Opinion: on fouling and intent

Saturday's match against Bolton Wanderers produced two examples of fouling where intent seems to be factoring in to the way supporters, the blogosphere, and the mainstream media are discussing the incidents.  One is the two-footed tackle from behind that Gary Cahill executed on Marouane Chamakh and for which he saw red (he is appealing); the other is the completely unpunished studs-showing over-the-ball tackle that Paul Robinson put in against Abou Diaby.  The Frenchman was badly injured by the tackle, but it could have been much worse, as anyone who saw the Eduardo injury, Diaby's own injury four years ago, or the Aaron Ramsey injury can attest.

Intent is a tricky thing, though.

These fouls, along with Karl Henry's tackle that broke Bobby Zamora's leg, have raised the old specter of "he's not that kind of player" again, and with it, the parallel question of how much the referee should incorporate factors external to the tackle itself into his judgment.  These factors include the context of the foul within the match (e.g. Cahill was upset because of the non-call on Alex Song's foul near the Arsenal penalty area), the previous disciplinary record of the player (is he or is he not "that kind of player"), etc.

I've expressed my opinion about factoring intent into refereeing decisions in a piece I wrote for my other blog in the wake of the Eduardo "dive" vs. Celtic:

Even if the calls would always be correct in matters of fact (fair/foul, in/out, first/just behind, caught/trapped), there are increasing cries for using technology to determine intent in sports. This is utter nonsense. The best example of this is the dive in soccer, or rather, the "intent to deceive the referee", as the laws call it. It is right there in the name: intent. What is intent? Is it like motive in a murder case on television? All the replay in the world cannot establish whether a player INTENDED to do anything, even if he could be shown OBJECTIVELY to have began to fall forward before the defender’s cleats arrived. This still does not prove intent, despite the screams of the masses (mostly for the losing team) to "stamp out diving". All it proves is that he started falling over before the shoes appeared. The NFL has thankfully drawn limits around what can be reviewed by instant replay to matters of visual fact.

To extend this example, intent (e.g. premeditation) in criminal proceedings takes days, weeks, to establish.  This, to me, is the problem with saying "he is not that type of player".

The problem with that line is not that it's a moral judgment of a man.  Everybody knows that the football pitch is a different world than outside the stadium, that the dirtiest of players may be the most mild-mannered and fine fellows down at the café.  Even if everyone who watched an incident is relatively sure that a player intended to do harm to another, as Robinson perhaps did against Diaby on Saturday, it cannot be a basis for a decision.  It's simply too gray.  As long as there is a chance that Robinson/Ryan Shawcross/Martin Taylor are just clumsy as hell, they and their supporters/managers can always claim that "he is not that kind of player".

Well, what of it?  The rules are clear about what is a punishable offiense, and to what degree.  Cahill was going for the ball?  So what?  The rules are clear; one cannot tackle from behind.  This has been established as reckless and dangerous.  Do it with two feet, and it's a red card.  End of discussion.  Studs up tackle with your foot twelve inches off the ground, missing the ball entirely (which is actually irrelevant)?  Foul.  Red card.  This should go for all teams in all of football, Arsenal included.

Intent should not enter into these decisions.  The rules in these cases do not address intent in their wording, so why should a referee consider it in his decision?  His job is to enforce the rules, not add to them.  Or even if his job is to "interpret" the rules: interpretation does not necessarily imply extrapolation, does it?

What the rules DO address is "careless, reckless" play.  This is where the referee must interpret a bit, but it seems that judging carelessness or recklessness must be done separately from intent.  Indeed, doesn't being careless mean precisely that a person's lack of thought about their actions (lack of intent) led to the outcome?  This is by no means an easy thing to judge.  It is cliché, but refs do have the hardest job in the game.  What is clear, though, is that simply saying that so-and-so "didn't mean it" is not good enough.

Please share your thoughts below.

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