Why are there two bronze medals given out at the Olympics in Judo?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are there two bronze medals given out at the Olympics in Judo?


Dear Meredith,

Whoa! I didn’t know about that. I knew that there could be two bronze medals given out (or two or even more gold or silvers) in the case of ties, but I didn’t realize that an event could choose to always give out two bronze medals. Judo does just that. I’m not sure I can tell you why this is, but I can tell you how it works, and then venture a guess about why.

I wrote about repechages at the Olympics the other day. A repechage is a competition that gives athletes who have already lost a second chance to advance to the next round in an event. Judo uses something very similar. The first few rounds of the judo tournament are normal single elimination. Lose, and you’re out. Once the quarterfinals begin, however, things get a little funny.

The four winners of the quarterfinals go onto the semifinals. They compete against each other and the two winners move to the finals. Meanwhile, the four quarterfinal losers go to a repechage-like round where they fight each other. The two winners of that advance to play against the two semifinal losers. This results in two matches, each of which pit one semifinal loser against one quarterfinal loser who then went on to win the repechage. Since these are parallel bouts in all ways, each of them is for a bronze medal!

This might be easier to understand visually. The bold letters win their matches.

Quarterfinals: A vs B | C vs D | E vs F | G vs H |
Semifinals: vs C | vs G | Repechages: vs D | vs H
Finals: vs E | Bronze Medal Matches: vs B | vs F

Now, why judo does this is another story. My guess is that it’s because judo is not a naturally competitive sport. The Wikipedia entry on Judo has an illuminating quote from the activity’s founding father, Kanō Jigorō:

For one thing, judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment. Then the Olympic Games are so strongly flavored with nationalism that it is possible to be influenced by it and to develop “Contest Judo”, a retrograde form… Judo should be free as art and science from any external influences, political, national, racial, and financial or any other organized interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the “Benefit of Humanity”.

Maybe, just maybe, in the competitive desert that is the modern Olympics, judo’s granting of two bronze medals is an oasis of anti-competitive spirit.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why would a table tennis player hand her paddle to the ref?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why would the US table tennis competitor, who just lost to a woman from Korea, hand her paddle to the official at the end of the match? Any ideas?


Dear Brian,

Do you remember the Deflategate controversy in football from a couple of years ago? The National Football League discovered (although this is still widely debated, especially in New England) that the New England Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady had intentionally been playing with balls on offense that had less air in them that was allowed. In other words, they had broken the rules by modifying the equipment they were playing with. This story was novel for a bunch of reasons, many of them involving particular narratives within football that we don’t need to go back into, but one of them was that the NFL seemed to be punishing what, within football was seen as a minor infraction, with a major penalty. Well, in table tennis, illegal modifying your equipment is not seen as a minor issue. That’s probably why the table tennis Olympian you were watching handed her racket (they’re officially called racket not paddles) to the umpire after the game.

Based on a brief reading of the official International Table Tennis Federation’s Handbook for Match Officials, racket cheating is a major concern. Here are just a selection of the characteristics of a racket that the umpire is concerned with:

  • One side of the racket must be red, the other black.
  • The material covering the racket must not extend past the racket itself. This exact rule is left up to the official’s discretion, but the rulebook suggests that “as a guide, 2 mm would be an acceptable margin to most referees.”
  • During any of the many towel or water breaks during the match, players are supposed to leave their racket on the table and “must not remove them without the specific agreement of the umpire.

The rule that is most likely relevant to what you saw, however, is one that legislates how and when rackets are tested for illegal tampering by players.

“In major competitions rackets are tested for the presence of banned solvents, normally after the matches. For the quarter and semi-finals as well as for the finals, the players may be given the choice of a pre-match or post-match test, so that they can decide between not having the use of their racket between the test and the start of the match and the disqualification if a post-match test proves positive.”

My guess is that the American Olympian you saw handing her racket to the umpire after the match was over had opted for a post-match test and the umpire was going to facilitate that.

