As the World Cup semifinals rage on in South Africa, I noticed that a number of those dreaded red cards have been issued both on and off the football field. They are of particular interest because, while they communicate formal authority and official sanction against the most grievous offences on the football field, they have also become symbols of various good governance and anti-corruption initiatives in the broader public arena.
The innovation was first introduced more than 4 decades ago by legendary British referee Ken Aston and, since then, has diffused into the global public sphere. A Google search utilizing the phrase “red card campaign” resulted in around 283,000 results. Some recent examples include the campaign against human trafficking in Africa, the Khulumani campaign for human rights in the DRC, and the UNAIDS campaign against HIV in South Africa. The International Labour Organization and UNICEF have both run red card campaigns for children’s rights, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and USAID have used them in anti-corruption efforts, and a number of controversial campaigns have been launched against high-level politicians in several countries.
I wasn’t able to find evaluations on these campaigns and don’t know whether they were successful. Nonetheless, I believe it is fair to argue that the sponsors of these campaigns were convinced of the red card’s potency as a symbol -- one that has the power not only to grab attention, but telegraph a message of injustice to affected parties as well as to larger audiences.
As we know, footballers and other athletes are issued red cards as a result of foul play, to signal that they are being penalized for breaking the formal rules of the game and also to embarrass them through public spectacle. It is the combination of these formal and informal institutions that makes the red card a powerful symbol. It is, perhaps, also this combination that increases the likelihood that human beings will behave properly in any public arena.
Photo credit: Flickr user christophercarfi