By Paul Gardner
What on earth is one to make of the Thierry Henry-Kevin Hartman incident? Well, firstly you have to sympathize with Hartman, who didn’t do anything wrong -- barely did anything at all, actually -- but ended up with a knee injury that will apparently keep him benched for several weeks.
All because Henry did what he says he usually does after a goal which is, if the ball is running loose before the restart, to slam it back into the net. Of course, he’s not the only player who does that. This time the ball did not go into the net -- it got deflected.
Henry ran up to the ball and whacked it at precisely the moment that Hartman reached out his leg -- presumably to push the ball away, or maybe flick it up.
Then came the impact of Henry’s kick. He didn’t make contact with Hartman, but the solidly thumped ball did, and we got a perfect demonstration of the truth of the advice that when you challenge for the ball you have to do it firmly ... or you get hurt.
Hartman did not go in firmly -- why would he? He didn’t even know this was to be a disputed ball. So he got quite badly injured.
The question then becomes: was Henry in any way to be blamed for that injury, or was this simply a freak occurrence?
The MLS Disciplinary Committee has made up its mind, calling Henry’s action “unsporting,” and fining him $2,000. Unsporting seems quite the wrong word here -- stupid is more like it, which is a pretty amazing thing to have to say about one of the most experienced professionals in the sport.
In the MLS statement there is also a suggestion that Hartman may have contributed to his own woes because he “stepped into the path of the ball.” That seems a questionable assertion. Hartman is walking toward the ball, which is stationary, and arrives at much the same moment as Henry kicks it. You could argue it either way.
But the “active force,” so to speak, in the incident was undoubtedly Henry. So, how about that punishment? Too harsh? Too lenient? Or should there be any punishment at all for what was essentially a freak incident?
My feeling is that the $2,000 fine is about right, a suitable punishment for stupidity. At which point, blustering and foaming at the mouth, here comes Ron Waxman, who happens to be Hartman’s agent. That fine is ultra-definitely not all right with Waxman, who thinks Henry should have been suspended. Considering this is a one-off incident that is unlikely to be covered by any regulation or precedent, Waxman sounds remarkably authoritative: “It's either no punishment or there must be a suspension.”
I don’t know where he gets that “must” from. Henry did not receive a caution (in fact, he had been yellow-carded barely a minute earlier, so a caution would have seen him ejected). I suppose it’s possible that neither referee Hilario Grajeda nor his assistant saw the incident, but that seems improbable.
But Waxman surges on and accuses the disciplinary committee -- and through them, MLS and presumably Commissioner Don Garber -- of operating a double standard. Because they failed to suspend Henry, the members of the disciplinary committee, says Waxman, “should be embarrassed and ashamed.” He’s saying that Henry was not suspended because the league wanted to make sure that he played in this Friday’s game between the Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy -- a gala occasion, national television, David Beckham etc., etc.
The accusation that Designated Players are getting special treatment was bound to surface sooner or later, most probably as a criticism of the referees for being too alert in protecting them from rough play. According to Waxman, that has been reversed in this case, where he evidently sees the disciplinary committee, and by implication the referee, as having allowed Henry to switch from being the victim to the perpetrator of foul play, and to get away with it. On the assumption that the $2,000 fine is peanuts when measured against Henry’s reported annual salary of over $5 million, Waxman claims that Henry is getting off “virtually unpunished.”
As it happens, Henry himself has come up with an injured knee and will not play in the Galaxy game anyway, so that whatever machinations Waxman believed MLS was up to were quite unnecessary.
I could say the same for Waxman’s rant, but that would not be quite true. Player agents are even worse than coaches when it comes to getting a balanced view of soccer. Coaches see only their own players, ditto for agents on a more narrow-minded scale. What position do you think Waxman would be adopting if he were Henry’s agent? And had this identical incident occurred involving two non-Waxman-represented players, you think we would have heard a word from the voluble Ron?
Nevertheless Waxman, for all the wrong reasons, brings up an important point and gives us a timely reminder about the role of outside influences in sports events. I’m thinking of the murky money-television-sponsor combination.
Such is the importance of that trio that their influence hardly needs to be exerted, their interests hardly need to be specifically considered, because they are now an ever-present part of the whole sporting ambience.
And yes, that ambience could lead, almost unknowingly, to the sort of decisions that Waxman is complaining of -- though in this instance, I don’t believe it did. But thanks for the warning, Ron.