Another option, although I think it’s a less likely one, is that the player had damaged her primary racket and all of her backup ones. In that case, a the match umpire “must report to the referee, who will decide how a second replacement is to be provided.”

Amazing what you can learn from rulebooks!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does third and long mean in football? How does it happen?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m learning a lot! I understand the downs to an extent but my question is, what does it mean when it’s 3rd and long or 3rd and 18? Does it mean that on 3rd down the offense has to cover over 10 yards? Does 3rd and 18 means that they didn’t pick up 8 yards on 2nd down so now the 8 yards are added to the 10 yards on 3rd down?


Dear Susette,

I’m so happy that you are enjoying and benefitting from our Football 101 email course. Thanks for sending me this question. You’ve definitely picked up the basics about down and distance which is covered in the article that first appeared on this website under the title, “What’s a down in football? I’ve been pretending to know but I don’t!” As a quick review for people who may be seeing this article without having read that one, the football team on offense has four chances to move the ball ten yards. If they can meet that geographic goal, they earn another set of four chances with a new ten yard target. The four chances are called downs, with first down being the first of the four chances, second being the second, and fourth being the last. The number expressed after the down, is the number of yards remaining to meet that original ten yard target. In most cases, as a team works on offense, that number will go down. For instance, a team that runs the ball three yards on first down only needs to move seven more yards to earn themselves another first down with a new target. This would be expressed as 1st and 10 followed by a three yard run followed by 2nd and 7. The scenario which intrigued you is what happens when the distance number goes up instead of down. How did that happen? What does it mean?

When you see a distance number that is greater than 10, the one thing you can be sure of is that something bad happened for the offense. The two categories of bad things that account for this are penalties and negative plays. If you missed the play that caused the offense to be put in its bad situation, you may not be able to tell which of the two categories it was. If you had to guess, one guide would be the number of yards to go. Because penalties are usually assessed in five yard increments, if the distance is a number divisible by five, it was probably due to a penalty.

A negative play is one that resulted in an offensive player being tackled or running out-of-bounds with the ball behind the line of scrimmage where the play started. It seems strange at first to think that an offense would ever put itself in a position to suffer such an outcome, but it’s actually quite common. For example, almost every time a quarterback takes the ball from the center, he either retreats backwards a few yards or is already positioned four or five yards behind the line of scrimmage. This distance gives him a short time (sometimes only a second or two) to survey the field and decide where to throw it. Sometimes, the defense gets to the quarterback before he can decide and tackles him. This is called a sack. The offense would have to start the next play from the location where the quarterback was tackled, behind the original line of scrimmage. If the first play was a 2nd and 10, the next one might be a 3rd and 14 if the quarterback was tackled four yards behind the original line of scrimmage. The same logic holds for plays where a running back or wide receiver is tackled behind where the ball originally started.

A penalty is another explanation for why an offense might move backward. Most offensive penalties make that down not count. Most penalties offensive penalties supersede whatever the result of the play was and force that down to be replayed. This is why you sometimes see a team “decline” a penalty. This is a decision the team that the foul was called in favor of might make if the result of the play was more favorable to them than the penalty would be. A penalty on first and 10 could result in a first and 15, 20, or even 25 depending on the infraction.

While it’s impossible to say exactly what lead to a team having a 3rd and 18, my guess is that it resulted from a 10 yard penalty on a play that was run from 3rd and 8. Eight yards seems like too far to be the result of a common negative play, and a 3rd and 8 is not an uncommon situation. Third and “long” is just an expression. It doesn’t really have an exact meaning, but I would say that anything over seven yards could be considered “long.” Certainly anything over ten yards — which you now know to be the result of a penalty or negative play — would be considered “long.”

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer



Happy New Year 2016 from Dear Sports Fan

Happy New Year!!

2015 was a wonderful year in sports and a great year for Dear Sports Fan! Thank you for being a part of this experiment with me. I feel lucky to have been able to share so much of what I was thinking about with you during the past year. Here are some of the highlights of the year. Read to the bottom for a special treat for 2016.

