Neutrality

In the 65th minute of this afternoon’s Women’s World Cup match between the United States and Brazil, Brazilian striker Marta earned a penalty and American defender Rachel Buehler a red card for a bit of wrestling in the American penalty box–but the dashing, heroic (and only slightly crush-inspiring) Hope Solo saved Cristiane’s weak penalty.

Then, something strange happened: Australian referee Jacqui Melksham indicated that the penalty needed to be retaken–an American defender had entered the penalty box before Cristiane’s strike.The penalty is a funny thing–awarded by the referee, almost always leading to a goal, its outcome has a varying significance. Saved, it becomes an invaluable trophy of a goalkeeper’s dominance and a striker’s mystic impotence. Converted, it is often merely banal chance–80% are, after all.

Had later events not intervened, the match would have been ruined–once a sporting contest, now only another instance of capricious life as the proud American women succumbed to a conspiracy of Brazil and referee.

Why would a referee in the quarterfinals of her struggling sport’s World Cup make a decision which both robbed the game of such a supernatural moment as Solo’s save and promised to have a major impact on the game’s score?

As so often, the answer predates the question. In the 51st minute of the game American midfielder Carli Lloyd appeared to deliberately handle the ball near midfield. Brazilian tempers rose: Lloyd was already on a yellow card and, if administered the standard yellow for deliberate handball, would be sent off, removing the USA’s most attacking central midfielder and forcing it to play with 10 players for the remainder of the game. But Melksham kept her cards in her pocket. Why?

What is a referee? One who enforces rules. Is that all? No. If enforcement was the first priority games could be observed over cameras by a body of expert judges. All possible infractions could be analyzed, rewound and reviewed, subject to deliberations while the players waited somberly on the field. A referee by her very presence implies that we value fluidity in sport: a game is supposed to proceed according to a certain rule, yes, but also at a certain rhythm–and with a certain balance. A referee is a kind of producer, a narrator even–one who exerts supernatural powers on the game in order to ensure that it remains both fair and compelling. What is compelling? A contest in which each side performs heroics but one is the victor.

It is the 51st minute. Lloyd has just handballed. Marta, best player in the world, is screaming in your face. You are a referee and the rules have been broken. 22 players, 25,000 spectators, and millions of TV-watchers are awaiting your decision. You keep your cards in your pocket. Why? Because it is the 51st minute of an excellent game. You are a referee. Another of your many jobs is to remain invisible. Perhaps it would be accurate to send off Lloyd–but it would change the story of the game, from one about two excellent teams struggling to distinguish themselves to one about a light sending-off on 51′ and American fatigue. You let Lloyd stay: it will be a marginally less correct game. But it should be a better one.

I watched this. I was impressed. Perhaps in a league game Lloyd would be gone; perhaps if her handball had prevented a goal or occurred in a dangerous area of the field she would be gone. But to not send her off indicated a referee who–at least in that moment–seemed to be conscious of her duties not just as supernatural enforcer but as narrator, one who had an obligation to present as compelling a sporting contest as possible.

However–returning to the second person–you are also a referee. And you know that you must be neutral. And–furthermore–you know that you have just taken an action which values a narrative above a truth. You know that one team (the USA) has just been issued an advantage which the other team (Brazil) are rightfully upset about. Tomorrow newspapers will be printed, youtube clips edited, your picture will infect the internet. You would like to be invisible. If you have made one error you would like to balance it with another, in the opposite direction.

And so–you look for a way that the scales can be balanced. I imagine Melksham holding that non-card in the back of her head like a heavy suitcase she was eager to put down. In the 65th minute, when Marta flicked the ball back over Buehler’s head and both players tumbled, it must have been like an answered prayer–here was the opportunity to put things right. An American player could be sent off (as was deserved) and a Brazilian equaliser given under unassailable circumstances. The marginal injustice of not sending off Lloyd could be balanced with a justice. Neutrality could be regained, the suitcase set down. In this, a moral desire: the desire to be a good referee.

But something went wrong. Cristiane lamely ballooned her penalty into Solo’s forearms. Had this happened in the third minute of the game, or in the 50th, and had the same marginal encroachment occurred, I do not believe there would have been a retake. Neutrality would have been served already. But in the 65th, holding Lloyd in the back of her head like a heavy suitcase–neutrality seemed to require an overcorrection, a hat tipped to Brazil. A momentary injustice had to be perpetrated in order to correct an earlier one, a momentary bias had to be created in service of neutrality.

Why retake the penalty? No adequate explanation can be given on the basis of players, rules, circumstances. Perhaps it is only that self-conscious, balancing neutrality that can explain it, that can explain why the marvelous, supernatural moment of the penalty save–two teams competing fairly, one triumphing heroically–should be erased in favor of the grim formality of the converted penalty. Perhaps the effort to be an impartial narrator creates bad narrators.

Balancing neutrality: society has more designated neutrals than referees alone. Judges, journalists, friends in a divorce. It seems these roles go best when they are practice ahistorically–when each fresh case is freshly analyzed. But when a news institution is convinced it has a constative political bias it is doomed always to create momentary instances of opposite bias in order to reassure itself of its neutrality. I am imagining a short story: a couple breaks up. A close friend cares deeply for them both but shows some minor favor to the one under incidental circumstances. The next day, assailed by his/her feeling of favoritism, he takes some balancing action–but the world does not always present us with neat opposites, perhaps he balances a shorter phone call with a missed lunch. And then the next week is forced to balance that again, this time in an even larger way–eventually, having betrayed each so many times, they end up friends with neither. It is difficult to be neutral by correction.

It would be easy to stop there. But what is compelling? Two teams competing fairly. But also: a Manichaean drama. A good and an evil, a tyranny overthrown by national virtues. It was in the instant of the retaken penalty that the quarterfinal stopped being a good game of soccer. It had been ruined by refereeing. But it was in that same instant that it became a brilliant game of soccer. Something was at stake that went beyond the arbitrary question of who can more effectively manipulate a ball in to a goal. The game acquired moral terms. The Americans no longer played simply to win. They played to be vindicated. The Brazilians were no longer playing on behalf of a South American nation but on behalf of the numbing reality that moral right is not sufficient for success. They were the agents of absurdity, proving that attention need not be paid–or that attention paid need not matter.

Retaking the penalty, Melksham brought the soccer game to an end. She replaced it with a legend, one that will be all the better remembered in this nation for how its ending reinforced our national self-image. She issued to the American team a chance to Persevere Against Circumstances. A chance to Never Give Up. A chance to Take Refuge in Each Other–and issued to all of us, the spectators, license to identify those things in ourselves, their compatriots. We can be sure it was not purposeful. She did not award the penalty in order to create a legend. We are sensitive to the mythic in sports; offended when athletes attempt to mythologize themselves. We prefer sport as uncooked meat–a piece of pretend objectivity which we can heat and season in our hearts until it tastes the way we like it.

How strange, though–that by ruining a game one might give birth to a legend. And how easy it would have been for Brazil to win. For Rapinoe’s cross in 123′ to float a fraction less or more, for there to be 2 minutes of injury time instead of 3, for Wambach to have leapt slightly less…and for there to be no legend at all. Life does this, too–we have all intended some evenings as legendary, exchanged the vocabulary of fun for the vocabulary of the epic. And it is so easy to be unhappy. Putative legends, perhaps, are all around us. But to become a legend requires a legendary end–and those are in short supply.

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