Deliberately Vague

handballAbout halfway through the Euro 2016 soccer semifinal, with Germany absolutely (but somewhat toothlessly) dominating France, veteran German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger did the unthinkable. He handled the ball in the penalty area and, in a way, handed the game to the French. Or did he? Schweinsteiger’s handball went unnoticed at first by most fans and even many of the players around him. It happened fast: French fullback Patrice Evra leaped diagonally toward the ball that had been crossed from the right corner. Schweinsteiger, slightly behind Evra, lunged himself toward his opponent, hands first. Evra redirected the ball into Schweinsteiger’s arm. The referee blew the whistle. Penalty.

In FIFA’s official The Laws of the Game, (I love that the soccer rules are called “laws”), Law 12 reads (in part):

Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.1

The key word here is “deliberate.” Many of us would conclude that this means a handball must be purposefully executed to be a foul. In the OED, “deliberate” is even more intentional than “intentional.” Definition 1A of “deliberate” is:

Well weighed or considered; carefully thought out; formed, carried out, etc. with careful   consideration and full intention; done of set purpose; studied; not hasty or rash.

The second definition takes this into the physical realm:

Leisurely, slow, not hurried: of movement or moving agents.2

By these measures, then, very few handballs are deliberate. They are not slow or leisurely. Nor are they carefully thought out.

But the soccer world has a different definition of “deliberate,” one that calls into question the whole idea of rational intentions. For many, including ESPN’s TV commentators Michael Ballack and Roberto Martinez, Schweinsteiger was at fault for a “rash decision” or what Graeme Souness called “going to sleep at the vital time” (as if jumping wildly into another player in the penalty area was a relaxing afternoon nap). “Deliberate” for these commentators doesn’t mean done with “full intention” but something like “not reasonably prepared for and avoided.” A handball, according to most referees, is a foul if the hand is moving toward the ball or if the hand is in an “unnatural position.”3 The standard reasoning for the Schweinsteiger call goes something like this: Although Schweinsteiger was probably not intending at first to bat the ball with his arm, by throwing his arms up in the air in the general direction of the ball, he was putting himself at risk of hitting the ball with his arms, and maybe, consciously or unconsciously, he was preparing to block to ball with his arms, should the ball come his way. In a sense, then, although he didn’t carefully consider the question, “should I hit the ball with my hand or not?” and then firmly come down on the side, “yes, I should.” He did, with his body, intend to handle it. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say: he did not intend to avoid handling the ball quite enough.4

This is a peculiar idea of culpability. But intention and guilt are concepts that have been vexed in our culture for a long time, long before Freud seized on the tale of Oedipus, who accidentally-on-purpose killed his father, to explain the accidental-on-purpose human condition. Sports make an especially interesting arena for questions of intention because sports are so anti-intellectual. Insofar as athletes are thinking, they express that thinking through the body. Many of us who play sports feel we are at our best when we shut off our brains and just act. Often our “smartest” plays are the result of instinct. And, perhaps, of training. Studies about how great athletes become great often refer to repetition of tasks [Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” (deliberate!) is perhaps the most famous.] You practice jumping to head the ball, jumping to head the ball, jumping to head the ball, over and over and over and over. Then when the big game comes around, your body calls up that training and what do you do? Jump up and block the ball with your hand.

Since we aren’t robots yet, anyone who plays sports also knows that our bodies react minutely to tiny variations. Other studies about creating great athletes (there are so many theories on creating athletes that you can probably find a study that shows that I am a great athlete) point to the need for different kinds of free-flowing games so that players learn spontaneity and variety. Too much repetition didn’t make Roger Federer Roger Federer. He played squash and soccer and table tennis and learned to react quickly and creatively to the ball in the craziness of flight. In other words, an athlete combines a kind of programmed “muscle memory” with split second decision-making so that the mind/body acts and reacts continually.. Sometimes athletes create something new, something beautiful. Sometimes they just handle the ball. In either case, we praise them if they execute a brilliant “plan” and blame them when they fuck up.

In criminal law we have different ideas of culpability. The traditional British common law test for criminal liability is “mens rea” or “guilty mind.” You must know you are doing something wrong to be liable for it. I would like to see a scan of Schweinsteiger’s brain at that critical moment. Did he imagine the ball hitting his hand? Did he feel any sense of guilt or shame… or anger or love? The de facto handball law in soccer actually has less to do with “mens rea” than with negligence. So Schweinsteiger’s guilt isn’t criminal but moral. Essentially, the referee decided: you should have known better, Bastian. Or as Souness might put it, don’t nod off on the job.


All this discussion about guilty minds and intention brings up another realm of questionable deliberations: politics. While in Europe debates were swirling about the the intent of Schweinsteiger’s unlawful hand, across the Atlantic debates swirled about how intentional was Clinton’s use of a personal email server to communicate classified information. Depending on your political leanings, Secretary Clinton should either definitely be cleared or “put in the firing line and shot for treason” because of the relative guiltiness of her mind.

A few years ago Benjamin Kunkel argued in n+1 that political discourse had become pathological. No one takes what a politician says at face value and considers it as a position of rational intent. Instead, we imagine the secret intentions that lie beneath the words. Often we use our fantasy of secret intentions to cast our adversaries as unspeakable monsters. (Hillary Clinton haters, for instance, figure her as Lucifer incarnate.) Many politicians meanwhile live in fear of any minor act that could be read as intentional, except in the most banal and meaningless ways.