In February, right before the Super Bowl, I published a series of heartfelt and deeply researched articles on the topic of brain injuries in football… and also what the top ten dirtiest sounding football phrases actually mean. In March, the madness of the NCAA basketball tournaments inspired me to share four business lessons one can learn from the sport and also four ways to fill out a tournament bracket if that’s more your speed.

In May and June, I came down with a bad case of World Cup fever and wrote dozens of articles about the 2015 World Cup. My non-gendered profiles of each of the women on the U.S. Women’s National Team were popular, which I was proud of, even if some of the most common search terms for them was “is [insert player name, most frequently Megan Klingenberg] married?” I fleshed out Dear Sports Fan’s coverage of soccer in general and shaped the articles into three email courses which are still available today: Soccer 101, Soccer 201 – Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202 – Culture. A personal high point was my trip to Montreal to watch the USA vs. Germany semifinal match.

After I moved to the Boston area in the spring, I decided to take Dear Sports Fan into the real world by starting a Meetup group. We’ve had a great time at our viewing parties, watching sports in an environment friendly to questions and welcoming to people who approach sports from all angles.

Throughout the year, I kept an eye out for moments when sports and the larger culture intersect. This has taken serious forms, like when shared my disgust with the drafting of Jameis Winston, and silly forms, like before the Kentucky Derby when I mined the world of musical theater for horse racing and betting tips, As always, the heart of the website has been a desire to make it easier for sports fans and non-fans to co-exist. With the NFL playoffs coming, it’s worth revisiting my thoughts on how a household can survive the football season without going crazy.

As one year comes to a close, another is just beginning. As a token of my appreciation for all the support I received during 2015, here is a New Year’s guide to the top 16 sporting events of 2016!

Why does an NFL ref throw his hat on the field?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching the football game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers last night and noticed that a ref had thrown his hat on the field. I know what i means when refs throw yellow flags, but why does an NFL ref throw his hat on the field?


Dear Ana,

Being an NFL ref is not a full-time job but it can be fun — for one thing, they do get to throw a bunch of different objects! As you mentioned, the most common thing for a ref to throw is a yellow flag. This symbolizes a foul that he has seen and intends to call. At times, you may also see refs throw a small, blue bean bag onto the field. No, it’s not the 1990s again, the ref isn’t about to sit down on the bean bag! The bean bag is thrown to the spot where a change of possession happened, because a penalty called after that time will often refer to that spot – i.e. five yards from the spot of the interception, fumble recovery, or kick return. Throwing things is fun, as is explaining why NFL refs throw things, but you didn’t ask about flags or bean bags, you asked about hats. Let’s get down to the hat.

The simplest reason for a ref to throw her hat is because she’s already thrown her flag! That’s right. Instead of carrying a backup flag, if a ref sees a second penalty to call after throwing his flag for the first one, his only recourse is to throw his hat. This is simply a brilliant move. Not only is throwing a hat a fun thing to do, but it’s also what cartoonishly angry people do in old comedies or cartoons to show their anger. I love thinking about the original ref who believed so firmly in law and order that he got super angry at seeing a second (a second!!) foul on the same play that he threw his hat in anger… and it became the standard for dealing with that situation. You might ask what happens if a ref sees a third foul. I don’t know, but Jerry Markbreit and Alan Steinberg’s book Last Call: Memoirs of an NFL Referee suggests an amusingly scatalogical solution.

Seeing two fouls on one play does happen, but more frequently the cause for an NFL’s hat throwing is something different. Football players are expected to stay on the football field while play is going on. This is not normally a problem, except perhaps with very young children who are prone to wandering. Sometimes though, a player running down the sideline, especially someone on the offense who is trying to get in position to catch a pass, will step out-of-bounds inadvertently or in an attempt to get around a defender. When this happens, that player becomes ineligible to catch the ball. Just stepping out-of-bounds is not against the rules, so no flag should be thrown, but if the player who goes out-of-bounds catches the ball, then there’s a penalty. So, in order to help remember that the player has gone out-of-bounds, the ref watching him throws his hat to the ground and later, if the catch is made, throws his flag. The one exception to this rule is if the offensive player has been pushed out-of-bounds by a defender. In this case, he is allowed to catch the ball as soon as he re-establishes himself in bounds by touching the field with both feet or some part of his body other than his hands. No hat need be thrown in this situation.

