There are three heroes in this story -- though heroes is really much too dramatic a word. Three good guys, then, who saw that something was wrong in soccer, did something about it, and got things put right.
Referee Randy Vogt, who first drew attention to
the problem of skin cancer for referees who do a lot of reffing in the sunshine but don’t wear caps. Journalist Mike Woitalla, my esteemed colleague
on Soccer America, who is also a referee -- he pounced on the story, followed it up, did the research, and made a virtually water-tight case for referees to wear some sort of headgear. And USSF President Sunil Gulati, who quickly saw the validity and cogency of Woitalla’s argument, and had the Federation issue a well-worded statement saying it was OK for refs to wear hats.
Of course, I’m amazed that everything went so
smoothly. I’ve had my attempts to get rules or practices changed in soccer and have invariably been met -- especially when referees are involved -- with mulishly negative responses. Which, of
course, may simply mean that Woitalla is a much more convincing advocate than I am. Quite possibly, I’d say.
Woitalla first faced a situation that I recognize only too well -- that
referees, in general, were "obeying" a rule that didn't exist. They were not wearing caps because they believed the rules banned them. No, they couldn’t cite chapter and verse, but that was the
It didn’t say “no hats” in the rulebook, but Woitalla dug up some official “guidelines” that ruled out headgear. But nothing too recent --
in other words, the written authority for a ban on hats was shaky.
This is something that has long exasperated me about referees -- that they
obey “rules” that are not really rules at all, rather practice that has become accepted over time, and is simply not questioned ... when it should be. My #1 irritation in this category is
the notion that, in close calls, the “benefit of doubt” should be given to the defensive player. A poor idea, for which there is no justification at all.
But Woitalla was able
to expose the flimsiness of the no-hats argument. More: He was able to cite serious cases of referees who had suffered skin cancer of the scalp. So far so good -- but even good ideas (maybe it’s
especially the good ideas -- yes, I’m thinking of some of my brainwaves) have a habit of simply fading away when they reach the upper levels of soccer
authority. But here we are talking about a potentially life-saving idea. It was not to be denied.
In no time at all, Gulati made his move. Hats are OK -- at least in the USA -- and advice
on the use of sun screens is included in the Federation statement.
This whole incident carries, for me, a significant reminder of the importance of the press. The sport itself, the FIFA
Medical Committee, the Referees Committee were all in a position to take action on this vital issue, yet they did not. In the end, it was an alert journalist who got things moving. Journalists do have
a role to play in the development of the sport.
Which is what makes it so sad to listen to the TV commentators, very few of whom have any journalistic training at all. Without that
training, that outlook, that ability to recognize a true story (and, please, not a marketing celebrity story), they will never be able to contribute to the sport in the way that Mike Woitalla -- with
terrific assists from Randy Vogt and Sunil Gulati -- has done over the headwear issue.