Clint Dempsey drama shows MLS is still operating in the murky shadows of sport

In the absence of any clear provision in the MLS rule book on how to handle “supreme dickery”, Commissioner Don Garber sensibly ruled that, in intent and effect, Clint Dempsey’s notebook-shredding Open Cup antics were “referee abuse” not “referee assault”.

That’s a three-match ban for humiliating the referee as surely as if Deuce had given him a wedgie in full view of all at Starfire Stadium. That’s not so much a slap on the wrist as a tickle under the chin.

It’s the same length of suspension meted out to Alan Gordon for a homophobic slur in 2013, and half as long as the six games received by Fabian Espindola last year for shoving a match official. Are these relevant comparisons? Who knows. We have no clue who’s making these decisions or why. Hard to find context when you’re entering a void.

Clint Dempsey shows he's not afraid to get a little up close and personal with referees.AP

Clint Dempsey shows he's not afraid to get a little up close and personal with referees.

MLS is already a lenient and opaque league, discipline-wise, particularly compared with other U.S. sports leagues. Take the NFL, which reflects the national psyche by enabling and reveling in a culture of violence but issuing exceptionally harsh punishments for transgressors, particularly users of recreational drugs. Seven players have been suspended this year, per Spotrac – and the season doesn’t start until mid-September.

The NFL’s woeful response to domestic violence was exposed last year in the Ray Rice case. But for basic on-field infractions its schedule of fines couldn’t be much clearer. Face mask, first offense? That’ll be $8,681, sir.

In MLS, meanwhile, players are fined “undisclosed amounts”. This coyness is curious in an environment where the players’ union publishes each player’s salary (or maybe, on reflection, it isn’t).

Tackles like this one from Seattle’s Chad Marshall in April get far more mellow treatment than they would in top European leagues. MLS typically suspends players one game for “serious foul play” and two for the “violent conduct” that would garner a three-game ban in the English Premier League.

Referee Mark Geiger shows red - after Jose Mari commits a second yellow card offense.Getty Images

Referee Mark Geiger shows red - after Jose Mari commits a second yellow card offense.

Every league has its guidelines, but because MLS authorities have significant room to maneuver and deliberations aren’t made public, conspiracy theories and accusations of bias inevitably develop. It doesn’t help that we don’t even know who is on the MLS disciplinary committee, because they work in anonymity.

As a competition that’s formalized the special treatment of star names in order to further its business interests – the Designated Player rule – MLS leaves itself more liable than most leagues to accusations of preferential behavior, whether justified or not.

At least it’s now routine for leagues to review video evidence and mop up any bad fouls that the officials missed at the time. But sports discipline is an inherently weird and arbitrary process, however it’s approached.

By necessity, sports operates in a legal gray area. Boxing and MMA couldn’t exist otherwise. In soccer, the issue of how to handle occasional outbreaks of violence and anti-social behavior is far more problematic and inconsistent. After all, soccer is an avowedly non-violent sport that relies on aggression and physical contact. If it wasn’t allowed to police itself, if players risked legal action every time they launched into a challenge, it would become tame and dull.

So law enforcement dips in and out, selectively taking an interest in on-field violence depending on the severity of the injury and the profile of the match.

Police investigated but did not charge former Manchester City defender Ben Thatcher for an elbow in 2006 that left Portsmouth’s Pedro Mendes unconscious and needing hospital treatment, deciding to leave the punishment to the English Football Association, who meted out an eight-game ban. If Thatcher had tried something similar in a British town center on a night out and the incident was caught on camera, it’s hard to believe the police wouldn’t have prosecuted him for assault.

Transpose Dempsey’s behavior – damaging someone else’s property and menacing him – from pitch to street, and it’s easy to imagine he might have ended up in handcuffs, at least until he cooled off.

So soccer fields are, unofficially but by convention, spaces where the laws of the land don’t apply – or at least, aren’t enforced. Except that sometimes, they are.

It’s been 20 years since former Scotland and Premier League striker Duncan Ferguson became the first British international to be jailed for on-field violence. He head-butted another player, Jock McStay. McStay (the most Scottishly-named man in all of Scotland) didn’t want any action taken against Ferguson, who had prior convictions and was jailed for three months. Yet the referee didn’t even book him at the time.

Looking at the incident today, it hardly seems worse than Zinedine Zidane’s forehead massage of Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final. And somebody made a statue out of that.

Chelsea’s Didier Drogba was given a three-match ban for throwing a coin at Burnley fans during a match in 2008, then given a police caution for common assault (a sort of official warning). Would the police have got involved if Drogba had chucked the money at John Terry?

As Eric Cantona could tell you, when civilians are collateral damage, things change. If a fan becomes involved, reality intrudes and the fiction that what we’re watching is pure escapist entertainment, like a piece of theatre that doesn’t exist off stage, is no longer sustainable.

But what about player-on ref? Is that in the middle of the sliding scale? More serious than player-on-player, but less grave than player-on-fan? There’s a world of difference in physically assaulting an official and in assailing his dignity, but both acts insidiously undermine the authority of referees in a sport that has less respect for its arbiters than any other on this planet. And the lack of a clear and coherent punishment system allows debate and doubt to corrode the climate even more.