What other sport requires their officials to throw so many things! Ah, football.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What constitutes offensive illegal motion in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m confused over what constitutes offensive illegal motion in football. Rule 7 – Section 7 states, “No player is to be moving toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.” Does this mean there’s a brief wait period before a backfield player can advance after the snap?

Look forward to your answer,

Dear Dennis,

From your reference to Rule 7 – Section 7 in your question, I’m going to assume that you’re interested primarily in the National Football League, not any other type of football. Rule 7 – Section 7 in the NFL rulebook corresponds to illegal motion, a very specific violation of a general rule. In this post, I’ll explain the general rule, then write about the specific violation called illegal motion, and quickly touch on the other common penalties that are similar to illegal motion. At the end, we’ll return to your question about whether a backfield player must wait briefly before advancing after the snap.

The general rule which underpins the illegal motion penalty is that offensive players should be still when the ball is snapped. Although this sounds mundane, it’s actually one of the primary things which separate football from the rest of the popular sports. As opposed to a fluid, constantly shifting game like basketball or soccer, football is a series of set plays, almost like moves in a turn-based board game. The game stops, the teams set up, they go like demons for a short period, and then the pattern repeats. All the stopping and starting can make football seem boring to new fans and lead to the common criticism that football games only have 11 minutes of action but it’s actually the key to football being the most tactically complex and suspenseful sport. When I think about how I watch a football game, the moment between when an offensive team has set up to begin a play and when they snap the ball is the moment when my brain is most active. I’m trying to figure out what’s going to happen – is the offensive team going to run or pass? Will they be successful? Who is going to be involved in the play. Having the offense pause before the play starts facilitates more than just fan interest, it also gives the defense a chance to adjust their formation and plan to match the offense’s. This is essential to keep things somewhat balanced between offense and defense.

Motion is a technical term in football that provides one exception to the rule against the movement of offensive players when the ball is snapped. One player on the offensive team may be moving when the ball is snapped as long as that player is not moving toward the line of scrimmage and he is not a member of the offensive line. You see this somewhat commonly with wide receivers who move from one side of the formation to the other or running backs who move from one side of the quarterback to the other. Illegal motion is what happens when a team attempts motion and fails for some procedural reason. The two main types of failure are the player in motion mistakenly moves toward the line of scrimmage instead of just sideways and the player in motion being ineligible to be in motion because he was originally lined up on the line of scrimmage like an offensive lineman. In all cases of illegal motion, the penalty is five yards.

There are two other types of violations against the principle of offensive stillness. The first is an illegal shift and it’s very similar to illegal motion. Shifting is movement by offensive players before the ball is snapped (instead of during). More than one player is allowed to shift at the same time but they all have to come to a one second stop before the ball is snapped. The other violation is called a false start and it’s what happens when any of the players not in motion make a sharp movement before the ball is snapped. This is most commonly an offensive lineman starting to come out of his stance and move backwards to protect his quarterback.

To return finally to your question about whether the illegal motion rule means that a backfield player like a running back or quarterback has to momentarily wait after the ball is snapped before moving, it does not. Illegal motion only applies to players who were moving before the ball was snapped. As long as they are eligible to move and moving sideways or backwards, they are allowed to continue their motion through the snapping of the ball. All the other players, who were still before the snap, are allowed to start moving in any direction as soon as the ball is snapped.

Thanks so much for reading and keep the questions coming,
Ezra Fischer

What does down by contact mean in football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does down by contact mean in football? I hear people talking about it when a player fumbles the ball. Does it have something to do with fumbling?


