Survival of the Lucky: The Subjectivity of Competition

Sports. We love them. Whether football, baseball, soccer, or any other sport, we just can’t get enough. As an athlete myself, I can particularly relate when watching the battles of strength, skill, and intelligence that make up most competitive sports. Some part of human instinct for survival thrives on experiencing the thrill of competition, a throwback to the days where the fittest survived, and the weakest paid for their inadequacy with their lives. Sure, the consequences today are lighter, but the battle remains the same. The best win glory and pride, the inadequately prepared suffer bitter defeat and disgrace.

Or at least, that’s the way it should be.

Last weekend, I watched my first water polo game, Pomona-Pitzer vs. Santa Clara University, ranked 12th in NCAA Division I Men’s Water Polo (P-P is ranked 16th). For those who haven’t seen a water polo match, allow me to briefly describe the scene for you.

Each team’s six players battle for possession of the ball and try to score on rather small goals from a short distance away. This results in a lot of swim- ming up and down the pool, and a lot of disruption of that swimming by the other team. The sport is notorious for the amount of “dirty” play that occurs under the water, out of sight of the referee. Players will kick, claw, scratch, and basically attempt to drown their opponents. According to Gina Bock PO ‘14, an earlier game that day had devolved into a veritable aquatic battle royale. So referees are naturally under a lot of pressure to keep the game safe and call a fair match. During this particular game, however, several home fans were outraged by one aspect of the refereeing: the score.

It seemed that, amidst the constant calls of fouls and penalties, the referees had neglected to notice several goals that may or may not have been scored by the home team. On three separate occasions, shots taken by P-P landed on the goal line, and fans were appalled when no subsequent whistle came from the referees to denote a goal scored. Now, I’m not writing to complain about these calls. It is hardly within my authority, as a first-time observer, to contest the call of a seasoned referee. I’m merely concerned that such a crucial fact is contestable at all.

And let’s not doubt for a moment that an exact score is crucial. Part of our fascination with sports derives from the knowledge that the superior side will prevail, and the points are there to track which is the better team. Without a clear winner and loser, the spirit of competition relaxes dramatically. Not

that I don’t enjoy playing sports just for fun, but when I get serious, the score becomes one of the most important subjects of my focus. The score tells me how I’m doing. It is the surest and most unforgiving form of feedback that I or anyone in a sport ever receives. We must always be able to rely on it to give us an objective perspective.

So what happens when the score is no longer reliable? A similar issue was raised during this summer’s World Cup in the debate over goal-line technology after English footballer Frank Lampard scored a goal which officials failed to recognize. Then, as now, fans were outraged that the score did not properly reflect the progress of the game.

However, not everyone agrees that scoring needs to be reliable. Accord- ing to FIFA President Joseph Blatter, one reason to maintain our unreliable system is that it would “remove the enjoyment of debating mistakes,” which he feels is “the human element of the game.” I don’t know what sort of debate Blatter is used to hearing, but the incident to which he was referring was a pretty one-sided case. The ball was over the line. Lampard scored a goal. The whole idea of a scoring system in sports relies upon the definitive nature of the pronouncement. Keeping score is not in itself part of the game, the score is merely an indicator of the game’s progress. As such, that indicator should not be subjected to the mercurial tumult of human error. There is a human element to any game, but that lies within a different area of refereeing.

Fouls and penalties are intentionally grey areas of most refereeing. The floundering violence inherent in the sport of water polo is left up to split-second judgment calls based on the perceived severity of the infractions. There are guidelines, and a few hard-and-fast rules (I think I can safely say eye-gouging and ear-biting are frowned upon in most competitive sports), but a lot of calls are still within the referee’s jurisdiction to determine. As an experienced soc- cer and volleyball player, I can assure you that judgment calls like these leave plenty of room for debate––as they should.

But with scorekeeping, something needs to change. A college water polo match isn’t exactly the most critical situation, but at the World Cup, future scoring debacles would be disgraceful. Professional soccer clubs can afford to pay a couple of extra referees to do nothing but stand next to the goal and wave a flag if the ball crosses the line. No one wants to go through the agony that England’s fans endured after the clearly unjust ruling.

Certain aspects of a sport are subjective, but others really should not be. I will argue all day about whether this or that slide tackle should have been a yellow card, but that ball was in the goal. Now the refs just need to catch up with the rest of the world.

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