Rules are Rules Until They're Called Differently
Watching the Olympics on Monday afternoon, I happened across the Canadian womens soccer match with the USA. The game built to a fury of goal-trading and aggressive tackles and was everything a semifinal sports match should be. It had all the makings of many great lacrosse games I have seen or been a part of, including the dreaded X factor that came into play. That controversial call by the referees! Amateur sports like soccer and lacrosse or are plagued with these issues. The NHL playoffs were full of controversy and rough play, but 85% of the infractions were handled seamlessly and that was decent considering the volume of fouls. The NHL should be this good like the NBA and the NFL because it has the resources to create the best policing of games.
Lacrosse has had to deal with the nature of its rules and how to enforce them at least since I have known about the sport. In the 1970s, with the advent of hard rib, back and arm pads, came the equalizing slash check. When field lacrosse sticks began taking over as the norm in the 1990s, even more latitude was given on defenders and their overzealous slashing and one-handed checking to halt offense.
I'll never forget a fellow from Australia my father met at a Victoria Shamrocks game. He followed the players up to the post game lounge after the game for a beer. Obviously he had never seen the sport of lacrosse before. Mr. Australia was enthralled with the action he had just seen. His questions were fast and furious from the minute we were introduced. Then came the inevitable: Hey mate, how come they call the stick whacking for a foul some of the time and not all of the time?
I tried to explain the intention and force piece to him. "Not all slashes are created equal" I continued. Still, for a first-time watcher, his questions are the same Ive had from Boston to Victoria and everywhere in between over three decades or more.
The criticism I have with our great sport isnt so much the refereeing. It is more about the lack of structure in the rules application and the lack of referee development. National and Provincial funding is scarce to improve and develop more refs and better refs. The same issues plague every level of the sport and the National Lacrosse League is no exception. Lacrosse is not on par with major sports or their bank accounts and funding.
There is a huge variable in lacrosse and it is in my opinion the sport's achilles heel. I call it the "Grey Area."
The rulebook with its infractions and how they are supposed to be called exists. Subsequently, there is the start of every game where the players feel out the referees to see what they can get away with or what extra stuff will be tolerated. This is the "Grey Area." This exercise has been going on forever. How many times have you seen a highly emotional lacrosse game start with two teams trying to kill each other, escalating to a contest of spy vs. spy instead of lacrosse? Then the referees stop the game, go to the teams' head coaches at the bench and explain We will now call everything by the book as to put the teams on alert that now is the time we will actually call it by the rule book because both teams havent operated properly inside the grey area where they were once permitted to stretch allowances on application of the rules.
Nobody comes to a game to watch referees march player after player to the penalty box. The rules have evolved outside of the rulebook because it is the nature of all things in life to grow and evolve until they are stopped by regulations or laws. The laws of lacrosse are the toughest of any sport to apply. It seems referees have many different interpretations of them or how much grey area they will apply.
Bottom line for me is the rules are more of an issue than the players stretching them and the referees trying to uphold them. Definitions of slashing and picking mechanics are the two major offenders. Until all levels of the sport address these infractions, I cant see any improvement in refereeing in lacrosse. The sport needs to become easier for the players to play and the fans to watch and especially for the referees to ref. Eliminating the slash check is an easy remedy and taking out crosscheck picking for offensive players would be another.
One-handed back checking and pushing is a monster grey-area offender to be dismissed in my book. Why be the first person to a loose ball along the boards? You'll just get shoved from behind and possession will go to the lazy defender with one hand on his stick who is supported by the referee who rarely calls interference as it is meant to be called, nullifying skill and effort instead of creating it.
Let moving picks happen, just not on the back. If everyone knows it is fair game it gives the offensive players some leeway for losing their crosscheck pick and keeps toughness in the game.
Force defenders to keep two hands on their sticks and support it with rules designed to play the sport that way. If it doesn't get rid of infractions, it will certainly support referees in their cause of upholding the rules in the book with definition that can be easily interpreted.
That has always been my issue with the referees of lacrosse. They can set up a grey area and call it perfectly, no problems. This happens in most NLL, Senior A and Junior A action. The minute that they get the grey area wrong for one team and not the other, then someone has an issue. Here is where the referees come under fire about the questionable call. They go back to the rule book and use it as protection. "The call is such and such right here in the rule book", they say.
True, that is the call. That is also the call they ignored eight times on that given night in that given game before they decided to call it the ninth time. So the one time they call it they resort to hiding behind the real rule book instead of the one they decided to operate out of at the start of that game, the grey area rule book. The real rule book will always support them, you see. It's a big challenge for lacrosse to overcome.
So when we look at the aftermath of the Canadian Olympic womens soccer team demise, we see that the goalkeeper held the ball too long and that is a call that is almost never made according to all sorts of soccer talking heads, including soccer legend Bob Lenarduzzi. The "Grey Area" rule book in soccer says that call is never made! The Olympic referee with a possible axe to grind with the Canadian side resorted to the actual rule book and slammed the Canadian team with a chintzy infraction that has a whole country up in arms, me included. The Olympic rule committee is standing behind its Norwegian referee. Their hands are tied. Everyone has to move on. So what can we all learn from this?
Rules need more definition and less interpretation so everyone can be better especially the referees. Who knows if the Canadian women's soccer team would have gone on and won gold if that call weren't made?
My guess is that there is a high probability that Canada may be short a bunch of gold medals because of the "Grey Area."