Dear Bruce,

There are two ways for an NFL football player who has established control of the ball to be ruled down by contact. Either contact with an opposing player forces a part of his body other than his hands or feet to touch the ground or a player from the opposing team touches him while a part of his body other than his hands or feet are touching the ground (even if it wasn’t contact with that player that forced him to the ground.) In other words, a ball carrier is down by contact if he’s touched while on the ground or if contact with an opposing player forces him to the ground. In college football, the rules are different, but in the NFL, when these conditions have been met, that play is over and anything that happens afterwards, good or bad for either team, should not count. A player cannot fumble the ball once he is down by contact nor can he score a touchdown or earn a first down. Generally, as you pointed out in your question, if you hear people talk about whether a player is down by contact, it’s because one of those three things may have happened. In this post, we’ll run through a scenario for a fumble and for a touchdown (a first down scenario is identical to a touchdown one) as a means of explaining the down by contact rule.

Is a player down by contact or has he fumbled?

Imagine a wide receiver running down the field. The quarterback delivers a perfect back shoulder pass which the receiver catches easily. He secures the ball, cuts to the middle of the field, and fakes out one defender before being tackled by another. As he’s falling forward, the ball squirts loose and rolls around on the ground for a while before the defender picks it up. The defender runs the ball a few yards up the field before stepping out-of-bounds. He and his teammates are celebrating because they feel they’ve created a turnover and their offense should get the ball. The wide receiver is indignantly yelling at the ref that his knee was down before he lost control of the football. Not to worry, in the NFL all potential turnovers are subject to automatic video replay.

The question for this review is whether the wide receiver should be ruled down by contact or whether he fumbled the ball. The official looking at the video will go through a series of questions about the player in question. First, did he establish control of the ball? Yes, he caught it and then ran a bit with the ball, clearly establishing control. Second, was he forced to the ground by a player on the defensive team? Yes, a defender tackled him. Finally, the key question – was he in possession of the ball when a part of his body other than his hands or feet, in this case, his knee, first touched the ground thanks to the action of a defender? If the answer to that question is yes, then the player did not fumble the ball, he simply dropped it after the play was over — once he was down by contact.

Has a player scored a touchdown or was he down by contact?

In this scenario, a running back takes a handoff from the five yard line. He swings out wide, near the edge of the field, and thanks to some great blocking or trickery by his team, he has a clear path to the end zone. Alas, he trips on an errant tuft of grass. Not to worry, this isn’t college football, where the play is over as soon as any part of a ball carrier’s body other than his hands or feet touch the ground. This is the NFL where the down by contact rule tells us that a player with the ball must be on the ground AND touched by an opponent before the play is over. So, the running back starts wriggling his way toward the goal line. All he has to do is get the tip of the ball to the line to score. As he’s wriggling and squiggling and reaching out to score, a defender runs over and dives at him, touching his back with outstretched arms. The refs call it a touchdown but, since all scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and the ref runs to the video monitor to take a second look.

In this scenario, there’s no question about the ball carrier having possession of the ball. The running back takes it from the quarterback and holds onto it for the entire play. There’s also no question about when the player’s knees, butt, elbows, etc. touch the ground. He falls on his own and then maintains contact with the ground for the rest of the play, crawling along. The only question is when the ball carrier was first touched by an opposing player, which would make him down by contact and end the play. Did the touch happen before or after the ball reached the goal line? After looking at the video and freezing it the moment the ball carrier was touched by a defender, the ref concludes that the ball had not reached the goal line yet. No touchdown is awarded but the offense gets to start the next play with the ball six inches from the goal line, the distance it was when the ball carrier was touched and therefore down by contact.

Hopefully these two scenarios have helped to demystify the down by contact rule in the NFL. Show off to your friends the next time the issue comes up in a game you’re watching!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What's the difference between a major and minor penalty in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the difference between a major and a minor penalty in hockey? Is it just how long the penalty is?


