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New rule softens ejections

The blue card penalty for a handball has had varying degrees of success.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 23, 2003

The numbers make it look worse than it is.

Sure, there were 373 ejections in high school soccer games across the state last year compared to 193 in football. And while that doesn't mean soccer is more violent than football, it is a discrepancy that the Florida High School Activities Association wants to change.

Enter the blue card.

The blue card is a third penalty card referees have been carrying this season in addition to the yellow and red. According to the FHSAA manual, there is only one instance a blue card should be used: when a player uses his or her hands to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity. The offense was previously issued a red card, which resulted in the player being ejected and suspended for up to a week (two games). The team could not substitute for that player.

With the blue card, the penalty is less severe. The player is disqualified from the game but is not subject to a suspension. The team is still not allowed to substitute.

Cecelia Jackson, the FHSAA administrator for soccer, said an advisory committee comprised of coaches discussed how to reduce the seemingly large number of ejections. The group decided that changing the penalty, not the rule, was a way to cut down on red cards. Based on its research, the committee determined that about 80 red cards given out each year were for goal-preventing handballs.

With the elimination of the suspension, the FHSAA hopes to take the sting off a penalty that doesn't physically harm another player and ultimately bring down the overall number of suspensions in soccer, making it equal to other sports, Jackson said.

Kevin Towne, coach of the Lecanto girls teams, said he thinks the blue card is a good idea.

"I think sometimes (a handball is) more of a reaction move than an intentional move," Towne said. "To get a red card for doing that is a little harsh."

But some coaches don't see a point in the change.

"It kind of defeats the purpose," said Kristi Mule, coach of the Hernando girls team. "If it's going to be a foul, it's a foul. You might as well continue with the penalty."

Merritt Guthrie, last year's president of the Pinellas Soccer Officials Association, which officiates high school, club and amateur games, said he understands the blue card's purpose, but it is hard to judge soccer in the same way as other sports.

"Ejections are part of the game," Guthrie said. "In football (a player) can do a crack-back block, break a kid's leg and the most penalty that can be given is a 15-yard penalty. In soccer, if you do something egregious to a player, you're ejected. That's part of the rules of the game."

The modification has caused some confusion. Northeast boys coach Dave Williams has seen three blue cards issued this season and said only one was used for a handball. The others were used as a double yellow card, a completely different penalty.

"A lot of times it takes a couple of years for rule changes to catch on," said Guthrie, adding that he even sometimes forgets to pack his blue card for high school games.

Referees and coaches agree, the blue-card infraction is so infrequent, it probably won't have much effect on the game.

However, Jackson hopes it does. She said the blue card is an experiment and the advisory committee will assess its impact at the end of the season to determine whether or not it has kept more players on the field rather than off.

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