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American Politics and International Soccer: Who’s the Ref?

The rhetorical link between sports and politics in the U.S. has been widely documented, with sports providing a treasure trove of analogies, quotes and other trinkets for politicians. At the same time, pundits have long enjoyed the usage of sport as a foil for political commentary. In many ways, it makes intuitive sense, with both fields defined by highly adversarial relationships, impassioned periods of training and execution, large quantities of public exposure and critique, and intense love-hate relations with the media.

Therefore, that we could draw political parallels from last evening’s blatant cheating by iconic French national soccer squad striker Thierry Henry with the role of the media in American politics is not surprising. “La main de Diable,” as put by writers at the French newspaper Le Figaro, led France to a squeaking overtime victory in over underdog Ireland by way of a flagrant hand-ball that was simply missed or ignored by no less than four officials, including the referee. And, as compared to its namesake from the 1986 World Cup, Henry’s foul was substantially more obvious to the observer than Maradona’s, though the original arguably had more pressing implications (both resulted in the elimination of the loser, though the former was in a World Cup quarter-final).

While Henry has received major criticism for his actions — which he maintains were accidental and were admitted to the opposing squad as well as the officials — the most withering accusations have been launched at the referee, Martin Hansson of Sweden, and his assistants. Because the officials failed to call the foul, France advances to next year’s World Cup Final in South Africa, with the Irish now relegated to waiting for the 2014 Cup. At the same time, FIFA, who “watch the watchmen” so to speak; have been lambasted for not incorporating instant replay into international ball, and for alleged systemic bias toward traditional western European soccer powers like France, Germany, Italy, etc.

In American politics, it is the mainstream media that are often credited with the ‘refereeing’ and ‘vetting’ role during political competition. Indeed, it is a role that the big producers have strongly embraced, with various brands of neutrality being marketed. Ranging from Fox’s “No-spin zone,” to “fact-checks” by ABC and others, and perhaps the most symbolic role of media achors as the moderators for electoral debates, the media can “call foul” on false claims, scrutinize policy decisions and give positive coverage to good ideas.

But like the Henry case of last night, what happens when the refs fail to call a foul when it is matters most? (Or alternatively call one where it isn’t).

The most common answer is that political journalism and analysis are self-critical and self-governing fields, with rigorous peer review. A recent case in point is the harsh critique that has been leveled by many in the field regarding the U.S. MSM’s conduct in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. At the same time, a healthy oversight community of NGOs, think tanks, academic institutions and so forth spend many hours dissecting the way the media operate. But is this really enough?

In cases of flagrant, high-profile and costly mistakes, it seems that the system works reasonably well. In 2004, the sacking of Dan Rather by CBS over his highly flawed reporting on President Bush’s National Guard career illustrated a commitment by the network to dispose of discredited reporting. In a similar fashion, many are calling for the head of referee Hansson, suggesting a suspension or ban.

But the fundamental problem remains in both circumstances is that high-profile scapegoating in cases of obvious poor practice does not address the underlying issues that challenge those in the umpire’s seat. In the case of international soccer, the impression of big-country euro-centrism remains, and the lack of instant replay nor box review both undermine the credibility and accuracy of officials and administrators. In US politics, the fact that incentive structures for media folks are focused toward advertising revenue and subscriber bases, with few coercive structures beyond self-policing and public scrutiny, has turned political refereeing from analytic scrutiny to basic entertainment.

While the metaphor breaks down when moving much farther, the consequences are clear. Last night’s failure of judgment was a well-documented warning to those for whom good, reasoned judgment is important.

What is the difference between a minor human mistake and a human-made catastrophe? A catastrophe is a mistake made where there was no room for error.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at