In the first edition of the series, I wrote about how gray areas in sports are simply those that still rely on subjective rulings from the referee, and often have big implications on outcomes. The football catch and stalling call in wrestling were just two examples of this phenomenon. Today, I'll discuss gray areas in two other sports: soccer and baseball.
Soccer- the Penalty Kick
This one could actually be more generally applied to cardable offenses in general, not just PKs. But as we all know, soccer players have the market cornered on faking injury in ways most other athletes in other sports would get laughed off the field for doing. But because a malicious foul comes under subjective scrutiny of the official, diving is rewarded in a good deal of cases. The problem is that subjective foul calls have produced a number of game- winning goals when committed in the penalty box. On the other hand, when athletes are tackled in the box legitimately, the call is not always guaranteed, an equally problematic issue. Of course, in the box, a handball is also a PK offense, but the intent of the offender is often up for debate. If a shot hits a defender in the hand squarely, but the hand was not being intentionally used to redirect the ball, there should be no penalty. But, as we have seen so often, this doesn’t mean that a referee won’t pull the card and award a kick. The myriad consequences these types of subjective fouls lead to can be very decisive.
Take the Mexico-Netherlands game in the 2014 World Cup, for example. Mexico led early in the second half 1-0, but Holland equalized with a Wesley Sneijder cannon from the top of the box in the late stages of the game. In stoppage time, Holland’s Arjen Robben maneuvered into the Mexico box with possession, and when challenged by a defender, hit the grass. The foul call was made. Penalty awarded. Goal scored. Game won for the Dutch. The Netherlands eventually placed third in the tournament, while Mexico was eliminated.
The gray area of PKs could have gone either way. Robben had his foot stepped on in the box, to be sure. But, in plenty of cases, the PK would not have been awarded, and play would go on. In the case of the Mexico-Netherlands game, the subjective nature of soccer fouls left the door open for a no-call or a decisive PK. Whether it was the pressure of the moment getting to the official, or Robben’s convincing acting, the referee made a subjective call that ended up being decisive in the match.
Baseball- Strike Zones
There is not much to say about this one that most don’t already know. The strike zone in baseball is supposed to be a fixed thing, so every batter and pitcher is subject to the same standards of where a strike or ball can be placed. But, that isn’t exactly how it works out. For a number of reasons, each umpire’s interpretation of a strike zone can differ slightly. There is no hanging picture frame into which a pitcher has to definitively throw into, so a definitive unarguable strike zone has never been measurable in-game.
There are a million real world examples of moving targets of strike zones. Since players and managers routinely go after umpires based off of what they perceive as an inconsistent strike zone, we see fights break out, and players and managers can get tossed or suspended if they overreact when a strike zone seems particularly unwieldy. The recent proposal to change the strike zone to above the batter’s knees instead of below is just the newest method officials have tried to eliminate gray areas through reforms. Seeing as how strikes and balls are among the few non-reviewable calls via MLB’s instant replay, in the end the subjectivity of the strike zone stands as baseball’s greatest gray area (1).
On Thursday, we will conclude the series with a discussion about hockey and basketball's gray areas. With both sports close to deciding their champions for 2016, will gray areas play a role in making history? It wouldn't be the first time.