I wanted to like it. I really did. My first reaction when my wife shared the article was a resounding, “Awesome!” But…
I just can’t.
Soccer’s first white card was given during a game in Portugal’s professional league this past weekend. To compliment—or, maybe, counterbalance—soccer’s punitive yellow and red cards, the white card aims to reward good behavior and “improve ethical values in sport.”
Why it’s “awesome”…in theory
I’ve taught an Ethics course for 23 years, and I use soccer to introduce the concept of just these sorts of praiseworthy actions. Dating back to Aristotle, actions he called “supererogatory” refer to instances when someone “gives more than is due.” Such acts are deserving of praise because they’re typically not done out of moral obligation or with hopes of receiving a reward, but just because that is what a good person does.
I show students a video clip of a professional soccer game to demonstrate this. Twice in this particular game, athletes give their competitors more than is due: once to admit they didn’t deserve a corner kick awarded to them, and later in the game, when a player from the other team informs the referee he wasn’t tripped, thus rescinding a penalty kick. The referee actually does reward them: with a thumbs-up, along with an extended handshake from their competitor.
For most, this truly is to go above and beyond, especially in the culture of professional sports. It’s just not how it’s typically done. I always ask students how they feel after seeing this and they consistently say inspired, hopeful, and other aspirational values. These sorts of actions transcend our rational life and arouse the emotions. As Scottish philosopher David Hume famously wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”
Sports certainly allows—or stronger, encourages—unethical behavior. It’s often justified as being a part of the game. The popular mantra, Win at all costs, refers at least in part to the “cost” (if it can be seen as such) of being unethical. This is the case in all sports, certainly, and not just soccer, where examples abound on an almost daily basis. Yet, we know, at least rationally, myriad things in life hold considerably greater value than winning a game. That is to say, we should help others, mitigate harm, and act out of compassion whenever possible.
The white card—again, in theory—reminds us that, amidst the emotional maelstrom of competition, higher virtues persist. That all those involved—fans, athletes, and spectators alike—still share a common humanity. And that our interconnectedness transcends the mere avoidance of punishments meted out by red and yellow cards.
Red-carding the white card
For starters, this inaugural white card wasn’t even shown—”awarded to”—an athlete: it resulted from the athletic trainers of both teams rushing to the aid of a fan who had fainted. As the referee extends the white card and points at the trainer, the trainer seems to react with a mix of uncertainty and even embarrassment. It’s like the gold star on a first grader’s paper, or the high school teenager getting the Good Behavior Award and not really wanting anyone to know about it. Maybe it resulted in such dissonance because this trainer was doing exactly what his job entails, helping those in need of immediate medical care.
This is what elicits another bit of pushback. First, we’re rewarding people for what they should already be doing. When someone falls to the ground writhing in pain, you actually should stop to attend to them. To step over another human in distress would be seen as morally callous. And to be given an award for doing so feels trite or even condescending: “Good little soccer player.” It could even lead to another opportunity for signaling: “Well, I did get four white cards last game…”
And as demonstrated by the previous video, sport already maintains the capacity to reflect this deeply inspirational part of life. We experience those honorable feelings through countless instances of athletes’ selflessness on the field, their grit and determination, and concern for purposes greater than oneself.
To put this all in the hands of a referee already overwhelmed with countless other subjective decisions on the field actually detracts from the game. More so, it detracts from the instances when fans and spectators can and do recognize honorable actions without needing any help along the way.
At a post-season T-ball banquet, the league awarded my five-year-old son Knox with the Sportsmanship Award, “for best demonstrating…values of teamwork, responsibility, and sportsmanship.” As his father, it was a highlight of the season. It provided yet another moment to reinforce “moral habit” which Aristotle espoused and modern neuroscience confirms. But that was for a five-year-old, still growing and learning. And it was given by the Positive Coaching Alliance whose mission is “character development” for youth athletes, as opposed to the umpire awkwardly awarding it to an adult mid-game.
The white card was originally proposed by European Football Association Champions League President Michel Platini to punish players who argue with the referee, suggesting the offending player be sent to a 10-minute “time out” during the game. The idea never gained traction. I think it might be worth reconsidering this “talk to the hand” version of white card. But we should leave the morally praiseworthy actions to the adult participants to figure out on their own.
As with all things novel, the white card provides an opportunity to reflect on commonplace topics and issues we come to take for granted. And even if you cast your vote against it, as I’ve done, this reflection allows us to view a sport we love, and our own moral lives, in a whole new light. So here’s a white card for the white card for that reason alone.