Sporting Certainties

Over at Crooked Timber Michael Bérubé has Joe Buck and Troy Aikman debating what it means to be off the field. It is hilarious.

BUCK: Granted. But the point remains that a sport doesn’t actually need a “hard and fast” rule in cases like this. More specifically, you have to agree that in hockey, there’s no way the Giants would get such a damaging penalty in such a crucial situation on grounds as flimsy as these. And maybe that’s a better way of doing things in the end, instead of allowing for rigid regulatory minutiae that are inconsequential for the immediate play but potentially game-deciding nonetheless.

AIKMAN: Look, Joe, I hear you. I said this was a tough break. But you remember what Wittgenstein said in aphorism 88 of Philosophical Investigations?

Unfortunately there is a valid point here, and it is nothing to do with whether poor Chase Blackburn had got off the field in time. It is to do with punishment of foul play and the like by sports “administrators”.

First let’s go back to the cricket. Remember that Harbhajan Singh racist taunting incident? After the game, Singh was found guilty of racist abuse by the match referee, Mike Proctor. Proctor’s method of deliberation was to ask both sides what happened and chose the believe the word of the Australian players rather than that of the Indians. When the sentence went to appeal they got a proper judge in. He decided to listen to the recordings on the stump microphone instead, and determined that the case was unproven. Judges, you see, know how to deal with these things.

Now let us come up to date and look at the citing inquiries after the weekend’s rugby. Personally I’m happy with letting Jonny Wilkinson off. He looked like he was trying to tackle Jonathan Thomas with his arms, and Thomas came in very low, which is how come he got whacked in the head. It is also not entirely clear how much damage was caused by Wilkinson’s arm and how much by the various player landing on Thomas afterwards. Case not proven (which is different from “not guilty”).

Andrew Henderson, on the other hand, was clearly caught on camera head-butting Damien Traille. Sure he was provoked, but his guilt is without question. As Brian Moore said at the time, had that been a soccer match, he would have got a straight red. But the citing commissioners have decided to let him off. Apparently it was his birthday.

And this is by no means the first time such nonsense has happened. There was the notorious incident when Danny Grewcock stamped on Mike Hercus. Hercus was lying on the ground well away from the ball at the time. But Grewcock was let off on the preposterous grounds that he was “needed to play for England”. This is the same Grewcock who escaped punishment for kicking Dwayne Peel in the head during an England-Wales match. Yet other players have received draconian punishment. Jerry Flannery of Ireland, for example, is currently serving an 8-week ban for a stamping incident. I’ve no doubt he was guilty, but the length of the sentence is unusually long and seems to have been very conveniently chosen precisely to prevent him from playing in the 6 Nations tournament.

So while I agree with “Buck” that we don’t always need rigid regulatory minutiae, in the case of post-match disciplinary hearings it would be nice to see just a small modicum of consistency.

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