Creating a culture of respect: what soccer can learn from rugby

This past weekend, I watched the championship match of the Rugby World Cup, which New Zealand won, 34-17 over Australia. The whole experience was great. Rugby is an awesome sport, full of athletic brilliance and suspense. I also love getting a chance to experience the titillating confusion one gets from engaging with an unknown sport. One of the most striking parts of rugby was the level of respect between the players and the referee. Particularly as someone who has played and watched soccer my entire life, I was astounded at the culture of respect rugby has managed to create. Soccer and rugby are quite similar sports, but the relationship between player and ref is so broken, so fractious, so disrespectful in soccer, that I couldn’t believe how good it was in rugby. What accounts for the difference? Is there something integral to the sport that makes soccer so unhealthy and rugby so healthy? Is soccer doomed to stay that way?

Soccer refs are petty dictators. They’re all-powerful and within the context of the game, completely unaccountable to anyone for anything. Yes, they have two or three linespeople/assistant referees, but those people are there only to provide information to the ref, every decision is hers to make alone. Even something as integral to the game as how long it lasts is controlled completely by the ref. Refs have total authority and their decisions are extremely important. Because soccer is such a low-scoring game, a ref’s decision to grant or not grant a penalty kick is often the difference between winning and losing. Likewise, a decision to give a yellow or red card can be vitally important.

Rugby refs have as much power as soccer refs but they’re infinitely more accountable and their decisions are slightly less important. Rugby is a higher scoring sport, which reduces the importance of most penalty calls. Rugby also does away with soccer’s silly insistence on living in a world where only the ref has the official time. Rugby refs can stop the clock but they do not control when the game is over. Red and yellow cards work similarly in rugby as in soccer, but because there are 15 players on the field, losing one for ten minutes (a yellow card) or the rest of the game (a red or two yellows) is not quite as big of an impediment to winning as it is in soccer. These technical differences pale in comparison to the major difference – refs wear body cameras, microphones, and ear pieces. What they say is constantly broadcast to television audiences and they are in dialogue with a replay official who can assist on penalty calls or even alert the ref of something he did not see. Video from their perspective is available to people watching on TV.

Let’s examine what happens when there’s a close, important penalty call to make in each sport. In soccer, a ref must make the call based only on what she sees, perhaps with some basic assistance from a linesperson who waves his flag if he believes there’s a foul. Soccer refs believe there’s an imperative to make the call quickly and decisively, so that they maintain order and continue to inspire respect from the players. They don’t need to explain their call to anyone, definitely not the players. Rugby treats this situation almost completely oppositely. Rugby refs don’t need to make a call only by memory and with an instant decision. They can stop the game, consult with their assistant refs on the field, watch video of the play, and ask the opinion of a video replay official. Although soccer has not implemented video replay, many American sports have. You can split them into two groups: baseball and hockey have centralized video replay offices that make the decisions when a play is reviewed; in basketball and football, the on-field refs watch video on court side or side-line video monitors and then make the decisions themselves. Rugby blends these two approaches. There is an off-field replay official, but she is there in a consultative role. The ref makes the final decision, based on video he sees. The major difference is this — the entire process is transparent! Audio from the conversation between the two officials is broadcast live on television and instead of running over to peer at a small and private video monitor, the ref reviews video using the stadium’s jumbotron screen, which both teams and the entire stadium audience can follow along with. There are no secrets about the process. By the time the decision has been made, everyone knows how the referee came to that decision.

Look at these videos to see the difference these two processes make.

First, a red card given to Jermaine Jones, a New England Revolution soccer player, after the ref misses an obvious red card.

Jones is understandably furious – not just because the ref should have seen and penalized the hand ball, but also because he knows that soccer rules offer no chance for reviewing this vitally important call. With such little respect between ref and player, there’s no choice for the ref but to throw Jones out of the game.

Compare that to an important call during the Rugby World Cup championship game (alas, this is not available on YouTube, but click this link and head to the 1:40 mark.) Ref Nigel Owens is making a decision about whether to give a New Zealand player a yellow card, forcing him to miss 10 minutes and his team to play a man down. He reviews the call on the video screen in the stadium and confers with his replay assistant. Once he makes his decision, he explains it to the player. He says that the evidence was “not marginal” and that the offense committed is a yellow card offense. He even ends his sentence with a rising, “okay?” seeking affirmation from the player for the decision. Almost unbelievably (to a soccer fan) the player nods, says okay, and heads off to serve his ten minute penalty. The two team captains stand alongside the ref, witnessing and validating the entire interaction.

