How do suspensions in soccer work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain to me how Clint Dempsey was supposedly suspended from games but is starting tonight? I’m confused. How do suspensions in soccer work?

Brian Cadavid

Dear Brian,

As we now know, Clint Dempsey did play in last night’s Gold Cup match between the United States men’s national team and Honduras. It’s a good thing for the team that he did, too, because he scored the team’s two goals on their way to a 2-1 victory. It was a bit of a surprise though. Last night’s game was played less than a month after Dempsey was thrown out of a game he was playing for his club team, Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, after grabbing a referee’s notebook out of his hands and tearing it up.

This violation, as silly as it seems, by the letter of the rules, qualifies as assaulting the ref. A violation of this type is supposed to come with a minimum of a six game suspension. If Clint Dempsey had received a six or more game suspension for assaulting the referee, he would have been banned from taking part in any official soccer while serving the six game suspension. Since the Sounders only had three games between Dempsey’s infraction and last night’s USMNT game against Honduras, a six game ban would have excluded Dempsey from participating. SB Nation’s Sean Steffen wrote a post about this logic before the ruling had been handed down. When the ruling came, it was a major surprise: only three games. As Doug McIntyre wrote for ESPN, “It’s good to be a big-name star like Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer.” Crisis averted – Dempsey would be able to play in the Gold Cup.

The way that this suspension worked is the exception, not the rule in global soccer. In the vast majority of leagues, and even in the MLS for non-assault based infractions, yellow cards, red cards, and suspensions that a player receives do not bleed over into other forms of competition. This is important because soccer players, way more than players in any other sport, play in different competitions simultaneously. In the course of a month, a player may play for a national team and for his or her club team in a league game and in one or more cup or tournament games. For example, Clint Dempsey was playing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup when he earned that red card. His team’s next game was a normal MLS league game. And then, as we know, he went and played for the national team. The same trichotomy exists, perhaps even more, for players who play in European club soccer. Each league and cup and tournament has its own rules about suspensions. Although they are all quite similar, thanks to the octopus-like international soccer organization, FIFA, when it comes to suspensions, they each have mostly separate jurisdictions. A yellow card picked up in the Champions League does not carry over into the British Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. A suspension a player gets during an international game for their country usually only pertains to international games.

The fact that if Clint Dempsey had been suspended for six games for his “assault” on a referee, his suspension would have applied not just to games played for the Seattle Sounders but also to games played by the U.S. men’s national team is the exception that proves the rule. Most suspensions in soccer only apply to the form of soccer being played when the player commits the act that gets him or her suspended.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

An Adrian Peterson Update

I’m often hesitant to write about controversial sports stories on Dear Sports Fan. This is for a few reasons. The core goal of this site is to close the gap between sports fans and non-sports fans, and controversial sports stories are often divisive and insular. They’re most interesting to people already invested in sports and explaining them won’t often make anyone be more open to sports culture. I’m also just not that into them. I would much rather spend an hour watching two junior high-school teams play lacrosse than an hour reading or talking about most sports controversies. Sometimes a story is big enough that ignoring would not be being honest with myself or with you.

The story of Adrian Peterson is one of those controversies big enough that it should be thought about. This September, Adrian Peterson, a star NFL running back, was indicted by a Texas Grand Jury for “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” He had beaten his four-year-old son badly enough that the son was brought to the hospital. TMZ found and printed images of the child’s injury. The NFL, already awash in the Ray Rice domestic abuse story, found a loophole in their rules and bylaws that allowed them to effectively remove Peterson  from public view without having to suspend him and therefore initiate a potential appeals process with the NFL Players Association. About a week ago, Peterson struck a deal with Texas prosecutors that allowed him to avoid jail time and any felony charges, pleading guilty only to a misdemeanor. Just today, the NFL announced that Peterson would be suspended without pay for the rest of the 2014 season and possibly beyond that. Peterson plans to appeal.

Action on the part of the legal system forced the NFL’s hand and the NFL’s action has brought this story back into the public eye. Now that some time has passed from the initial story, especially TMZ’s coverage, I hear more and more arguments creeping back into the sports opinion-o-sphere contending that Peterson’s actions are being misunderstood because physically disciplining children is a “cultural thing” that Southern/Black (I’ve heard both arguments) people do commonly but the Northern/White people in charge of the NFL/Media do not understand. Let’s be clear about this.

This isn’t a cultural thing.

I’ll be the first to admit that there is and should be a cultural debate about the acceptability of physically disciplining children. I’m interested in that conversation. I was raised to believe that physically disciplining children was wrong but that there was some truth to the principle of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” It’s a curious dichotomy. Let’s, by all means, have that conversation in our communities and on parenting blogs. But please, please, please, let’s leave Adrian Peterson out of it. You see, what Peterson did to his son cannot reasonably be included in any conversation about discipline. Just because banks lend money to people doesn’t mean robbing a bank is okay. Just because lots of consenting adults enjoy sex doesn’t mean rape is okay. Just because people spank their children doesn’t mean whipping a four-year old so severely that he’s hospitalized is okay. It’s not. Robbery is not a form of borrowing. Rape is not a form of sex. Adrian Peterson’s abuse of his son is not a form of discipline.

There are, of course, lots of other intriguing facets to this story. You can place it within the larger story of the NFL’s inconsistent, confusing, and generally out of control pattern of player discipline. You may point out the hypocrisy of the NFL’s new-found harshness in dealing with violent offenders compared to their past record of leniency. It would be altogether understandable to point out that there’s something problematic about the NFL’s power over football players who truly do not have any other reasonable recourse to make a living playing football. The NFL is a sanctioned monopoly and has special tax-exempt status which should and probably will be taken away from them in the next couple years but it is still a private organization and it shouldn’t be required to guarantee employment to anyone for any reason. What about the dynamic between the NFL and its teams? The NFL has taken the lead on this case but in recent years, it’s allowed the teams to be the main actors in terms of player fines and suspensions. Which is better for the players? Which is better for the league?

There are so many questions and interesting avenues to pursue in this horribly unsavory story. The cultural conversation around physical punishment is not one of those. Let’s all be annoyingly firm on that point if people try to pull that argument on us at work or at a bar or on the internet. It’s worth it to take a little flak for something that is right.