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Defend the Indefensible: Yellow Card Accumulation Rules

Defend the Indefensible is a column where I take on topics that seem hard to justify and do my best to make sense of them. Today: yellow card accumulation punishments.

The NWSL Fall Series is a strange entity. According to the league, it isn’t part of the regular season, in the sense that statistics from these games won’t be counted toward official NWSL records. But these are real games. You just need to watch the teams play to see that they’re taking things seriously. Still, the exhibition-like nature of the games has led some to object to the yellow card accumulation rules.

Initially, there was a suggestion that card accumulation could spillover to the 2021 season, with players who picked up a second yellow in four games actually missing next year’s season opener. That does not seem to be the case. However, players can miss one of the Fall Series games if they picked up two yellows over the previous matches.

To some, that seems harsh. I don’t think it’s harsh enough. In fact, I wish that they were holding suspensions over into 2021.

Fouls are bad and players should be discouraged from committing them

The case is simple: fouls are bad. The NWSL is a fast-paced, intense league. That makes it exciting, but it also makes it dangerous. And the referees certainly don’t help. It’s a running joke among those of us who follow the league closely that it’s almost impossible to get booked.

Yellow cards exist to punish egregious fouls. Most importantly, they restrict dangerous play. But they’re also used to punish ‘professional’ fouls, where a player makes no effort to play the ball and simply seeks to break up an attacking play. And in some cases, bookings target repeat offenders who are regularly committing minor fouls to disrupt the other team, or for things like time-wasting or dissent.

Those are all bad things. Dangerous play is bad for obvious reasons. But the other things are bad, too. Players shouldn’t be incentivized to undermine the spirit of the game. A booking forces you to be careful, lest you pick up another and get sent off. But it’s not much of a threat in a league where second yellows are almost literally non-existent. But the threat of accumulation-suspensions is another layer. No, it isn’t a particularly weighty consequence, but at least it’s something.

In 2020, over a 24 game season, only four (4) players managed to reach the accumulation threshold of five yellows. That is a punishment so rare that it has effectively zero deterrent effect. That’s bad for safety and bad for the quality of the game. We don't want players regularly missing every fifth or sixth game, but they also shouldn't be once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences.

So the Fall Series may be a strange case. But these are still real games, played at a fast pace, between teams who both want to win. If the players are taking them seriously, and the fans at home are taking them seriously, the league should also be taking them equally seriously.

Respect players by holding them accountable for their actions

The argument people make for leniency on card suspensions is often framed as if it were obvious, but rarely explicitly made. As far as I can see, the primary case is based on the intuition that players should generally be allowed to play, and only prevented from participating when they commit truly egregious offenses.

That’s a coherent philosophy, but it’s not a very good one. These players are professionals, elite athletes competing at the highest level. They deserve to be treated as full and capable moral agents. They are free to commit fouls, but those fouls should come with consequences. There is no unalienable right to play in every game. Suspensions are part of the normal course of business, and players are well-equipped to avoid them by simply following the rules of the game.

At the moment, the NWSL (and women’s soccer in general) bend over backwards to gloss over foul play. That's bad for the game. Players should be held accountable for their actions. Suspensions for accumulation are not the best way to do that, but they are a good and reasonable part of the package.


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