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The Angle

A Screwed-up Suspension, a PR Nightmare

by on 16 April 2018

Quietly, outside of the excitement of Zlatan and the Loons’ double-barreled South American raid, a less noticeable story took place in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) this past week. Back on opening weekend, North Carolina goalkeeper Sabrina d’Angelo came out and made this game-critical stop on Portland’s Midge Purce (2:45):

The referee in the match, Ramy Touchan, correctly calls no foul here, d’Angelo gets the ball first, then Purce trips over the leg that takes the ball. The replay is convincing, but even at full speed a trained eye can tell d’Angelo takes the ball, because the ball changes direction.

That, of course, is not the story. For the real story… well, we have to read the statement that came from the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) on April 12:

Regrettably, this is not the first time in the past couple years that PSRA has had to respond to a botched management of a disciplinary procedure. And it calls into question… if you were running or setting up a league, really at any level, have you considered how disciplinary procedures should work? Do you ever consider how your actions affect the integrity of your officials? And if you throw your officials under a bus, what possibly could motivate them to work for you?

For the moment let’s forget Mark Parsons’ actions, or even his public response to the overturning of the additional game. (Don’t worry, we’re going to revisit those!) Somebody in the league office thought his actions deserved an additional game suspension. After his club appealed the suspension, somebody in the league office then decided that, because it was the word of the referee against the word of Parsons, an extra game suspension was overkill.

The referee did not demand any length of suspension here. PSRA is protesting these actions because a decision was made, based on the referee report, that Parsons was guilty of irresponsible behavior that exceeded the standard for a simple one-game suspension. The referee would have stated in his report that Parsons was sent off for irresponsible behavior, then written exactly what was said or done to provoke that action. Portland protested the extra game, as Parsons claimed he didn’t do what was reported.

Translated, somebody didn’t tell the truth. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of discussions over truth, truthiness, and motivation these past few years. Why would Parsons not tell the truth here? Obviously, to get back on the touchline sooner.

Why would Touchan not tell the truth in his match report? He has no idea that if he says Parsons shoved dirt in his hand, Parsons will get another game. That decision is out of his hands. Touchan only has to write what happened; it has no impact on his future assignments. The only possible motivation would be that Touchan has some sort of personal vendetta against Parsons. I suppose that is remotely possible, though highly unlikely, certainly less likely than Parsons’ motivation to shorten his suspension.

Let’s go back and start at the ground floor of the disciplinary process for most soccer competitions. If a player is sent off in a match in most competitions, that player gets suspended for at least the next game. Certain types of send-offs can mandate longer suspensions. For example Serious Foul Play (e.g., a nasty tackle) or Violent Conduct (e.g., a head butt during a dead ball) often gets three games in many first divisions around the world. Particularly bad incidents, such as Luis Suarez’s tendency to bite people earning him 9 games from FIFA, or Brian Mullen getting 10 games for breaking Steve Zakuani’s leg in MLS, may get games added on.

I’m not going to go into all of the actions that can get a coach dismissed from a match here, but the basics are usually with a dismissal, you get one game beyond the game you are tossed from. If a coach has been dismissed repeatedly within a competition, that competition may tack on games to deter future misbehavior (possibly why Jose Mourhino is such a peach on the touchline now). Certain specific behaviors may mandate additional games, such as Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger getting four games after he pushed referee Anthony Taylor in 2017.

Let’s return to Parsons and consider why his actions probably deserved more than one game.

First, he entered the field at the end of the match and approached the officials. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but if, as a manager, you enter the field after a period of play ends and use that entry to verbally berate the referee (see: Pep Guardiola against Liverpool in the Champions League on April 10), you are now using that entrance on to the field not to act in a sporting manner or gather information, but specifically to disrespect the official. That’s almost always an automatic dismissal. Therefore, in Parsons’ case, the fact that he used the guise of a postgame handshake to disrespect the official is grounds for him being dismissed and receiving a one-game suspension.

