My Simple, Cost-Free Plan for Restoring Law and Order to American Life

All we need is what they have in soccer — yellow cards.

In case you somehow missed it, the United States beat Panama yesterday in CONCACAF’s Gold Cup final, by a score of 1 to 0. “CONCACAF” stands for “Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football” (that’s “football” as in soccer), and that unwieldy acronym may all by itself be responsible for the fact that you didn’t even know a championship soccer game was being played. I did, but I couldn’t watch it, because I was staying with friends for the weekend, and I couldn’t talk them into tuning in the game.

We watch a lot of soccer at our house. I know, I know; it’s un-American. But my husband and son have both worked as soccer refs, and my daughter’s boyfriend is from Kenya, where “football” has nothing to do with helmets and pads. And I have to admit, the game kind of creeps up on you. Sure, you can look at the Philadelphia Union’s 0-0 tie with the Portland Timbers last week and say, “Jesus, 90 freaking minutes of nothing happening.” Or you can watch sleepy-eyed Zac McMath make another superb save to preserve the scoreless tie against the much more highly regarded Timbers and admiringly say, “Damn!” I go with the flow.

My husband has explained to me that unlike such heavily monitored American sports as, say, basketball, where the ratio of players to officials is — and apparently needs to be – three to one, soccer is supposed to be self-policing. You don’t hear whistles blasting or see flags being flung every three minutes, as in the NFL; they don’t stop the game for instant replays. Foul calls are rare, and they’re supposed to be. You pretty much have to be deliberately trying to maim an opposing player to get penalized in soccer. When you do, the referee steps up to you, reaches into the breast pocket of his uniform, and pulls out a card: yellow, mostly, but occasionally, if what you’ve done is truly awful, or if you’ve already deliberately tried to maim someone in that same match, red.

Players who get carded will frequently argue with the ref. But they never win those arguments. And there’s something about that little snippet of theater—the ref stepping toward the player, the reaching into the pocket, the withdrawing of the card and its presentation high in the air — that’s civil and calming. It diffuses tension. It’s highly personal — the opposite of the way infractions are marked off in football, where the official usually moves away from the players to mark the place where a foul occurred. A football official turns his back on the teams, then signals to the fans in the stands — not to the players — what the foul is and whom it’s on, by number. “Roughing the passer, number 58!” That’s nothing like the moment when a soccer official and a player meet on the field, face to face, and in everyone’s full view, the official employs the card to announce: “You done wrong.”

So I was watching the U.S. team play Honduras the other night in the Gold Cup semifinals when it struck me: Wouldn’t it be great if we had yellow cards in life? If whenever we were offended, we could reach into a pocket and pull out a card and display it to the offender while looking him or her in the eye? That rude woman in front of you in the express checkout line with 36 items … the dog-walker who doesn’t pick up doo … the guy who — ewwww! — spits on the sidewalk … the passerby talking way too loudly on her cell phone about her bladder incontinence … Whistle! Carded! You! Yes, you, you uncivilized miscreant! Just imagine it: everyone in the vicinity freezing, taking in the scene, noting the chagrined cardee and the impassive carder. (Soccer refs are renowned for their poker faces, which somehow sounds like a terrible mixed metaphor but is not.)

I know what you’re thinking: Somebody would get shot. And it’s true that occasionally soccer fans dismember a referee whose calls they disagree with. But those are fans, not participants. And when you consider how many soccer fans there are worldwide—3.5 billion, vs. a scant 400 million U.S. football devotees—such unfortunate occurrences are rare. (Completely incidentally, readers of my colleagues Sheil and Tim’s frantically popular Birds 24/7 blog will be thunderstruck to learn that on the list of most popular sports in the world, American football is dwarfed not only by table tennis and volleyball, but also by cricket ((second to soccer)) and field hockey ((third)). Who knew?)

Increasingly, we live in a world in which bad behavior is rewarded. Worse yet, those of us who’d like to maintain some standards of civilized comportment are cowed into silence by the hoi polloi. But with the help of whistles and some cards—and, of course, breast pockets — we could totally restore law and order. We’d be defenders of decency—the Guardian Angels of manners, the neighborhood rectitude watch. Oh — with no guns allowed, naturally.