By Paul Gardner
That soccer's television commentators should get things wrong from time to time is not to be wondered at -- they have to work at high speed, giving instant opinions on incidents they may not have been able to see too clearly.
Though they should have learned by now that it usually means a delay of only a few seconds to wait and see if the almost-instant replay makes things any clearer. Generally, not always, it does.
And generally, though not always, the commentator will, if necessary, revise his opinion. All of which is understandable, decidedly human, behavior. Sure, it can be criticized -- heavily so, if the error is gross. Those who criticize, myself among them, do so with an inner caution, with the awkward knowledge that they themselves are not immune to such errors.
But the errors have their own interest. Because they are likely to offer unguarded insights into the prejudices of the commentators. Prejudices that, in turn, reflect more widespread attitudes.
The errors I’m talking of come in two forms -- either failing to see what is there to be seen, or seeing something that is not there at all. The first type of error can often be totally excused because the pictures themselves are not clear. It is the second type of error -- those that arise because the commentator has invented details -- that interest me here.
The invention may be comparatively innocent -- with the commentator merely striving to make himself look insightful. This happens pretty frequently. Two examples -- one from MLS, one from the EPL: describing a goal scored from distance with a shot that floated over the goalkeeper and dipped just under the bar, the commentator tells us how the scorer “looked up, saw the goalkeeper off his line,” when a careful study of the replays shows that he did not look up; on a badly mistimed volley, the commentator assures us that the player’s miscue occurred because “he looked up at the last moment” -- again, the replays show that to be simply not true.
This is all relatively harmless. In both instances, the commentators’ intentions are benign -- in one case quite possibly giving a player credit he didn’t deserve, in the other trying to excuse a player for a clumsy error. While, of course, allowing the commentators to sound knowledgeable.
So much for innocent invention. The other side of the coin is much less acceptable -- when commentators invent foul play. This is less common and it is interesting to note under what circumstances it most frequently happens.
Diving is the target. I remarked recently on how Kasey Keller made an astonishing mistake in accusing Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales of diving when he was clearly, and badly, fouled by Seattle’s Brad Evans. Keller later, to his credit, apologized for his error. But that is rare -- it didn’t happen in yet another of these incidents, during Saturday’s EPL game between Liverpool and Sunderland.
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was shown a yellow for diving as he went down following a challenge from John O’Shea. Commentator Mark Bright had his say as he watched a replay that hardly backed up his confidence: “O’Shea puts his foot down, pulls it back ... there’s no contact.” What was he looking at? O’Shea did stick out his leg, planted it, but never pulled it back. Having flagrantly invented something that never happened, Bright was then quite happy to condemn Suarez as having “attempted to fool the referee.”
Meanwhile, on the BBC’s Web site, which gives a live text commentary, presenter Phil Dawkes was having his say: “... a theatrical tumble in the box under no contact from a challenge from John O'Shea. It earns the Liverpool striker a booking. And a deserved one at that.”
But all was not well. Some 30 minutes later, Dawkes felt obliged to return to the matter: “Replays of the Luis Suarez penalty incident are suggesting there may have been contact on the striker.” A later game report stated flatly that there was contact. The arrogantly confident assertions of “no contact” by both Bright and Dawkes were looking shoddy.
But Phil Dawkes went further, admitted his bias -- and defiantly defended his error: “I stand by what I said, though, I still think he [Suarez] went down very easily. I know it's old-fashioned but I prefer soccer when players prioritize staying on their feet, trying to score at all costs as opposed to dropping at the slightest brush.”
Which nicely exposes the prejudice in favor of crude defenders and against skillful attackers. I’ll put it more provocatively: a prejudice in favor of the macho urge to kick players who try to use soccer’s ball skills. An insidious prejudice that, it seems to me, cuts at the very roots of the sport. Certainly not one that should be propagated by TV commentators -- if only because it leads them into serious errors of judgment.