But more importantly, Parsons’ display of disrespect involved physical contact. It’s one thing for a player or coach to tell a referee, “You suck!” I would bet that while Parsons was allegedly shoving a fistful of dirt into Touchan’s hand, he wasn’t also saying something like, “Excellent job, Mr. Referee, we kindly thank you for coming out today!”

The physical insult of shoving dirt into the referee’s hand goes beyond simple verbal disrespect. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite neatly fit into U.S. Soccer’s definitions of abuse or assault. For reference, U.S. Soccer (in its policy manual) defines assault as:

… include, but is not limited to: striking, kicking, choking, grabbing or bodily running into a referee; spitting on a referee with ostensible intent to do so; kicking or throwing an object at an official that could inflict injury; or damaging the referee’s uniform or personal property (e.g., car, uniform, or equipment)

Abuse is defined as:

…include, but is not limited to: verbal and nonverbal communication which contains foul or abusive language and which implies or directly threatens physical harm; spewing a beverage on or spitting at a referee or the referee’s personal property

To give the legal counter-argument here, shoving dirt into somebody’s hand is neither threatening nor implying physical harm. It is probably a bit of a stretch to say that Parsons “grabbed” the referee (Touchan likely offered his hand for the handshake), and Parsons did not damage Touchan’s property.

Then again, rubbing a piece of Touchan’s body with dirt (aside from being completely immature and unprofessional) certainly is a deliberate physical act meant to show disrespect and intimidate.

Why does it matter? Because in addition to defining abuse and assault, U.S. Soccer also spells out specific punishment for these incidents in its policy manual. Specifically, for professional matches…

Any player, coach, manager, club official, or league official who commits an intentional act of physical violence at or upon a referee (“Referee Assault”) shall be suspended without pay for a period of at least six consecutive matches (the “Assault Suspension”).

Any player, coach, manager, club official, or league official who threatens through a physical act or verbal statement, either explicitly or implicitly, a referee (“Referee Abuse”) shall be suspended for a period of at least three consecutive matches (the “Abuse Suspension”).

Parsons may not have committed Referee Abuse or Referee Assault as strictly defined by USSF’s policy manual, but it is completely reasonable to say he physically abused the official by shoving dirt into his hand. I’m not sure that fits the “spirit” of Referee Assault, but at a minimum it fits the “spirit” of Referee Abuse, and that should mandate a minimum three-match ban.

To get only a standard one-match ban for such an act is comical, and shows the NWSL is not serious about protecting the integrity of its officials. It seemed like they (sort of) understood that at first, when they tacked on another game, but through an opaque and apparently one-sided appeal process they ruined any sense of respect for the officials who work in their league.

In discussing the overturned suspension, Parsons was hardly contrite:

“Maybe put myself in a difficult spot,” Parsons said. “Obviously, we disagreed unbelievably strongly about what the decision was or what the accusation was, which I’m not going to talk about.”

While Parsons did not talk about what led to the interaction with the official, he and the club may have been unhappy with the referee’s decision not to call a penalty in the 80th minute when Midge Purce appeared to be taken down in the box. 

Those initial words, “Maybe put myself in a difficult spot. Obviously, we disagreed unbelievably strongly about what the decision was…” That’s Parsons admitting that he confronted the referee aggressively. He’s copping to irresponsible behavior. And yet, nowhere in there is an apology for how he treated the referee.  Parsons says he was mad about “the decision” but expresses no regret for confronting Touchan. Then again, why should he apologize? The league just downgraded his punishment.

One of the biggest issues with providing support for officials—in all leagues, not just professional ones—is an utter lack of courage to deal with post-ejection behavior. Soccer is littered with irresponsible behavior that occurs after an individual is dismissed from a match, only to see toothless punishment for that behavior. Once an individual is dismissed, a referee has no further power to implement any kind of discipline. That power exists solely within the competition authority, but routinely we see those authorities fail to protect the integrity of the officials.

