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Commentary: Dempsey Ban Proves MLS Coddles USMNT Regulars

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Three games? Three games for tearing up a referee's notebook? Are you [expletive] kidding me?

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

So, let me get this straight: according to the recent edict handed down by Major League Soccer (who, as per U.S. Soccer Federation policy 531-9, Section 4, Subsection A, Article 1 are the arbiters of punishment for MLS teams in the U.S. Open Cup), Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders will be suspended three matches for not only disrespecting a referee with his general behaviour but tearing up referee Daniel Radford's notebook in the process.

I'm going to say that again so you understand how mind-bogglingly insufficient the punishment is. Clint Dempsey tore up a referee's notebook (and yes, I will continue to use italics and/or bold text as necessary so the gravity of this action is properly reflected) and received the same punishment as if he'd hurled a homophobic slur. Three games may or may not be an acceptable punishment for perpetuating homophobia in sports (which is a topic for another day); it is definitely not an acceptable punishment for arguably one of the highest acts of disrespect a player is capable of making towards a match official in the world of sport. Let's put this in some sort of equivalent context:

  • If a hockey player tossed a referee's whistle into the stands, is that a three-game suspension?
  • If a baseball player forcibly removed the home plate umpire's face protection and batted it to first base, is that a three-game suspension?
  • If a gridiron football player stole a referee's penalty flags and somehow damaged and/or destroyed them, is that a three-game suspension?
Of course not. In each of those cases, you're looking at months-long (perhaps even season-long for repeat offenders) suspension from the game for the heinous act of disrespecting a match official. There is no place in any organized sport, regardless of player wealth, skill or importance (self-assumed or otherwise), for a competitor to attack a referee in any nature. Accordingly, the USSF's own policies spell out pretty clearly how seriously they take the topic of abuse on officials. Let's go back to USSF 531-9, this time Section 5, Subsection A, Article 1:
Section 5. Penalties and Suspensions
(A) Assault
(1) The person committing the referee assault must be suspended as follows:
(a) for a minor or slight touching of the referee or the referee's uniform or personal property, at least 3 months from the time of the assault;
(b) except as provided in clause (i) or (ii), for any other assault, at least 6 months from the time of the assault:

The bold underlining is my own for the purpose of emphasis. Six months, at minimum, is the penalty for referee assault. And just so we're clear that Dempsey's destruction of a notebook falls into that realm of assault, I'll quote USSF 531-9, Section 3, Subsection 3, Article B:

(b) Assault includes, but is not limited to the following acts committed upon a referee: hitting, kicking, punching, choking, spitting on, grabbing or bodily running into a referee; head butting; the act of kicking or throwing any object at a referee that could inflict injury; damaging the referee’s uniform or personal property, i.e. car, equipment, etc.

Again, the bold underlining is mine. As per the "includes, but is not limited to" provision at the beginning of that article I'm pretty sure we can slot "ripping up a referee's notebook" inside "damaging the referee's uniform or personal property" without too much trouble. Thus, by the USSF's own regulations, Clint Dempsey is in violation of the referee assault policy with a minimum sentence of six months.

Except, Dempsey isn't sitting out six months. He's sitting out three games. Why? Because he's Clint Dempsey, of course. Like all USMNT golden children, he enjoys a lovely bubble of protection that shields him from having to face real-world consequences for his unacceptable actions. (I imagine the $6.695m in guaranteed compensation, according to the MLS Players' Union's 2014 salary numbers, helps pad the bubble a wee bit, too.) Example: the case of one Jermaine Jones of the New England Revolution, who came into contact with referee Mark Geiger after disagreeing vehemently with a call. (I highly recommend you read the linked Washington Post article, or at least watch the embedded GIF.) "Bodily running into a referee"? Check. Punishment? Nope. Zero supplemental discipline from MLS or USSF. Yes, Geiger did show Jones a yellow card (an admirable amount of restraint, as we'll see later) which tends to limit the scope of the MLS Disciplinary Committee. It doesn't completely shield a player from scrutiny, though. Scroll down to Parameter #3 of the league's own guidelines:

Where the referee sees an incident and either does not act, or rules only a foul or only a yellow card (i.e., anything other than a red card), the Committee will not in general issue a suspension, unless:

The play in question is, in the unanimous opinion of the Committee from all available video evidence, a clear and unequivocal red card; AND

The play in question is of an egregious or reckless nature, such that the Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game.

Call me crazy but if the USSF is prepared to ban a player from soccer for three (minor contact) to six (major contact) months for assaulting a referee, I'd say referee assault qualifies as an act that would draw a "clear and unequivocal red card" and threatens the "integrity of the game". I can understand if you disagree with that point; is a tiny little bump in the chest really something worth categorizing under the heading of minor assault? Well, why don't you ask former on-loan Vancouver Whitecaps player Sebastien Fernandez?

