Code of Honor - Understanding the Black Card in Sports

Getting kicked out of a match is something that many fencers have thankfully never experienced. In fencing, the black card is the method that officials use to remove a fencer from competition when they break the code of honor. Severe offences mean an ejection in fencing. While sport is at its heart about good will and good sportsmanship, unfortunate events like ejections do happen.

After the USA Fencing strengthened its protocols on the black card a few weeks ago, it’s been on a lot of people’s minds. Black cards are serious, and they are necessary. Bad behavior or dangerous actions should never be tolerated by the fencing community, or any sport. The new protocols emphasize the seriousness of the black card offense. 

With all this thinking about the black card, we started thinking about how ejection plays out in other sports. Events like the Olympics and World Cups have had a fascinating history of players being removed from matches. Fencing has some remarkable stories too. 

The black card is the end of the road for an athlete in a competition. It marks the definitive and negative end of competition for a fencer, or for any athlete. It’s not even a loss, though the opponent technically gets a win. A black card is worse than a loss, because it is not a measure of athletic skill or prowess. It’s a demonstration that the athlete could not hold up the code of honor within the sport.

A black card ejects an athlete from competition for egregious behavior. 

To be clear, this behavior does not have to be vile or violent. An athlete can get a black card for not showing up to the match on time or for leaving the match early. If they simply stop participating, for any of a number of reasons, they can get a black card. 

It’s notable that the black card is not just for athletes. Coaches, spectators, and even referees (in theory) can get a black card and get ejected from a match. If a parent is disruptive, even if it is through overly loud and inappropriate cheering or repeatedly getting too close to the strip during the match and not following a referee’s instruction, they can be ejected from the tournament with a black card. 

The black card in sports and in fencing

The black card as such is used in fencing, badminton, and gaelic football. Those are just the sports that use the specific version of ejection that involves the black card. Every sport has a method for kicking out a player for breaking the code of honor or code of conduct in the sport. Sometimes it’s a red card, sometimes it happens after the match upon review. 

Throwing the match

Badminton had a massive scandal at the 2012 Olympics when top seeded Chinese players Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli seemed to show no interest in beating their Korean rivals. It seemed that they were throwing the match in order to keep from facing their Chinese compatriots Zhao Yunlei and Tian Qing in the early rounds. The idea was to create an all-China final. When the Chinese stopped playing to win, the Koreans started exhibiting the same behavior. The Chinese women got a black card for the match immediately. However, after a tremendous day of badminton craziness, both Chinese women’s badminton teams as well as the Korean and Indonesian teams were black carded and ejected from the competition for fixing the matches by refusing to play properly. In all, eight players got the boot. 

Angry behavior

Let’s talk about the thing that all of us think of immediately when we think of the black card – angry outbursts. The most exciting reason that players get banned is outrageous behavior. It’s a reason that some people watch sports, which is a bit unfortunate if you think about it! Soccer has the red card instead of the black card, though they are really the same thing. There are tons of instances of this, but one of the most famous is Frenchman Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt to the chest of rival Marco Materazzi during the 2006 FIFA World Cup.  It was a huge moment, when one of the top players in the world could not control himself and just lost it on during the match.

Angry behavior is a major issue in tennis as well, and a hugely controversial one. Famed tennis player Serena Williams lost the U.S. Open in 2018 to rival Naomi Osaka due to a series of penalties for behavior. 

Taking too long

Taekwondo saw one of the most memorable ejections in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Cuban athlete Angel Matos exceeded the time limit during an injury, which resulted in his being disqualified for that reason alone. When that ref disqualified him, he reacted by kicking the referee in the face! He then punched another official. After that he was banned for life from international Taekwondo competitions for life. 

Getting extra help

In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Kenyan Richard Chelimo and Moroccan Khalid Skah were in the lead when they lapped another Moroccan, Hammou Boutayeb. That runner stuck with the leaders to the end, which slowed Skah and Chelimo down. The crowd booed the runners as they slowed down and Skah, who won the race and thereby earned the gold, was immediately disqualified. This is one instance where that ruling didn’t stand, as he was reinstated and got his gold when he fought the decision. 