The smokescreen of political deliberations is not new, of course. In the OED, one of the earliest references for the aforementioned first definition of “deliberate” is Hamlet, Act IV, scene 3:

This suddaine sending him away must seeme Deliberate pause.

This is Claudius speaking about sending Hamlet to far-off England (definitely not in Europe) after Hamlet has accidentally-on-purpose killed Polonius. Claudius is deliberating about seeming deliberate. He wants to make Hamlet’s exile seem to the people (who like Hamlet more than Claudius) carefully planned in a slightly different way than it was actually carefully planned.

So, too, Secretary Clinton may have made a deliberate plan to use her her private email for a purpose that may have been hiding another purpose, and then lied about it to misdirect us. Cue the evil soliloquy. But perhaps she was behaving more like Schweinsteiger when he handled the ball, not exactly planning, but acting on instinct and training, and making a terrible and costly mistake. If we pathologize all political intentions, we do so even more strongly in Clinton’s case for several reasons. First, she is a woman. As a result all of her actions and expressions can be recast as calculating cruelty (she is Lady Macbeth or Cersei Lannister). Second, she is a Clinton so she has had more than 10,000 hours of training in rhetorical evasions. And finally she is a Democrat. In “Politicopsychopathology,” Kunkel calls the Republicans the party of psychosis and the Democrats the party of neurosis. While the Republicans replace facts with fantasy (climate change is bunk science; Clinton bribed Lynch), Democrats cannot articulate their own desires. What worries me about Clinton’s email scandal is not so much her cover-ups or her supposedly cavalier relationship to national security (though I do worry about her cavalier relationship to bombing people); it’s her demand for secrecy. That demand may be a response to the psychopathology of politics, but it also fuels that pathology and obfuscates any progressive “intentions” of her campaign. She’s hiding something (email), so we assume she must be hiding something (secret agendas).

trumpnhillaryKunkel’s essay appeared before the rise of Donald Trump, who is clearly the psychotic Republican in full, partly because he is not interested in rationalizations or reason. We pathologize Clinton as a person with a guilty mind, or a not-guilty-enough mind, but what of Trump? He seems never to have had a “guilty mind” in his life, and he has an absolutely ludicrous idea of causality. This is true not only in his analysis of political history (Mexico sent us “bad” Mexicans?) but also in his analysis of his own record. He seems to confuse intentions with achievement, and, like many Americans, to confuse wealth with success.

Curiously Trump is praised for being blunt and direct (not deliberate!). Supporters think he says what he means and does what he says. Yet he and his cronies exploit the political pathology of intentions, not to protect themselves against accusations of wrongdoing, but to actually imply that, although they won’t directly admit it, they are racists. Take Guiliani’s speech at the Republican convention. “We must not be afraid to define our enemy,” he said. “It is Islamic extremist terrorism.” Then he immediately signalled a secret intention: “For the purposes of the media, I did not say all of Islam.” This is like a rhetorical “apophesis,” like when one says, “we won’t even talk about your sex addiction,” in order to bring up the sex addiction. I now know that in the absence of meddling media, when Guiliani is deliberating alone in his private armory, he believes that all of Islam is an enemy. Similarly, when Trump re-tweeted an anti-Semitic image from a clearly anti-Semitic source, he defended himself by blaming the MSM (that’s the paranoid white guy’s acronym for Main Stream Media), not by condemning anti-Semitism. Of course, he’s not anti-Semitic, he said, while allowing his secret anti-Semitism to speak for itself. Is Trump doing this deliberately, I wonder, or is it a kind of split-second instinct for fascism? And does it even matter?

Soccer isn’t very much like politics. The goals in soccer are clear and consistent. And, despite the rhetoric of the simple-minded, there is only one team in the polis. But the handball rule does seem parallel to our political thinking in one way. We don’t care whether you do what you intend. We will blame you anyway, even if that blame doesn’t go very far. Trump won’t stop race-baiting; Clinton will remain secretive. Politics in America seem forever caught in a vicious psychotic and neurotic game, one in which no one trusts the ref, and no one ever wins.

1 This is obviously a key law since not using your hands is basically what makes soccer soccer. Back in 1863 when rugby football and association football parted ways, it was this little rule, and some arguments over “shin-kicking,” that made all the difference.

2 Strangely the two earliest references cited under this definition are to death, which I don’t think of as a moving agent:

1597        R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie v. xlvi. 94   It is for vertuous considerations that wisedome so farre preuaileth with men as to make them desirous of slow and deliberate death.

1605        Bp. J. Hall Medit. & Vowes I. §18   There are three messengers of death: Casualty, Sicknes, Age:… The two first are suddaine, the last leasurely and deliberate.

3 The official FIFA laws direct referees as follows:

The following must be considered:

  • the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
  • the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
  • the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement
  • touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) is an infringement
  • hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) is an infringement

So these things must be considered, but how one considers them is not specified. What counts as an “unexpected ball” for instance? And the third bullet point, which is not grammatically parallel with the previous two, is both indeterminate — “not necessarily” but maybea foul? — and at odds with standard practice. My favorite law, though, is the last one. You can’t throw your shoe at the ball? Who knew?

4 During the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona brilliantly re-framed the question of intention after the most famous handball in history by announcing that it was “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios,” or a little bit with the head of Maradona and another little bit with the hand of God. Among the many wonderful things about that loaded response is the use of the third person to describe both himself and God.


One Comment

  1. Tom Farrelly

    Excellent article Austin, especially the one about Trump.

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