Memo to MLS: Just collect the fines, forget the moralizing

By Paul Gardner

In case you haven't noticed, MLS -- which as novice leagues go, is doing pretty well -- has now decided that it wants to be one of the best soccer leagues going. Commissioner Don Garber has told us just that, speaking of "our ambition to be one of the top leagues in the world."

A praiseworthy aim. But a long-term one. Some evidence of immediate action was evidently felt necessary, and so we get Garber switching from admirable ambitions to confused posturing.

The immediate action will come from the MLS’s Disciplinary Committee, led by Garber’s sidekick Nelson Rodriguez. It is going to stamp down, harshly, on rough play it seems. Great. For a start, look at what we did last year, says Garber, citing some “pretty significant punishments” handed down for violent play.

I suppose he must be referring to the nine-game ban visited upon the Rapids’ Brian Mullan for breaking the leg of the Sounders’ Steve Zakuani. I’d say that Mullan’s foul was one of the worst, if not the worst that I have seen in over 60 years of watching this game. Violent, vicious, nasty. Nine games seems to me a derisory punishment for what could well have been a career-ending assault. That tackle occurred nearly a year ago and Zakuani is still out. Mullan, of course, has been playing regularly for most of that time.

Which lends strength to my objection to all this stuff about clamping down on violent play. Frankly, I find it half-hearted. I seriously wonder whether there is any genuine commitment behind it.

Let me explain. When detailing this new, supposedly harsher, attitude toward violent play earlier this month, Garber talked about “protecting our players from injury,” and ensuring “the integrity and reputation of our league.”

Those tepid remarks were as stern as he got. He then turned his attention to “simulation and embellishment” and immediately a different tone is detectable. Suddenly Garber the indignant moralizer rises up.

We saw this side of Garber in 2008 when he jumped on a piffling case of doping involving two New York Red Bulls and called down tremendous wrath on their shoulders, banning Jon Conway and Jeff Parke for 10 games each. Note that: ten games for drinking Jungle Juice, nine games for breaking an opponent’s leg.

And now here comes the moralizing Garber again to hurl thunderbolts at the wicked divers. “We should be able to get rid of that unsportsmanlike aspect of our game, which I think does nothing to build the sport in this part of the world.” Without in any way disagreeing with the sentiment behind that badly worded desire (it does, after all, imply that diving might be acceptable in other parts of the world), what I want to know from Garber, and from Rodriguez, is this: Why is it that the same harsh tone of moral repugnance cannot be directed also at violent play?

Why does Garber speak only of “protecting our players”?

From whom? Well, from our players. Why, then can he not speak out loudly against the players who are causing the problem -- the violent tacklers? Why are they not identified as a category of player -- alongside the very-much-identified divers -- that MLS can do without?

When MLS went through those awful early weeks last season that saw serious injuries to Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales, why was it that we did not get a ringing statement from Garber that players using the type of rough, reckless tackling involved in those incidents would not be tolerated?

What we got instead was a pronouncement, accompanying Mullan’s nugatory nine-game ban, pointing out that players and coaches had already been warned about the danger of this sort of play, so that the punishment should not come as a surprise. We were also told, incredibly, that the Disciplinary Committee had taken into account the fact that Mullan’s foul had occurred in “the third minute of the game, 65-yards away from goal” -- leaving another unacceptable implication, that if the foul had occurred later in the game, or nearer the goal, it would have been treated more lightly.

Diving and divers never receive that sort of consideration. Last season featured two well-publicized diving cases in MLS (yes, just two). In one, D.C. United’s Charlie Davies was fined $1,000 for an obvious dive. In the other, Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio got a one-game suspension for diving, though this was a much more contentious case, and far from being the “obvious simulation” that MLS says it has to be to warrant a suspension. None of which stopped Rodriguez intoning about the necessity to “eliminate this type of behavior.”

When players dive, then, it is a reprehensible “type of behavior.” A character fault of the diver. But when vicious tackles result in broken legs, no such judgment is passed on the tackler -- in fact no judgment at all -- merely a statement that “this type of tackle ... is one we need to eradicate from our game.” The words are again those of Rodriguez, after the Mullan thuggery. The tackle is the problem you see, not the tackler.

The problems of violent tackling and diving are clearly linked. It should be obvious which one needs to be solved first. As long as violent tackling persists, diving -- if only as a defensive reaction -- will exist. On that point, there were some highly sensible comments from the 20-year-old Brazilian star Neymar recently. After being repeatedly kicked and recklessly tackled in a Libertadores Cup game against Juan Aurich of Peru, Neymar told reporters after the game that he had, on several occasions, jumped to avoid dangerous tackles: “If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, I’d be in the hospital.” And quite possibly with a yellow card for diving to accompany him.

That is the type of misjustice that an obsession with diving generates. Both Garber and Rodriguez have fallen victims to that obsession, displaying a harshly condemnatory attitude to divers, while finding themselves unable to be equally stern with the thugs -- with whom, in fact, they should be much more harsh.

I’ll admit to a long-standing dislike of moral arbiters, but that is not the point here. What I’m saying is that a moralizing attitude is a virtual guarantee that facts will not be seen clearly.

Punish the divers, yes, once guilt is clearly established. But in morally condemning divers while, in effect, playing down the activities of leg-breaking tacklers, Garber and Rodriguez are getting their priorities wrong. Maybe they believe that is the way to get MLS ranked as one of the world’s top leagues. I can only hope they’ve got that wrong.