Quick note — Nigel Owens is widely thought of as the world’s best rugby ref. He’s also gay. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, which is another giant difference between rugby and soccer. He’s also hysterical. Here’s a video of him chiding a player who was trying to affect his calls by reminding him that “this isn’t soccer.” And another of him making fun of a player’s line-out throw (which is supposed to be straight) by referring to his own sexuality.

Fixing soccer’s referee player interactions would be a big enough victory to look for in and of itself, but soccer’s culture of distrust and disrespect has wider implications. One example, and an important one, is the treatment of head injuries. In both soccer and rugby, once a player is substituted out, he cannot return to the field. This makes dealing with a suspected head injury tricky. Removing the player for a proper assessment means either playing at a numerical disadvantage or substituting and losing that player for the rest of the game, even if she doesn’t have a brain injury. Rugby has solved this problem neatly by allowing temporary head-injury substitutions so that players can be assessed and then return to the field if they are cleared without their team’s having to play down. The argument against this solution in soccer is that players could pretend to have a head injury to gain their team an extra substitution. It’s true that rugby teams are allowed eight substitutions compared to soccer’s three, so the incentive to cheat to gain another sub is less in rugby than in soccer, but I think the bigger difference is cultural. Soccer’s culture of distrust, which stems from its player referee interactions bleed over and make it more difficult to transform the game to be safer for its players.


So, where does soccer’s culture of disrespect and distrust really come from? Are ref player interactions really the source of all of this? I doubt it. You need look no farther than its governing body, FIFA, and the rampant corruption which is only now being addressed by international law enforcement. If soccer refs are the symbol of soccer authority and the top soccer authorities are almost unanimously worthy of incarceration, why should we expect players to respect refs?

How does scoring work in rugby union?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does scoring work in rugby union?


Dear Clara,

There are four ways to score in rugby, a try, a conversion goal, a penalty goal, and a dropped goal. A try is worth five points, a conversion goal, two, and both a penalty goal or dropped goal are worth three points. The three scoring methods with the word, “goal” in their names, all involve kicking the ball, while the try doesn’t. Two of them can happen in the course of normal play, while two are only done during a stoppage in play. Let’s go through each one and describe how it works.

How does a try work?

A try is scored when an attacking player with the ball places the ball on the ground in her opponent’s “in-goal.” The in-goal is rugby’s term for the area that in American football is called the end-zone. As opposed to in American football, where a player just needs to have control of the ball in the end-zone to score, in rugby, a player must get the ball into the end zone and place it on the ground. Two other small matters distinguish how a try works from how a touchdown works in American football. In rugby, a player’s body can be out-of-bounds and still score as long as the ball remains in play. Likewise, a player can be lying on the ground and reach his arm out to score a try. A try is worth five points and triggers the second form of scoring, the conversion goal.

How does a conversion goal work?

A conversion goal attempt is earned by scoring a try. After a team scores a try, they are given 90 seconds to attempt a conversion goal. A conversion goal is a mostly undefended kick that must go over the cross-bar and between the two goal posts of the rugby goal. I say, “mostly undefended” because the defending team is allowed to run, from the goal-line, toward the player kicking the ball, as soon as that player starts their kicking motion. The kick may be taken as a drop-kick (kind of like a punt in football, but the ball must be kicked as it hits the ground instead of while it’s on its way down) or from the ground, where the ball may be supported by a tee or a teammate to keep it upright and in position. The player who scored the try doesn’t have to be the one to take the conversion kick. Any player on the team is eligible to kick it.

The location of the dropkick is decided by where the try was scored. The conversion goal must be attempted from a spot “perpendicular” to where the try was scored. That means, if the try was scored in the exact center of the field, the conversion goal must be kicked from the center. If the try was scored all the way on the left edge of the field, the conversion must also be taken from the far left. The closer to center a conversion goal attempt is, the easier it is to score. That’s why you’ll sometimes see players try to run to the center before placing the ball on the ground for a try. As for the distance from the goal, there’s no requirement at all. In practice, the kicker chooses a distance that is far enough from the goal so that she feels comfortable she’ll be able to get the kick off free from interference by the other team. The farther the kick is from the center of the field, the more difficult it is to make. In order to get a reasonable angle from that wide, the kicker will generally move back a bit.

A conversion goal is worth two points and may only be taken directly after a try. There are two other forms of scoring. Both are similar to a conversion goal but do not follow a try.

