What can the American criminal law trial system tell us about the future of fútbol versus football?

By | April 14, 2016


© Above the Law

© Above the Law

This week in discussion sections we are reading Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, the story of how a soccer team in the small town of Siler City, North Carolina gives a group of Latino boys the opportunity to forge a new identity for themselves—one that goes beyond the menial labor that many of their parents face at a local poultry plant (1). The narrative is set amidst a cultural clash among longtime residents and Latino immigrants, in a landscape where crafting a soccer team in an all-football rural town is no small task. In this respect, Cuadros teases apart some of the differences between soccer and football, writing,

“Unlike so many sports in the United States, the clock doesn’t stop in soccer. There are no time-outs, no commercial breaks, and no strategic stoppages where the coach can affect the game. Soccer is a players’ game. The players play on despite fouls, penalty kicks…elbows to the face, unseen hand balls…the players have to figure out for themselves how to come through all those emotions to win” (page 5).

Cuadros’ characterization of these differences suggests that there might be a more fundamental reason why soccer is still peripheral in the American sports-scape while it reigns supreme in most of the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s not just due to a “crowding-out” effect by football and baseball, as Andrei Markovits has suggested in his piece, “The Other American Exceptionalism—Why is There No Soccer in the United States?” (2) Rather, maybe soccer owes its subdued state in America to something more fundamental: an underlying cultural preference for the content of rules and the manner in which they are enforced. But to evaluate this claim we have to look to an institution that, at first glance, seems very distant to the soccer pitch; that is, the American criminal law trial system—the holy ground of rule execution.

William Pizzi addresses this tension in a piece titled, “Soccer, Football, and Trial Systems” published in The Columbia Journal of European Law in 1994 (3). Pizzi starts off with the premise that criminal trial systems in the United States are very different from those in European countries. He then turns to sport to see how these differences can be contextualized in a broader cultural landscape.

The first stop in Pizzi’s thought experiment takes us to the nature of the rules of the game. He points out that in soccer, the rules are fairly simple, obvious, and few in number; you can’t intentionally trip someone or use your hands, among others. In contrast, American football is characterized by an array of complex, highly regulated rules that govern everything from the running of the clock to intentional grounding and rules for passing. Pizzi agrees with Cuadros on the level that soccer is fundamentally a players’ game; he points out that soccer is much less officiated than football and there is a preference for not interrupting the flow of the game. Namely, only one official is on the field during a soccer match with two linesmen patrolling the sidelines, which is in stark contrast to the 6 to 8 officials habitually on the football field and the army of lesser officials who keep track of the chains. In soccer, the referee is in the background, and she lets minor infractions go in order to maintain the flow of the game. Conversely, a fluttering of yellow flags is an all-too-common scene in football that drastically affects the pace at which the game is played.

The sports also differ in the manner in which the rules are enforced, which Pizzi explores in great detail. At a high level, football has an obsession with technical precision that contrasts sharply with soccer’s more laissez-faire approach. For instance, when a soccer referee blows her whistle for a foul, the ball is placed very roughly where the play ended and resumes quickly. Only in certain instances, such as in a penalty kick, are exact distances important. Conversely, yardage is meticulously tracked in football and fans nervously grit their teeth when “fourth and inches” is the ruling on the field. These differences boil down to the idea that, in football, there is a premium on having decisions come out exactly right. And if that takes an army of officials, hundreds of replays, and cameras capturing the action at all angles, so be it. But in soccer, the flow of the game is sacred; even something so straightforward as goal-line technology was first met with considerable controversy.

Finally, Pizzi addresses the roles of coaches in both sports. And again, soccer comes out on top as far as facilitating a player-centric game. Namely, in soccer no coaching is permitted during play, and a coach’s role is limited to substitution, which together shift emphasis to spontaneity and improvisation on the players’ part. Conversely, coaches call the shots in football—whether that is to go on fourth down or what particular play to run.

How do these differences—the nature of rules, the manner they are enforced, and a coach’s influence—map onto European and American criminal practice? Let’s take rule content and enforcement to start. In European criminal trials, the rules aimed at excluding information from trial are few and witnesses are given considerable latitude to tell their stories without lawyer instruction. Sometimes, non-relevant and prejudicial information slips in, but this is considered a small cost to pay in order to maintain a witness’ narrative flow–much like soccer. Conversely, in the United States, evidentiary rules are incredibly complex and lawyers tightly examine their witnesses because spontaneity on the stand is discouraged, creating a strong emphasis on procedure that is tantamount to American football’s obsession with regulated play.

Let’s move on to coach-player dynamics. The “coaches” in an American criminal trial have considerable discretion and it is well known that a good lawyer can affect the outcome of a case. But in a European criminal court, lawyers often do not play a central role since the emphasis is on witnesses testifying in their own words. Whereas an American lawyer may engage in a sidebar argument with the judge or object to a line of questioning on the basis of “hearsay,” his European counterpart is largely on the periphery of the proceedings—quite literally, as Pizzi points out. Specifically, a European lawyer, like a soccer coach, remains at the edge of the action, but an American lawyer possesses considerable freedom of movement in the courtroom; she may, for instance, go to the bench to argue a point of law or move towards the jury box to deliver her opening statement. Just like on the football turf, she stands ready, with a yellow flag in hand.

So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Pizzi succinctly and insightfully concludes,

“Our American trial system reflects many of the cultural values encoded in the rules and traditions of professional football: the worship of proceduralism, the attempt to rationalize every aspect of the decision-making process, the distrust of spontaneous action, the heavy preference for managerial control over participants, and, above all, the daunting complexity of the rules that such a system requires.”

Arguably, Pizzi’s words speak to a convergent evolution of sorts, of two independent societal institutions converging on a set of shared values. If this is the case, we may need to take a harder look at the root of America’s soccer “exceptionalism” and the sport’s future in the United States.

  1. Cuadros, Paul, A Home on the Field, 2007, HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY.
  2. Markovits, Andrei, “The Other ‘American Exceptionalism’—Why Is There No Soccer in the United States?”, 1988, PRAXIS International 2: 125-150.
  3. Pizzi, William, “Soccer, Football, and Trial Systems,” 1995, Columbia Journal of European Law 1: 369-377.

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