Out of bounds

Sometimes disqualification comes from going out of bounds, which is something we fencers can certainly appreciate. In the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the Canadian men’s pairs rowing team was disqualified for crossing into the other lane, interfering with the progress of the other team. The decision was later appealed, but the Court of Arbitration of Sport let it stand. 

Ejected for Tweeting

This is a little different from the black card, but it sets an important precedent that every athlete, including fencers, should pay attention to. During the 2012 London Olympics, the Swiss soccer team lost to South Korea. Player Michel Morganella from the Swiss team then get on Twitter and made a racist comment about Koreans and was expelled from the Olympics. What you do online matters! 

Drunken antics

The Canadians won Olympic Gold in 2014, but in 2018 team captain Ryan Fry and his mates found themselves pickled. At the Red Deer Curling Classic in 2018, the team had a little, well a lot, too much to drink. They were so drunk in the locker room and out on the competitive space ahead of the final match that fans became upset. They broke curling brooms, tore things off the walls, and yelled loudly. The men were ejected from the competition and issued public apologies. 

Engineering a black card

This is one of the most infamous instances of an athlete getting kicked out of the Olympics, and it happens to be a fencer! Russian Boris Onischenko competed in the fencing leg of the modern pentathlon in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and it’s an event that he’d won silver in for the two previous Olympic Games. The tournament came down to the Russian team versus the British team, and remember this is at the height of the Cold War.  Onischenko won easily against Danny Nightingale. Then he won again against Adrian Parker, but mysteriously go a point despite there being no contact from his epee with Parker.

In the next round he went against Jim Fox, a British Army captain. When the board lit up, Fox was sure he’d dodged his opponent. Fox demanded that his opponent’s weapon be checked as he thought it must be broken. What the referee found was astonishing! Onischenko was wearing a complexly engineered mechanism under his sleeve that allowed him to register a point when he pressed a button. It was so complicated that the judges had to actually take apart the weapon to figure it out! The Russian was immediately black carded and the British won gold. The tabloids in England called the cheater “Dishonischenko”. It stands to this day as one of the boldest instances of cheating in the history of sport. 

Getting kicked out of your match is a big deal! Especially at high levels, where athletes have been chasing this for many years. Losing your result is a big deal as well, because you feel like you’ve made it through and earned it (or gotten away with something if you were cheating!). This is a thing that every sport must cope with, because people do not always follow the code of conduct. It’s human nature.

Not just athletes

It’s not just athletes that face getting kicked out or banned. There are some remarkable instances of referees, coaches, and fans who have been ejected from sports. 

Coaching by shoe

There are a lot of ways that coaches can get themselves in trouble, but what happened at the 2016 Olympics with the men’s freestyle wrestling tournament is one of the most intense ever to happen. When Ikhtiyor Navruzov from Uzbekistan and Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran from Mongolia met in the bronze medal match, Ikhtiyor got a point when his opponent was charged with failing to engage with the opponent. (We have that in fencing too!). That led to Ikhtiyor winning the match. The coaches for Mandakhnaran protested with the judges, unsuccessfully, and then thing escalated. They stripped in front of the judges right on the mat! One threw a shoe at the judge’s table. The coaches were ejected from the arena. 

Referee with a favorite

During the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, a fencing official found himself on the receiving end of the black card. During the gold medal match for men’s foil in the team competition, Hungarian official Joszef Hidasi got into real hot water. He committed six mistakes that favored Italy during the match, which kept China from winning the gold medal. He was ejected from the match and banned from fencing for two years. 

These are lots of examples of bad behavior, in fencing and beyond, that have gotten both athletes and others kicked out of competition. Sometimes these things are absolutely on purpose, and sometimes they aren’t. What they all show is that the black card is an important tool for keeping sports both fair and civil. 

Acting within the code of honor of any sport is essential. Cheating, angry behavior, leaving the match, and even Tweeting are reasons for being ejected from a sport. While we might fear the black card, we also have to know that it’s important.