Dear Amber,

Ice hockey has one of the most colorful ways of penalizing players for misdeeds on the ice. The guilty player is sent to sit, alone, on the other side of the ice from their teammates, in a little glass-enclosed prison called the penalty box. While they are there, their team (usually) has to play a player (basically everyone, even in women’s hockey, says “a man down” but we’ll use the more egalitarian “player”) down. Duration is one difference between a major and a minor penalty in hockey, but it’s not the only one. There are actually a few more key types of penalties in hockey: minor, double minor, major, and a confusing category that includes misconducts, game misconducts, and match penalties. In this post, we’ll run through each type of penalty and its consequences.

What is a minor penalty in hockey?

The minor penalty is by far the most common penalty in hockey. It’s given for infractions like tripping, obstruction, goalie interference, and the less violent forms of cross-checking, high sticking, boarding, etc. A minor penalty sends a player to the penalty box for two minutes. During that time, her team will play with a four player unit on the ice called a penalty killing unit, while the other team plays with five players on an offensive-minded power play unit. If a goal is scored by the team with the extra player, during the two minute penalty, the rest of the penalty time is negated and the teams return to even strength — five against five. If another player on the same team commits a penalty while his teammate is still serving a two minute minor, that player joins his teammate in the penalty box and their team plays two players down. The resulting 5-3 power play often results in a goal. If the goal is scored during the 5-3, only the first player to commit the penalty leaves the box, and when play resumes, there will still be a 5-4 penalty.

What is a double-minor penalty in hockey?

A double-minor is exactly what it sounds like — two minor penalties assessed to a single player. This could be for two separate acts. For example, a player could be called for tripping, feel as though it was the result of a dive, get angry at the player who he thinks dove, start a scuffle with that player, and be assessed an additional minor penalty for roughing. The result would be a double-minor: two minutes for tripping and two minutes for roughing. More common is a double-minor assessed for a single act whose violence merits more than two minutes of penalty time. Double-minors are relatively rare and the majority of them are for a single offense: high sticking. High sticking, when one player’s stick hits another player above the shoulders not as part of the follow-through from a shot, is a two minute, minor penalty… unless the player who got hit with the stick bleeds. In that case, it’s a double-minor. This is why you’ll often see a ref go over to examine the player who took the stick in the head or face. Fans of that team will often be rooting for blood to appear. It’s a weird rule. A double-minor behaves like two independent minor penalties, one after another. If a goal is scored during the first two minutes, whatever time is left on that penalty is forgiven and the second two-minute penalty will begin as soon as play resumes. If a goal is scored during the second two minutes, the rest of that penalty is wiped out and the player leaves the penalty box.

What is a major penalty in hockey?

A major penalty is generally one given for a violent infraction with intent. Most are more serious versions of minor penalties. For example, cross-checking, boarding, elbowing, charging, may all be given in minor form or as a major. A major penalty comes with five minutes of penalty time. Five minutes is a lot, but there’s another reason that major penalties are so punitive. Major penalties can never be wiped out by a power play goal. Unlike in a minor or double-minor, when the team with the extra player scores during a major penalty, the penalty continues. No matter how many goals the other team scores, they continue to play with a numerical advantage until the five minutes are up. A major penalty is the one given for fighting, but because fighting always involves two players equally, the two major penalties cancel each other out. Although the two players involved do have to sit in the penalty box, their teams are allowed to continue playing five on five as they would otherwise do.

What are misconduct, game misconduct, and match penalties?

These three forms of penalty are a little complicated but they’re basically all given to players who do dumb shit on the ice. Their primary purpose is to get a player off the ice for either ten minutes (the misconduct) or the rest of the game (game misconduct and match penalty). None of them result in a power play but they’re often given in conjunction with a minor or major penalty. For example, a player who throws a particularly dangerous elbow may be given a major and a match penalty. Both the game misconduct and match penalty result in throwing a player out for the rest of the game but they have different implications for fines and suspensions after the fact. All three types of penalties are relatively rare, but you will see them if you keep watching hockey for long enough.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of how the major (no pun intended) forms of penalties work in hockey. The primary difference between them is duration, but what happens when a goal is scored during the resulting power play is another important factor.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

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?

