly-regulated sports: consistent officiating. Regulation is an attempt to guarantee certainty, which as any Tea Partier can tell you, tends to lead to unintended consequences. (Anyone remember the Calvin Johnson non-catch that exemplified the downside of instant replay’s pedantry?) But what is that from which we American sports fans demand certainty? From authority. Thus is revealed the true American ideal.

The dense rulebooks, the instant replay, and the “by rules” all combine to let players know exactly how they will be governed. In less-legislated and -officiated sports, more responsibility is given to subjectivity, to expert opinion. This type of officiating holds the potential for capricious authority. This is what Americans truly mistrust, not regulation itself. Avoiding that is an ideal much more reflective of American sensibilities than the quasi-anarchist fantasy peddled to us as “traditional values.”

Sports referees are the necessary evil of government in the truest sense. The officiating credo taught to me stated that the best referee was the least visible in the flow of the game. Why, then, do American sports have so many of them, with so much legislation to enforce? I contend that it is an attempt to approach ex ante certainty as near as possible regarding how a rule will be enforced; to restrict government, not just the players. Uninitiated American soccer viewers get anxious when the game continues past 90 minutes because we do not like that even the end of the game is a determination to be made by one autocrat. We prefer the alternative: slavish obedience to the clock, the rulebook, and litigation in general, resulting in larger but more predictable government. Extrapolating this idea would seem to suggest that the American ideal of government has little regard for how many laws are passed as long as they are passed and enforced with consistency.

Now, whether achieving that American ideal is worth a seven-minute break for video replay…

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