A Political Lesson from the Pitch

Last Saturday night in Chester, Pennsylvania Haris Medunjanin told a referee that he was wrong. What makes this worth noting is that Medunjanin is a professional soccer player who was protesting a red card issued to an opponent who had just fouled him. Medunjanin plays for the Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer. In the 74th minute of a tight game, D.C. United’s Luciano Acosta pushed Medunjanin in the back, sending him to the ground. The ref pulled out a red card, which not only would have sent Acosta to the showers and meant that D.C. played with 10 men for the game’s remaining 16 or so minutes, it also would have meant that D.C.’s most creative player would miss the next game. The stakes were pretty high. Both teams are near the bottom of the standings and both needed a win or at least a tie. This was no magnanimous gesture by a clearly superior team to an amateur side — this piece of sportsmanship could have cost the Union the game, dropped them down the standings, and ultimately help cost them a spot in the playoffs. One former professional player called the move “dumb.” In the end Philadelphia won the game 1–0, largely to some serious heroics by their goalkeeper.

One of the things I love about soccer is the respect players often show for each other and the game itself. From exchanging jerseys at the end of big games to players kicking the ball out of bounds when someone is hurt, soccer is a game of respect as much as it is of competition (Arsenal once offered to replay an important game because one of their players violated the tradition of then throwing the ball back into the other team).

This isn’t always the case of course. Soccer is as famous for diving, hooligans, corruption, and a goal scored by the hand of Diego Maradona that the player attributed to the hand of God as it is for its beauty and passion. But the good is there.

Medunjanin’s action came in the middle of something that rarely looks honorable and has never been called beautiful: debates in Congress about health care, investigations of Russian interference in U.S. elections, and a political season on which the only thing anyone seems to agree is that it’s the other side’s fault we can’t agree on anything.

There is a lot to learn from soccer’s tradition of cooperative competition (I devote a chapter to the topic in my upcoming book on lessons from soccer for managers and organizations). There are three lessons for politics I want to highlight here.

The first is the importance of doing the right thing no matter the stakes.In soccer some gamesmanship is expected, and over the course of a season you hope that you benefit from as many bad calls as you suffer. But in politics, we want to hope that our elected and appointed officials always do what is right, not matter the moment or the personal stakes or impact on the political party. We also know this is not always the case, but we still want to hope it.

The second lesson is less obvious and equally important: Medunjanin did not say Acosta was innocent, just that he didn’t deserve a red card. Acosta bowled Medunjanin over from behind, which is against the rules. It was certainly a foul, and possibly a yellow card caution. Medunjanin, Acosta, and the referee all agreed on that. A wrong was done that deserved punishment — the argument wasn’t that Acosta was innocent, just not guilty of a crime that deserved banishment.

The third lesson is that anyone can do what is right, and everyone should try. Medunjanin did not wait until the end of the game and talk about the need for Video Assistant Referee systems and abstract fixes to the global game. He stepped up in the moment and did the right thing. The Republican and Democratic National Committees probably ought to have proactive policies promoting respectful debate and punishing those who go out of bounds. There need to be structural changes to our elections including redistricting reform. And each of us needs to step up and do the right thing in the moment.

Our politics has devolved to claims of pure innocence or absolute guilt. There is no room to say “that was out of bounds, we need to make it right and get on with governing.” We are missing actions that say “what the other side did was wrong and deserves public condemnation, but the other side has a lot to offer overall and should be respected.” Arguments that House Speaker Paul Ryan is evil because he is not living up to his own political standards and should therefore never be trusted or talked to are akin to giving a red card for what was simply a hard foul. Yah, Speaker Ryan should keep his word. I think the country would be a lot better off if he did what he said. But that doesn’t mean all Republicans are all evil (or even that the Speaker is all evil — he is a political opponent, not a mortal enemy of either mine or the country’s).

At its best — and Medunjanin’s act is surely an example of the game at its best — soccer can teach us a lot about how we ought to behave in politics.

Lessons for Managers and Organizations from the US Men’s National Soccer Team