When is a cheater not a cheater?

We are in a post-rules age in sport. 
What do I mean by that? Well, three things;
1. Players have a greater influence on refereeing decisions that ever before.
2. Areas open for interpretation are so critiqued that the rule takes on a life of its own.
3. 24 hour media culture results in a decision being either wholly right or wrong.
In recent years with rising stakes in Professional sport – think securing survival in the Premier League or winning the Superbowl – the pressure on referees to make correct decisions was scrutinised so intensely that the rules themselves became the main topic of debate. Whimpers of a footballer interfering with play from an offside position are shouted down from the Rule Gods on Mount Olympus, whereas American Football fans are still chasing their tails worrying what a catch actually constitutes.
I believe that sport has now entered into a post-rules age. Where the rule book has become secondary to the players, coaches and fans influencing the referee to such an extent that the actual law becomes less important.
For each of the three subsections I will continue using the two different kinds of football (the correct one and American) to cross-examine this theme of a post-rules age. 
1. Players Influencing Referees
I am sure you have seen it before. 
A tackle happens, the tackler runs after the ball, the tackle-ee screams in a life-ending, buttock-clenching, Game-of-Thrones-favourite-character-dying-kind-of-way, opposition teammates surround the referee, and the tackler gets sent off. 

The player that is tackled is exaggerating the pain he is in to influence the referee, his team mates are revolted that anything less than a jail sentence would be a heinous crime, not to mention the managers, coaching staff and sixty thousand fans all protesting as well. 

Granted this is all a part of sport and, in particular refereeing, but the fact is that it is more endemic than ever. 

The result is pantomime officials – I’m looking at you Mark Clattenburg – becoming a key actor in the performance that is professional football. Umpires have to become even more exuberant than the players in order to avoid being influenced by the ultra-egos of footballers. 
So is it wrong to ‘simulate’ it if it benefits your team?
The answer currently, is no. 
Diego Costa was not touched by Per Mertesacker’s tackle in their most recent Premier League fixture when clean through on goal. 

Was there contact? No. Was it a red card? Yes. Did it benefit his team more with Arsenal down to ten men, rather than a one on one chance with the Goalkeeper? Absolutely.
2. Grey Areas in the Rule Book
What is a catch in the NFL? 
Above is the NFL’s definition of a forward pass. There are loopholes so big you can drive the Carolina Panthers tour bus through it. The most common problem is; What defines ‘control of the ball’? 
If you ask Dez Bryant against the Green Bay Packers, he would tell you that a catch followed by three steps with the ball was enough. However, the officials did not. 
In a similar fashion, the offside rule in football is constantly debated. The question of whether is a player interfering with play and when is he bypassed is up to the interpretation of the referee, as our friends at the FA outline below; 
There you are. Clear as mud. 

Official bodies have obviously left a degree of vagueness to allow the officials room for manoeuvre. They can justify decisions by presenting their case rather than simply being right or wrong. 

However, the mythical essence of the offside rule creates a disconnect between the officials and the fan, resulting in resentment on both sides. 
The crowd will chant; ” you don’t know what you’re doing!” and Mark Clattenburg will simply shrug with even more panache.
3. Consumer Demand for Instantaneous Media
The BBC Sport Live Text has just informed me that one of my beloved arsenal players has been sent off. My instant reaction? Find out more from the resource that is about as reliable as Wikipedia on a bad day; Twitter.

The Twitter-sphere – wow I hate that word – has meant that anyone with an inventive arsenal handle has an input on my life when I search for; ‘Arsenal red card.’ Not only that, but it means that official news bodies are diluted by the tidal wave of nonsense being created by incidents on the football field. So much so that there are news articles on how Twitter reacts to a specific decision. 

This is as a result of the culture of short term-ism for news in the western world. The decision was right or wrong, the home fans are either elated or suicidal, and the referee should be shot or not talked about. 

So we come back to our original point; that of the intense scrutiny of big calls. 
It creates an atmosphere that the rules are secondary and that decisions can be influenced by a number of factors; the fan (either via twitter or live spectators), the players (through simulation) or through previous decisions (precedent in refereeing).
There is an irony that when there has never been more riding on the biggest decisions in sport, the rules are becoming secondary to other factors of influence.

Welcome to the Post-Rules Age of sport.


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