Commentary

A Soccer Rarity -- A Triumph for Common Sense

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 accepted practice.

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.
4 comments about "A Soccer Rarity -- A Triumph for Common Sense".
  1. Scott Johnson, July 23, 2015 at 3:47 a.m.

    IIRC, the "rule" that a player who is sent off may not be replaced with a substitute, is nowhere within the Laws of the Game. While the Laws discuss sending off quite a bit, and explicitly state that a) a player sent off before the start of the match may be replaced by a substitute; and b) a substitute (i.e. a player on the bench but eligible to participate) sent off may not be replaced by a player not on the official game roster; nowhere do the laws state that a player expelled during the game cannot be replaced. Instead, this is a longstanding soccer tradition that is simply known to all, despite not being mentioned in the rules. (It's a legacy from the days when no substitutes were allowed at all; when the laws were changed to allow them, this was not explicitly addressed, so old custom prevailed. Even in youth soccer, which generally allows unlimited substitutions, sent-off players are not replaced).

  2. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, July 23, 2015 at 10:52 a.m.

    "I’ve had my attempts to get rules or practices changed in soccer and have invariably been met ... 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." Or to put it another way: maybe it's because Gardner is always such a smug ass.

  3. Ginger Peeler, July 23, 2015 at 3:20 p.m.

    I do think Taylor Twellman has contributed to the U.S. soccer family as a commentator with is stand on concussions. He was very explicit during the World Cup about concussion protocol needed during games. There were at least 2 games where concussed players stayed in the game. But in MLS now, the announcers have discussed a minimum 3 minute period protocol when players must be evaluated for a possible concussion. I think Twellman had a major role in that happening.

  4. Brian Something, July 25, 2015 at 12:33 p.m.

    A rare triumph for common sense indeed. It's not an understatement to say that Woitalla's and Vogt's collaboration will save lives.

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