By Paul Gardner
A few years back I tuned in to a San Jose Earthquakes telecast and was immediately impressed with the broadcaster. It quite quickly occurred to me that he was doing the program alone, no partner with whom to exchange giggly remarks. That was one positive factor, but there was also clarity of voice, brevity of explanations and -- glory be! -- identification of the players.
I rated it the best American TV commentary I’d heard, a pleasure to listen to. I later learned that there had been some technical screw up and that the scheduled tv commentators never got on the air at all. I had actually been listening to the radio commentator -- John Shrader.
I’ve heard quite a lot of Shrader since, though always with a play-by-play partner, which gives me a rather different and less exemplary Shrader. Nevertheless, I’ve had no reason to revise my positive opinion.
Until Saturday, that is, when I had the misfortune to hear Shrader, along with partner Jim Kozimor, working on the Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose telecast. This game has already aroused a firestorm of comments because of a penalty awarded to RSL by referee David Gantar in the 62nd minute of what was, at that point, a scoreless game.
What Gantar saw -- or believed he saw -- was Alvaro Saborio being fouled in the penalty area by Quakes defender Brad Ring -- so Gantar gave the PK and red-carded Ring -- presumably for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Then after consultation with his AR, Gantar rescinded the red to Ring, and gave it instead to Bobby Burling. Saborio scored from the PK -- RSL were up a goal, and the Quakes were down a man.
Of course there were protests from the Quakes, strong ones, as they felt that Saborio had taken a dive. After the PK, Quakes keeper Jon Busch made rude gestures in the direction of the RSL players and the referee.
Meanwhile, up in the TV booth Kozimor and Shrader were carrying on like you wouldn’t believe. I thought I had just witnessed a controversial call -- hardly an earth-shattering event, I’d say. But no. This was, I got the impression, the worst thing that both Kozimor and Shrader had ever seen. They could not let it go. On and on they went, with repeated replays, reminding us that referee Gantar had initially red-carded the wrong guy, then that no Quakes player should have been red-carded, and that Saborio should have been booked for diving.
The replays -- we certainly saw enough of them -- were, as usual, never quite conclusive. The MLS website later reported that the replays showed “little to no contact.”
Both Kozimor and Shrader were 100 percent certain there was no contact, “You are kidding me!” lamented Shrader, “You can see space between the two of them!”
This always puzzles me. Where does this idea come from that, for a foul to be called, the contact has to be heavy? A moment’s thought will tell you that is an utterly absurd notion. For a player running at speed, probably on the balls of his feet, trying to cut and swerve, how much contact is needed to tip him off balance, to send him sprawling? Very, very little. The slightest clip of the raised leg will be enough to trip a player -- he does not have to be clobbered. What Kozimor later said -- that the contact, if any, “was not worthy of a red” misses that point.
“I’m sorry, this is awful,” said Shrader. Ten minutes after the call, Shrader was remarking “I’m not sure he [referee Gantar] is gonna look at that videotape and be very proud of that call.” Then we got tear-jerking stuff about what an honest team the Quakes are, how they like “to play the game true”, and they “don’t take dives.” Take that, RSL.
There was also a strange point made by both Kozimor and Shrader -- this was over 10 minutes after the call -- that the referee must be absolutely certain in making a PK call (yes, obviously) ... “especially when the game is scoreless.” Try to find that in the rulebook.
Two minutes after that, Kozimor had to remind us of the “controversial decision,” shortly before announcing, in almost funereal tones that RSL had scored again. Three minutes after that, Shrader told us that MLS could rescind the red card to Burling, but was unlikely to do so as it meant saying “our referee made a big mistake ...”
A pause of two minutes, and we got another replay of Saborio going down, with Shrader intoning, “Saborio, dive - with a capital D-I-V-E ...” Quite carried away now, Shrader went on “It’s embarrassing really, embarrassing for the referee, embarrassing for the outcome of the game, an embarrassment for the league.”
There was more moaning and whining as the game ran down -- Kozimor’s feeling that some of the RSL players would “be embarrassed by Saborio’s dive -- and they should be.” As the game ended Kozimor was saying that the Quakes had this one “in some ways, taken away.”
After Busch had got into RSL coach Jason Kreis’ face on the sideline, back came Kozimor and Shrader for yet more recriminations, with an intense Shrader telling us that “those who love this game should be ashamed of Saborio’s actions ...”
Did Kozimor and Shrader have a point? Yes, they did. But it was not one that needed emotionally belaboring for over half an hour. Maybe Saborio dived, maybe he didn’t, maybe he was clipped, maybe he slipped. Referee Gantar saw it as a foul (by the wrong guy, initially). Even if that was the wrong decision, it wasn’t an outrageous decision ... unless we are asked to enter a fantasy world where Burling never commits a foul.
Both Kozimor and Shrader admitted several times during their rants that RSL was the better team. But the idea of a dive seems to have slightly unbalanced them. Why? What’s the big deal here?
A reminder: this MLS season started with a series -- four of them -- of frightful fouls that resulted in serious injuries to players (none of the four players has yet returned to action). Yet I do not recall reading a single condemnatory word about the players who inflicted those injuries. On the contrary, they were all defended by their coaches and teammates, all of them were painted as guys who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Quite possibly, that was all true. In no time at all, the injured players were carted off to hospital, out of the way for the time being, while sympathy was poured on the aggressors.
Saborio’s crime -- if, indeed, he committed one -- did not break anyone’s leg. But for reasons that I have yet to fathom, diving is seen as a more heinous crime than violent play. So no one will be saying what a great guy Saborio is, not even what an excellent goalscorer he is. Neither Kozimor nor Shrader made any complimentary remarks about him during their onslaught.
Diving is, obviously, to be deplored as a way of trying to deceive the referee -- of cheating. But are we asked -- by those who see it almost as a death-penalty crime -- to believe that diving is the only form of cheating going on? That tacklers never pretend to have pulled off a clean tackle when they know perfectly well they’ve just fouled an opponent? That goalkeepers never make out they got the ball cleanly when they know they’ve just grabbed a forward’s ankle? And so on -- and all those examples occur more frequently than diving.
I do condemn diving. But I do so in the overall context of the game, in which forwards (the usual suspects) are much more sinned against than sinning, in which violent and reckless tackling is a bigger problem -- indeed, is the very problem that encourages players to dive, as a defensive reaction.
Just ask yourself two questions: How many penalty kicks have you seen given when you’re quite sure the forward dived? How many penalty kicks have you seen not given after the most obvious of foul tackles?
That second total is going to be way higher than the first -- and that is where the real problem lies, the one that, to quote John Shrader, “those who love the sport should be ashamed of.”