In the past few weeks, we have seen numerous examples…

In the Minnesota United-Atlanta game, Atlanta’s Leandro González-Pirez received a justified second caution when he charged Sam Nicholson into the advertising boards after the ball had left the field of play. González-Pirez refused to leave the field in a timely manner, arguing the card and wasting several minutes with Atlanta now needing to protect a one-goal lead with 10 men. Only two minutes were added to the end of the first half.

MLS only fined González-Pirez an undisclosed amount for his post-ejection antics. This means he has to donate a small portion of his salary ($285K last year) to charity as “punishment” for making a mockery of referee Chris Penso’s completely legitimate decision and the match in general.

He should have been suspended an additional game. I’m sure the league will say that if González-Pirez pulls another stunt in the future they will come down harder. But if I am any other player in MLS right now, I know that the first time I get sent off this year, if I want to chew a few minutes off the clock, it will just cost me a small amount from my next paycheck, and hey, the money will go to a good cause in the end.(We won’t expand on the ethics of using disciplinary measures to force charitable donations here, but that idea further degrades the effectiveness of the so-called punishment.)

After calling a last-minute penalty kick for Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals, Michael Oliver was assaulted (per U.S. Soccer’s definitions) by Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and sent off. While Buffon may never play another Champions League game again due to being so close to retirement, if U.S. Soccer’s standards were applied here he would miss the entirety of Juventus’ group stage games in 2018-19.

After the match, Buffon was interviewed by reporters and told them that Oliver was “an animal” and “has a bag of rubbish instead of a heart.”

Additional disciplinary measures are pending. Pardon me if I don’t hold my breath in anticipation of them being remotely appropriate.

These issues hit on the local level as well. In Minnesota high school soccer a player or coach who is ejected serves a one-game suspension regardless of the act that caused the ejection. Any misbehavior that occurs after the ejection can be reported by the official, but further discipline is at the decision of the school.

As a high school referee, I have dismissed coaches who have then proceeded—after the dismissal, mind you—to insult my intelligence and threatened to “make sure I never work another high school game.” There has never been any consequences for those post-ejection threats, in spite of my reporting them.

(I’m also still officiating high school, so I guess there’s that.)

In the AA boys state title game last year, a player was sent off by the referee, and after the dismissal, turned and showed a pair of obscene gestures to the referee’s face. The referee reported the action in his game report, and the response of the school was, “The player has to accept responsibility for his actions.” I’m sure these “harsh” consequences that had no impact on either the outcome of the game or the team’s future contests will deter other angry high school players from flipping off referees.

I worked a college men’s match last year as an assistant in which my opposite assistant, a woman, made an offside call, causing a player to turn to her and say, “That’s why women shouldn’t be referees.” The referee sent the player off. After the game the coach made the player come apologize to her, to which the player said, “I’m sorry for what I said, but you need to get better.” Hardly an apology, and he abused the opportunity to apologize by further insulting my colleague. The dismissal and the post-match behavior were shared with the conference. The player served his NCAA-mandated suspension, but was back out on the field in time for the conference championship game two games later.

There are rare positive stories where teams do take it upon themselves to demand better from their players. In 2015 a Fortuna Dusseldorf player was sent off by German referee Bibi Steinhaus and told her after the fact that women “have no place in football.” The dismissal would have normally cost him one match, but the Bundesliga ended up suspending him for three games and fining the club €10,000. On top of that, the club forced him to officiate a girls’ youth match.

Ultimately, though, competition authorities have to have a spine when it comes to referee abuse and assault. The consequences of such behavior must be real and serious. There are far too many examples of participants getting away with reprehensible behavior and then getting off with a slap on the wrist. The NWSL incident that sparked this article is just another example in a long line of stories where competitions fail to uphold the integrity of their officials.

I’ll grant that fans are paying ticket prices to come see the players perform and the coaches coach. But they are also not paying to see behavior, that sometimes borders on minor human rights violations, occur in front of them. It would be nice if leagues and teams understood their moral leadership position in society and demanded better of themselves.

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