How do a penalty goal and a dropped goal work?

A penalty goal is procedurally similar to a conversion goal, with the only real difference being that a player may not use a drop-kick to score a penalty goal. A penalty goal attempt is awarded to a team when the opposing team commits a foul. It is similar to a free kick set piece in soccer. The ref blows her whistle to call a foul, the opposing team must move ten yards away from the spot of the foul, and then the team benefiting from the penalty call can choose what to do. If the spot of the foul is close enough to reasonably score a goal and the game situation calls for it, they may choose to attempt a kick through the uprights. A successful penalty goal is worth three points.

A dropped goal is the active cousin of a penalty goal. Instead of happening when play is stopped, a dropped goal happens during active play. Whenever a player has possession of the ball, they always have the option of drop-kicking the ball through the goal. If they are able to do this successfully, their team scores three points. You’d think this might happen more frequently than it does, but going for a dropped goal means giving up the opportunity to score seven points (a five point try and a two point conversion goal), and giving possession of the ball to the other team. When a dropped goal is successful, the other team automatically gets the ball. When a dropped goal is unsuccessful (the ball misses the goal wide or isn’t high enough), play continues and whoever can get to the ball first (usually the defensive team) takes possession of it.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer


What happens in rugby union when someone gets tackled?

Dear Sports Fan,

What happens in rugby union when someone gets tackled? Can they get up and keep running? Do the tackler and the tackled player fight for the ball? What can their teammates do to help?


Dear Terri,

For people who didn’t grow up with rugby, myself included, it’s often helpful to think about the sport as a mixture of soccer and football. Your question gets at one of the essential inflection points where rugby has some elements of soccer and some of football. In soccer, play is not stopped, nor altered in any significant way by a tackle, as long as it’s legal. In football, a tackle brings play to a halt. The whistle blows, the ball is dead, and everyone has to get up, dust themselves off, and receive a new set of instructions before starting the next play. In rugby, a tackle changes the rules of engagement for how players can interact with each other and the ball, but it doesn’t stop the flow of play all together. It’s a blend of soccer and football.

A tackle in rugby happens when the player with the ball is forced to the ground by an opposing player. The ball-carriers knee or butt must touch the ground while she is in the clutch of an opposing player. Once that happens, the phase of play shifts, and the game is now guided by a set of rules which only apply to this particular situation.

  1. The player who tackled the ball-carrier must immediately let go and either get back to their feet or roll, crawl, or slither away from the tackled player and the ball.
  2. The player who just got tackled cannot get back up and run with the ball. He must relinquish control of the ball right away. He can, pass it, release it, or push it toward his teammates as long as the ball doesn’t move forward, in the direction his team is trying to score.

Passing the ball out of a tackle to a teammate is the ideal scenario for the tackled player, but to do so legally, it’s got to happen quickly. As soon as an opposing player comes to try to get the ball, if the tackled player is still holding on to it, a foul will be called against him. In reality, tackled players often have to simply drop the ball, hopefully in the direction of their teammates. What we’re left with, is two players on the ground, neither of whom can pick up the ball and run with it again until they get off the ground and away from the play. Teammates of the tackler and tackled player may get involved to try to win back possession of the ball as long as they follow these rules:

  1. If they want to grab onto one of their teammates, they have to approach their teammate from behind the farthest back point. In other words, they can’t come running in from any direction, they have to circle around to their side of the field and then jump into the pile. Every successive player who wants to get involved has to do the same thing, only this time, they must come into the pile from the farthest back point of the farthest back player.
  2. Once the two players initially on the ground our joined by at least one additional player, this is called a ruck.
  3. Players in the ruck, who are grabbing on to one of their teammates or an opponent, cannot touch the ball with their hands. They can only use their feet, knees, etc. to roll the ball backward.
  4. One player on each side, as long as they are not grabbing on to one of their teammates, can reach into the pile, grab the ball, and pass it backwards to a teammate or run with it.

What often happens, is that the ball remains relatively still while the two sides try to push their opponents backward so that their teammate behind the mass of pushing players has an easier time grabbing the ball. In this way, the ruck resembles the offensive and defensive lines in football engaging at the start of a play. It’s a test of strength for territorial gain. In the case of a rugby ruck, possession of the ball is also at stake.

Watch the first minute of this video. Players from the New Zealand team get tackled over and over again, and each time, their team wins possession of the ball in the resulting ruck. Note how players on both sides have to circle back behind the ruck in order to enter it.


Thanks for reading,