There were several instances in Manchester United’s match against Sevilla in which Romelu Lukaku was fouled while on the ball, but the foul wasn’t called. For some of them, he stayed on his feet through the tackles, which would be fine if the referee had signaled for advantage to acknowledge the infraction while letting play go on, but the ref didn’t do that. Lukaku was clearly being fouled, to the point of staggering.
This has been a recurring problem for Lukaku throughout his career, no matter the stage nor the ref. The problem is Lukaku’s big body: The same thing he often uses to his advantage to shield the ball and create separation from defenders is also the reason he doesn’t get the fouls he deserves.
It’s a problem that goes crosses over to different sports. Because players like Lukaku are big relative to their competition, it takes greater effort for defenders to bring them down, and defenders are allowed to commit what would ordinarily be a foul against anyone else. That Lukaku stays on his feet, as he did against Sevilla, doesn’t help him get the justice he deserves.
But even in the case of someone like Olivier Giroud, who also routinely gets abused by defenders, going down still doesn’t get him the rightful calls. Many times when he does goes down, referees ignore him as if he took a dive, because he’s big. Against Giroud, those fouls don’t look as bad as they would against a smaller, more slender forward.
A few months ago, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers complained about the same thing. He noted that as a bigger player who drives to the rim, he doesn’t get the same protection as his jump-shooting counterparts. It was a big problem with Shaquille O’Neal during his career. O’Neal routinely complained that referees would allow him to be abused under the rim because he was big and could play through the hits. It even happens with Cam Newton, an NFL quarterback who is bigger and stronger than most of his colleagues.
When James complained about not getting calls, his critics pointed out that he draws a lot of fouls relative to most NBA players, which is true:
However, the fact James is talented enough to draw a lot of fouls doesn’t negate his point. It’s not that he doesn’t get foul calls, or that he doesn’t get them at a high rate, it’s he’s allowed to be abused in a way that smaller players wouldn’t be.
James was justified last December, when his Cavaliers played against the Warriors on Christmas. Kevin Durant guarded James in the final possessions and seemed to foul him on several drives. The worst infraction happened with less than 30 seconds left and the Warriors leading, 95-92. James drove to the rim, and not only did Durant make excessive contact with his body, but Durant impaired the shot by holding down James’ left hand in his block attempt. Durant dismissed James’ complaints about the fouls, saying his efforts were clean. But later, the NBA itself would admit James was, in fact, fouled three times within that 72 seconds. None of those fouls were called.
Sometimes James exaggerates those small fouls to draw attention to the actions being ignored. The irony is commentators and fans criticize the reactions because a guy his size rightfully shouldn’t go down from the contact, but the fact is if he doesn’t behave in that manner, what is a foul wouldn’t be called as such.
The reason for why this problem exists is likely multifaceted, but it’s something that once you see it, it’s hard to ignore. Or rather, it’s harder to deny if you pay attention to someone like Lukaku or James throughout a game. The players themselves have been complaining about no-calls for a long time, despite being dismissed as entitled athletes who are naturally embittered towards officials.
All players should be held to the same standards. A foul should be a foul regardless of who is committing it, and who is the victim. The size of the attacker shouldn’t matter. Big players shouldn’t have to exaggerate contact to show that they are being hurt. Refereeing, as a human job, is imperfect by nature, but this has a been a persistent problem that should be corrected.