Injuries, Fouls, and Misconduct

Enos, a HS and college coach, asks:

What does the rule book say about the following situation in a HS Soccer game?

During the play, a defender player came in with a 50/50 slide tackle against an attacker with the ball.  The tackle looked bit hard.  The Referee issued a yellow card on the play and the whistle was blown.  Unfortunately, the attacker sustained an injury.  During the visit of the sideline coaches and trainer, it was determined that the injured player might have a broken leg. The Referee came to the sideline and issued an additional red card stating that she is changing a card due to injury.  Is that allowed or should the report be made where yellow card is recorded and explanation is added to the match report?  What would be suspension in that case?


First and foremost, readers may recall from the information under the “About” tab above that our primary focus is on the Laws of the Game.  While we are fairly familiar with such other rules as those used  by NFHS and NCAA, we avoid interpreting them or offering guidelines about their implementation except where their meaning is crystal clear.  Accordingly, for the most part, we will treat this question as though the scenario occurred in a match controlled by the Laws of the Game.  Perhaps, later, if we are feeling frisky, we might branch off briefly into high school play.

Also, one minor observation — we hope that, in this scenario, the Referee had sufficient presence of mind to have whistled play stopped before actually issuing any card, no matter what it’s color.  We also wonder why the Referee felt it necessary to come to the sideline in order to change the card from yellow to red.

Anyway, two principles are in play here.  One is that the Referee has the authority to change a decision as to any matter (including, in fact, whether to have stopped play in the first place, though that leads then to the issue of how to restart play if this is the case) before play is restarted.  Accordingly, the Referee has a right (arguably even a responsibility) to change a decision in pursuit of more accurately implementing the Law upon private reflection or becoming aware of additional relevant information or receiving information from a member of the officiating team.  So, changing a card, by itself, is certainly permitted by all Law/rule sets.  Here, it was yellow to red but it could also have been red to yellow or to no card at all, or it could have involved removing the card from one player and charging a different player with misconduct.  There are only two misconduct-related changes that can occur even though play has restarted (we have dealt with them in other Q&As).

The other principle, however, is a bit more problematical.  We referred above to “relevant information” as the basis for changing a decision.  Suppose the Referee had announced that, upon reflection, she thought the defender should receive a red instead of a yellow card because his hair was red.  Does the Referee have the right to change the card?  Yes.  Is this information about hair color relevant?  No.  The seriousness of an injury is not a relevant fact.  Law 12 provides that, for each of seven specifically-named player actions, the Referee is to  decide the action is a direct free kick foul if the act was careless or reckless or if it was performed using excessive force.  Any one of these is sufficient to make the decision that it was a direct free kick foul.  As for the possibility that the action might also be misconduct, the Referee is advised in Law 12 that carelessness by itself does not involve misconduct, that recklessness by itself is cautionable, and that the user of excessive force should be sent off.  Nowhere here or in the subsequent explanations of each of these three critical terms is the word “injury” used.

Injuries can occur any time, caused by anyone or by no one, be the result of deliberate action or simple accident.  Even carelessness can result in an injury.  Furthermore, the seriousness of the injury is not, by itself, any indication of how to treat the action.  Clearly, the risk of serious injury increases with the use of excessive force, but a “serious injury result” does not make its cause a red card offense.  When the tackle occurred, the Referee’s job was to assess carelessness, recklessness, or the presence of excessive force.  None of these three things can be inferred by the subsequent decision that an injury was serious, just as the lack of a serious injury cannot infer that the action did not involve excessive force.  Neither can the presence of a serious injury be cited as proof that the safety of an opponent had therefore been endangered any more than the absence of a serious injury be offered as proof that no opponent had been endangered.  The seriousness of an injury is a function of the injury’s impact on the player, not a function — an element perhaps, but not a function — the Referee should take into account in deciding the color of a card.

In the given scenario, it would have been entirely appropriate (indeed, good officiating team communication) if, before play was restarted, an assistant referee had advised the Referee that the “50/50” tackle, in addition to being a “bit hard,” had come in uncontrolled from the attacker’s blind side, and with studs up.  Any of these factors, much less all of them, would have been clear-cut grounds for the Referee to decide that the caution should be changed to a red card.