That little escapade earned Fernandez a four-game suspension - two initially from Mark Geiger's red card (no restraint this time) and two once the MLS DisCo reviewed the play. Please note how four is more than both three (Dempsey) and zero (Jones). Yes, four games is less than three months and by the letter of this argument I'm raising, Fernandez should've been punished under USSF 531-9 5-A-1a with a three-month suspension. He should've been. He wasn't. Neither was Jones, albeit to a far lesser degree (as in, a yellow card and nothing more), for reasons I assume can be summarized in five letters: USMNT. Further examples: Fabian Castillo (non-USMNT), four games. Fabian Espindola (non-USMNT), six games. On those three cases alone (Fernandez, Castillo, Espindola), there's a clear precedent for how referees are and should be protected. Jones should've been in that camp. Comparatively, Dempsey should be in a maximum security camp surrounded by barbed wire and rabid attack dogs. Neither are.

So why is Clint Dempsey only getting three games, anyway? Two reasons: one, so he'll conveniently be eligible to play in the Gold Cup; and two, because, unfortunately, three games matches the minimum (minimum!) punishment for referee abuse - the offense Dempsey is listed as committing on the official match report. Back to USSF 531-9, Section 5, Subsection B:

The minimum suspension period for referee abuse shall be at least three (3) scheduled matches within the rules of that competition. The Organization Member adjudicating the matter may provide a longer period of suspension when circumstances warrant (e.g., habitual offenders).

Apparently, tearing up a referee's notebook is not a circumstance warranting extended punishment. Not for the USMNT golden children, anyway. And just so we're clear on how ludicrous this sham of a punishment is, let's see what the threshold is for abuse as opposed to assault, quoted from USSF 531-9, Section 3, Subsection 4:

(a) Referee abuse is a verbal statement or physical act not resulting in bodily contact which implies or threatens physical harm to a referee or the referee’s property or equipment.

(b) Abuse includes, but is not limited to the following acts committed upon a referee: using foul or abusive language toward a referee that implies or threatens physical harm; spewing any beverage on a referee’s personal property; or spitting at (but not on) the referee.

Yeah, I'm gonna say tearing up a referee's notebook moves us beyond the threat of harm to the referee's equipment and into actual, literal harm. Throwing the notebook on the ground, as Dempsey does initially, certainly falls in the realm of abuse. Everything after that is textbook assault. The fact that none of the protocols regarding referee assault appear to have been followed is infuriating and insulting, not to mention worrying if you're a match official. Say you're an assistant referee and Kyle Beckerman tosses the flag out of your hands on an offside call; would you bet on USSF and MLS protecting you and not looking other way? How about if Omar Gonzalez yanks a yellow card out of your hands? Are you 100% certain the league and federation you work for will have your back? Based on the free ride Dempsey and Jones have been given, I wouldn't be so confident. Neither is the PRSA, apparently.

Now, I'm the first to groan and roll my eyes when somebody goes off on a tangent and rants and rails on some perceived slight without offering some sort of constructive solution. So, In the interest of being at least somewhat productive in the throes of my anger, here's what I would've liked to see happen to Clint Dempsey:

1. Strip Dempsey of his captaincy.

If it were me, Dempsey's days as a captain for the USMNT would be over. A captain is supposed to be a leader - a rallying cry, a steadying influence on the field. Would you trust Dempsey to inspire any confidence in your team after tearing up a referee's notebook? For that matter, since only those blessed with an armband can officially dissent with a referee (side note: more cards for dissent, please), does Dempsey have a hope of ever changing any referee's mind ever again after his atrocious display?

2. Fine Dempsey no less than $500,000.

When you're as arrogant a sod as Dempsey appears to be, few things get your attention long enough to teach you a lesson. A steel-toed kick to the pocketbook might impress just how severe and unacceptable Dempsey's actions were. While we have no specific numbers for the "undisclosed fine" that was levied, I wouldn't be surprised if it was in "drop-in-the-bucket" territory. Half a million dollars, on the other hand, is about a bucket's worth by itself. That'll leave a mark.

3. Suspend Dempsey from all soccer for the rest of the calendar year.

Nobody - nobody - is immune from facing the music. That said, since Dempsey didn't flat-out punch the referee, even I would be hard-pressed to go far beyond the six-month minimum for referee assault. Conveniently, December 31st is six months and a bit away. That'll do just fine - better than three games, at least.

4. Have Dempsey publicly apologize to the referee.

Refereeing is a tough enough job without pompous, entitled divas destroying your equipment. Maybe, just once, in this very explicit circumstance, we could paint the ref as the victim, not the oppressor. Preferably in public. Maybe one of those press conference rooms with microphones, cameras and sponsored backdrops. Y'know, so when Clint Dempsey is seated next to referee Daniel Radford and has to at the very least publicly admit he committed one of the most grievous sins in professional sports, he might feel just a hint of shame and remember it.

Once again: Clint Dempsey destroyed a referee's notebook and walked away with a three-game suspension. If that isn't the epitome of player-coddling in Major League Soccer, I don't know what is.