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To Err Is Human

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The egregious mistakes made by World Cup field officials are far more insufferable than the incessant vuvuzelas. I hope your favorite national team has not been eliminated as a result. These kinds of errors, made while the world is watching, can be both embarrassing and dangerous. It certainly can put a dent into your career as a football referee, as the referee from Mali, Koman Coulibaly, soon learned after disallowing America's clean goal against Slovenia.

There is a long history of spectator attacks on referees who were just doing their jobs, although doing them badly. In 2009, Kenyan fans knifed an assistant referee who failed to call a goal scorer off sides. Sometimes, referees fight back. In 2004, a South African referee shot and killed the coach who protested the yellow card he had just given one of his players. Football referees have been taking a great deal of heat for falling for player deception, but even vigilance here can lead to trouble. In May of this year, a referee showed a Croatian footballer a yellow card for diving, only later to discover that the player had died from a heart attack.

As soon as the disallowed English goal against Germany was shown repeatedly on replay, the cry arose for instant replay. FIFA has now acknowledged that it might consider installing cameras around the nets, an approach adopted years ago by the National Hockey League. This seems to be an easy answer, but to only part of the problem. Every game is filled with missed fouls and wrong calls.

Modern technology is available that would address the goal/no goal issue, but the rest of the game should be left to the informed judgment of the referees. In a year where a blown call by a first base umpire cost a Major League pitcher a perfect game, the demand for technology may be irresistible, but we should resist.

An essential part of every sport is the level playing field of rules and enforcement. Referees and umpires do make errors, but that mirrors the life we live. Participants will tell you that the bad calls even out. The problem with World Cup goals is that they come so infrequently that to lose one on a bad call is likely to be outcome determinative. One goal can make the match.

It is a totally different issue when a referee is corrupt, something that is known to happen in almost every sport. Bad calls don't even out if they are paid for. The Pakistanis accused the Australians of bribing cricket referees. Brazilian football referees are said to be on the take. English officials accused Spanish officials of corrupting the referees. Accusations are a dime-a-dozen, but the proof appears lacking.

Sometimes, of course, the accusations are true. A Russian mob figure arranged the 2002 Olympic ice skating scandal. NBA referee Tim Donaghy served jail time after selling insider information. The Salt Lake City Olympic Committee bribed IOC members with guns and prostitutes. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker fixed a game they bet on in 1926. The 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. The Louisville Grays "hippodromed" the 1877 National League pennant and were tossed out of baseball. No technology can prevent this type of perfidy.

We can only hope that the games we love are fairly played and refereed with reasonable accuracy. Officials who make bad calls can look for new employment, especially if their mistakes were the result of being out of position to make the correct call. Major League Baseball carefully monitors the performance of its men in blue. (And why doesn't baseball have women umpires? The NBA seems to be doing just fine with some excellent female referees.) Some sports learn that they need more officials on the field of play. The NHL added another referee in the late 1990s without too much fuss.

Might another referee have seen the English goal or that the Argentinean was off side when he scored against Mexico? It would extend this blog way too long to list all the errors we have witnessed, but the mistakes and the World Cup are coming to an end. I am sure by the 2014 quadrennial football festival in Brazil all these problems will be fixed.

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