* * *

P.S. I now discover that Garber has another bothersome case to consider - that of Houston’s Colin Clark, who called a Seattle ballboy an “effing f****t.” Clark has already offered an apology that sounds genuine enough. But, having taken such mighty moral stands against doping and diving, can MLS now dare to dismiss anti-gay slurs with a shrug of the shoulders? Probably not, so I suppose we must prepare ourselves for another tedious Garber/Rodriguez Bull on how deplorable it all is, and how splendid MLS is for opposing it.

9 comments about "Memo to MLS: Just collect the fines, forget the moralizing".
  1. Alvaro Bettucchi, March 26, 2012 at 1:44 a.m.

    Last year I went to a number of San Jose Earthquakes home games, and I was so dissapointed in what is normally called "THE BEAUTIFUL GAME". The rough play and tackles against the Quakes, were totaly ignored by the referrees. It got to a point, that the Quakes began to do the same. It turned into a game of American football. It's time that we bare down on this kind of play and begin to see what Soccer is about, a game of intellegence and skill.

  2. Kent James, March 26, 2012 at 8:17 a.m.

    While I agree with PG's condemnation of thuggery (and the contrasting punishments for Mullen and the guys who drank Jungle Juice is a poor reflection on the MLS), I wish he'd stop defending diving. Yes, bad fouls are more dangerous, and deserve harsher punishment. But dives also deserve to be punished for a couple of reasons. First, diving can lead to more dangerous fouls. Players frustrated by a referee calling them for a phantom foul on a diver may take the attitude "I'll show you a real foul" and take the diver (or the nearest player) out. A referee, concerned about being made a fool of by a diver may hesitate to call real fouls because he's afraid they're dives, which leads to more violent games because players assume the ref is letting that sort of play go. Similarly, a close cousin of diving, embellishing a foul (making it look worse than it was by crying out, throwing the head back and the arms out, etc.), puts the ref in a tough spot. Call the foul, players think you were tricked into it by the embellishment. Let it go, and players assume you're allowing that sort of foul. And finally, any game in which cheating is allowed loses credibility. And in especially in the US, where soccer has been (unjustly) viewed by fans unfamiliar with the game as a "sissy" sport, behavior in which players feign tremendous pain for light contact, or are "knocked over with a feather", will not bring in new converts. Diving is a conscious effort to cheat, and should be dealt with harshly. The MLS should do its best to eliminate both thuggery and diving; it's not an either or proposition.

  3. beautiful game, March 26, 2012 at 12:03 p.m.

    Thuggery will continue in MLS as long as the marginal skillful players dominate the pitch and the refs/league turn a blind to such tactics. As for Colin Clarke's chilling verbal assault on a ballboy, it's unacceptable and deserves a hefty fine/suspension; needless to say the MLS is an enabler of filthy language on the pitch, especiallty at the refs who take no action against so-called pro players.

  4. Tyler Dennis, March 26, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.

    You want to get rid of diving, put a montage of videos together after the fact and publicly embarrass the perpetrators. Give a "Diver" big "D" to the weekly "Actor" trying for an Oscar and mention him the whole next game in the commentary. Have reporters ask them about their dive/ridiculous flailing around and air the explanation (be it video or on the telecasts).

    Getting rid of the flopping around will make it easier for refs to call the other fouls... (see Kent's comments above).

  5. Gus Keri, March 26, 2012 at 2:23 p.m.

    There is a fine line between thuggery and physical play, especially for the referee to see during the game. When MLS is trying to promote soccer to the American fans who are used to the physicality of American football and hockey, it's hard to eliminate the physical aspect of soccer. But when it comes to eliminating diving, it's probably the easiest thing to do. Use video's evidence to punish divers severely and you will see a significant improvement in the players' behaviour on the field. It's like driving after recieving a traffic ticket.

  6. Ken Jamieson, March 26, 2012 at 7:48 p.m.

    Over 100 years ago a group of men from Harvard began toying with the rules of football which eventually became the bastardized version of the game now played in the NFL.
    Apparently MLS believes the best way to attract fans to the league is to repeat this process once again. Regrettably, given some of the comments read here, american soccer fans seem quite ready to accept the physical play yet want to crucify divers!!!
    As a former amateur ref, I had to live with the hockey/gridiron football mentality that pervades association football in the US and Canada. Too often a player executing a dangerous tackle would claim that they got the ball, too, and therefore the tackle should be legal, regardless how bad the injury sustained by the other player was.
    Perhaps, if MLS is thinking that thuggery is the way to go, it should look at the goings on in the NFL where "Bounty-gate" may have the league rethinking about where to draw the line on violence in the league. If the NFL, which is admittedly a violent league, is becoming gun-shy, why should MLS be wandering down that same road?
    If any of these "fans" who support a more violent form of the game have every played the game, I wonder if they have been on the business side of a Brian Mullan-type bone cruncher. I am sure if they suffered the same type of injury as Steve Zakuani they might rethink their position. It should also be noted that no player ever injured another player by diving!

  7. Ken Jamieson, March 26, 2012 at 7:54 p.m.

    Just for the record, I am not a fan of diving, however I do understand the genesis of the game and agree that diving is borne out of poor officiating. While violent play may also have its root in poor officiating, it is more often than not a result of inferior talent trying to deal with a higher quality opponent. Those who support physical football must, by extension, be against skilled play.

  8. mck leong, March 27, 2012 at 7:35 a.m.

    It is about time they did something about the violent behavior on the soccer field! It is disgraceful that some players are out to hurt and injure (sometimes permanently) other players! Why should any team (international,as well) tolerate such behavior? Coaches and referees are also at fault, and should be disciplined and punished. Let's start NOW before other players are injured!

  9. Andrzej Kowalski, March 28, 2012 at 6:32 p.m.

    I agree with P.G.
    It would be interesting to see and read all MLS management announcements about clamping down on brutal fouls, made since 1996.

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