What is a balk in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a balk in baseball? I think it’s when a pitcher starts to pitch but then doesn’t but I’ve asked a few friends I have who are baseball fans and no one can explain it more clearly. Can you help?


Dear Jeff,

The balk is one of the most unique rules in baseball. It’s controversial, important, and simultaneously confusing to the point of opaqueness. Reading Major League Baseball’s rulebook on the subject is almost entirely useless for anyone who doesn’t already know what a balk is. For example, here is a short passage on what constitutes a balk:

From the Windup Position, the pitcher may:
(1) deliver the ball to the batter, or
(2) step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner, or
(3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides).
In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.
He may not go into a set or stretch position —if he does it is a balk.

There’s only one response to language like that, and Groucho Marx said it over 80 years ago.

Luckily, we don’t need to understand the particulars of the rule as it’s written to understand how the rule works in actual baseball. We can work our way backwards from what the rule is trying to prevent to how it’s actually enforced.

The balk rule was put in place in 1898. Before then, a pitcher could get a base runner out in the following way. Imagine there’s a runner on first base. He takes a short lead toward second base and waits there. As the pitcher starts his windup to pitch the ball, the base runner takes one or two steps farther toward second base. This is a smart move, because it puts him in a better position to get to second base on a weakly hit ball and it still leaves him with plenty of time to return to first in the case of a strike or a pop fly. However (!) the pitcher hasn’t actually pitched. Instead, he’s tricked the base runner by winding up and starting to throw the ball but not actually letting it go. Now that the base runner has moved further from first base, it’s easy enough for the pitcher to stop, turn, and throw the ball to the first baseman, who calmly tags the base runner out. Now, baseball prides itself on being a tricky sport, but it’s possible that this trick was simply too devious to allow. It’s also possible that the main problem was not the move’s deceptive nature, but its effectiveness. Rules have always been created to balance the power between offense and defense, and a move which is almost guaranteed to remove a base runner from the game may simply have been too effective to allow. In any event, the balk rule was put in place to prevent pitchers from doing this.

For all its complex language, the balk rule can be summarized as this – once a pitcher starts his pitching motion, he must complete it by throwing the ball to home plate. I italicized the word “his” because pitchers all have unique pitching motions. One pitcher’s motion may be as distinct from another’s as a lion is from a house cat. The motion itself is not important to the rule, what is important is that every pitcher’s motion during one pitch is identical to his own motion on every other pitch. Umpires learn pitchers’ motions and are able to notice if a pitcher deviates from it, even slightly. When a pitcher throws to first base, to hold a runner there, or to try to pick him off, he uses a motion that may be similar to his pitching motion, but is not identical. The umpire is able to distinguish a pick off throw motion from a pitching motion.

Although the balk rule exists to prevent a pitcher from intentionally tricking a base runner by starting to pitch and then doing something else, the rule is enforced slightly differently. Most sports rules try to stay away from legislating intent and the balk rule is no different. In order to avoid asking umpires to make a judgement call about whether the pitcher intended to trick the base runner and whether the base runner was actually fooled, the balk rule simplifies the decision. If a pitcher enters his pitching motion but does not complete it, a balk must be called. This results in some unfortunate accidents when a pitcher starts to pitch but slips or stumbles or is attacked by a fit of sneezing or bees. In any of these situations, the umpire should call a balk. Balks legislate action, not intent.

The penalty for a balk is that all base runners get to advance one base. If there was a runner on first, he goes to second. A runner on third would score. The only exceptions to this are if the balk also results in the batter reaching first base because of a walk or a hit batter. In this case, all the runners would advance anyway, so there’s no further penalty. If, in the process of the balk, the pitcher loses the ball and it goes flying somewhere, the base runners are allowed to try to advance more than one base, but they do so at their own risk and can be tagged for an out.

Thanks for reading,