Of soccer and football … and America’s love of proceduralism

June 12, 2014
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Professor Birdthistle’s guest blogging about the upcoming World Cup has reminded me of one of my favorite law review articles.  Professor Bill Pizzi wrote a great piece, titled “Soccer, Football and Trial Systems,”  which he later developed into a very informative book, Trials Without Truth.  The article and the book compared American football (with its heavy emphasis on proceduralism) and soccer (with its emphasis on a free-flowing, beautiful game). Pizzi made lots of interesting points about how football’s proceduralism parallels some of the excesses of our trial system. Pizzi observed that “In soccer, the rules that control the play of the game are comparatively few and most are fairly obvious — you can’t intentionally trip someone or physically knock them off the ball or engage in dangerous play. By contrast, the rules that govern American football are incredibly complicated. Consider just a few: Certain players on the offensive team may move before the snap of the ball but only in certain directions, others may not even flinch; certain offensive players may be blocked or impeded a certain way, but others may be blocked only if within a specified distance from the line of scrimmage; offensive tackles usually may not receive a forward pass, but sometimes they may be eligible to do so; a quarterback may not intentionally throw the ball to the ground to avoid being tackled for a loss, but in certain areas on the field he may do so and, at certain points in the game, he is even permitted to spike the ball at his feet.”  Pizzi went on to find parallels to this lengthy football rule book in our complex rules of criminal procedure.  Pizzi argued that “[o]ur American trial system reflects many of the cultural values encoded in the rules and traditions of professional football: the worship of proceduralism, the attempt to rationalize every aspect of the decision-making process, the distrust of spontaneous action, the heavy preference for managerial control over participants, and, above all, the daunting complexity of the rules that such a system requires.

While Pizzi first published his article in 1994, I think his point rings even more true today.  Focusing just on the sports side of the equation, of course, the NFL has now added appellate review to on-the-field calls in the form of instant reply.  Soccer, on the other hand, has resisted such “improvements” — unless you consider the new goal line technology (an electronic device that beeps when a ball goes over the goal line) to be further proceduralism.  To me, goal line technology is nothing more than a technological enhancement of the referee’s vision — something akin to 21st century eyeglasses — although it is interesting that FIFA (the World Cup’s organizer) was so concerned about lawsuits over even this modest technological enhancement that it insisted on insurance coverage against lawsuits for equipment malfunctions.

So along with much of the rest of the world, I’ll be watching the World Cup kickoff today.  The action won’t stop for flags to prevent illegal formations, huddles to craft plays, two minute warnings to hawk products, or chains to measure ten-yard first downs.  Instead, there will be a free-flowing spectacle of  eleven-man teams from countries all over the world simply striving to put a ball in the back of the net … with their feet of all things!  I’ll be cheering for my team — which even has a new anthem written for it by Branden Steineckert, fan of my home team (Real Salt Lake).  I believe that we will win — go USA!

Paul G. Cassell teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and crime victims' rights at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. He also served as a U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Utah from 2002 to 2007.
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