By Paul Gardner
The Vice President of Competition at Major League Soccer is former national team player Jeff Agoos. One of his responsibilities is to oversee the formation and the functioning of the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
The DisCo’s stated aims -- “to preserve the integrity and reputation of the game and Major League Soccer and to assist in ensuring player safety” are splendid. In practice things are less agreeable. DisCo acts mainly to punish players who, it feels, got off lightly for foul play (e.g. got a yellow when DisCo thinks it should have been a red) or whose transgressions were not caught by the referee.
Those judgments must entail a criticism of the referees. I think it would be transparent -- even democratic -- for the DisCo to conduct its affairs openly. Or maybe it’s nothing more complicated than simply being fair: The referees should be allowed to know who is criticizing them. To put it more dramatically, they should know who their accusers are.
So who are the members of DisCo? The answer from Agoos is “I cannot tell you that.” It is an answer that will crop up several times during my talk with Agoos. I assume these guys are paid? “Yes,” says Agoos, “they get a stipend.” How much? I ask. “I cannot tell you.” This silence is not, of course, because Agoos doesn’t know the answers. He does. But the pervasive official omerta of the refereeing world keeps his mouth shut.
Agoos makes the MLS case thoughtfully and non-dogmatically: “As a league, we’re not at a point to be sure enough we would want that [the names of the DisCo members] exposed. We have owners and coaches that may influence the [DisCo] decisions. We’re trying to keep those decisions as unbiased as possible.”
An answer that has merit, but one that also ensures the presence of all the negative aspects that secrecy entails. Here we have a secret body handing down punishments to players and, indirectly, criticizing referees. We know DisCo has five members, we know they are three ex-MLS players, one ex-MLS coach and one ex-MLS referee. And that’s about it on the transparency front. Those famous lines about justice “being not only done, but being seento be done” do not get a look in here.
There is more information that the DisCo ought to reveal, but does not. We know about the cases where it has taken action, But we should also be told about the incidents it looked into but chose notto act, and it should tell us why.
Again, Agoos has a reasonable answer (that people might come to expect a rigid consistency with apparently similar cases, where the DisCo wants to treat each case on its own merits). But we’re still left in the dark.
I am not suggesting that the DisCo is an insidious conspiracy working against the interests of certain clubs, or that it harbors vendettas against certain players. I’m fully satisfied that it is an honorable body. But unless we knowwho sits on the DisCo, and how its decisions are made, there is room for suspicions to breed. Secrecy breeds suspicion.
Exactly the same considerations apply when a club makes an appeal against a referee decision -- a red card. That appeal goes to another body, the so-called Independent Review Panel. That has three members -- one representative each from the U.S. Soccer Federation, from the Canadian Soccer Association, and one from PRO, the Professional Referees Organization.
Again, Agoos replies “I cannot tell you” when I ask for names. So, more secrecy. And some deception here, I fear: that word “Independent” in the IRP’s title needs scrutiny, given that one of its members is from PRO -- an organization that is partly financed by, and shares office space with, MLS.
Agoos’s position on these matters is, of course, strictly MLS party-line. But do I detect a tinge of regret hanging over those repeated “I cannot tell you” answers? On the naming of DisCo members, he does admit that things might change: “Never say never. We could revamp.”
For the moment, the core of the MLS argument against transparency is that it is a young league, uncertain that it has the vigor to withstand the hurly-burly of open discussions and arguments that full disclosure would undoubtedly bring.
It is not much of an argument. MLS is claiming that it is not yet mature enough for transparency, whereas the better argument is that embracing transparency from the start is a sharp indication of mature thinking.
Let me repeat my feeling that this is an area where the USA can -- should -- set an example for the sport. It should not be defending a policy of secret trials.
On that matter -- of setting an example for the sport -- there is the topic with which I began this Part 2 of this series: Referee signals, and Sir Stanley Rous’ fear of windmills.
The USA is ideally positioned to make a move here. This is a country where clear referee signals are an automatic part of other pro sports. Beyond that, we have the unique situation of college soccer leading the way, having devised a perfectly workable set of official signals.
If it is agreed -- obviously, I think it must be -- that pro soccer needs a set of signals, who better to provide it than the Americans?
The current FIFA rulebook is half-hearted -- pathetic, really -- on the matter, publishing just five banal illustrations of approved signals. Consider: There is no agreed, official, signal for one of the game’s most frequent calls -- offside. How can that be?
Take a look at page 95 of the rulebook. Here we have the dreaded word “Gestures” used as a heading. But the instructions conveyed are immediately anti-gesture: “As a general rule, the assistant referee must give no obvious hand signals. However, in some instances, a discreet hand signal may give valuable support to the referee. The hand signal should have a clear meaning.” Given that there are no official signals that would comply with this instruction, the rules then tell the AR’s to improvise: “The meaning [of the hand signal] should have been discussed and agreed upon in the pre-match discussion.”
This is 2014. The era of goal line technology. And soccer’s rulebook is telling officials to concoct furtive -- or “discreet” -- hand signals. Why furtive? Who knows? Maybe because a player or a fan or a journalist might see the signal, and might understand what was going on -- and then where would we be? Or, more likely, simply because secrecy has become such an automatic part of the refereeing mentality.
Does it need stressing that the secrecy mentality, which can give refereeing the atmosphere of a John le Carre espionage novel, is not a good idea?
How difficult would it be for U.S. Soccer and MLS to set up a joint task force to look into this topic, and to create a set of signals? The signals could then be used, experimentally, in any league in the USA, including MLS. As they do not affect the rules of the game, I do not believe that FIFA’s permission is necessary.
Opposition is much more likely to come from within the USA. It is unfortunate that the most powerful refereeing figure in this country is PRO’s boss, Peter Walton. Who happens to be English, making him an unlikely leader of anything that threatens the traditional English conservative attitude to soccer officiating.
Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 1)
Referees: Soccer's Secret Society (Part 2)