Opinion (April 24, 2017) – Major League Soccer suspended Colorado Rapids Goalkeeper Tim Howard two Fridays ago. He is currently serving a three game suspension for profane language towards a fan in a game at Sporting Kansas City on April 9. It’s still unclear to the public what exactly happened, but all parties have responded now. And there’s some tension. Let’s break it down.
Tim Howard Suspension Sets New Precedent For MLS But Double Standard Remains
What We Know And Don’t Know:
It’s still unclear what exactly happened. A video has been circulating around Twitter of an incident during the match. I won’t provide a link here at the behest of site leadership. Search Twitter, you’ll find it. It is profane. It is offensive.
Supposedly, Howard’s suspension was just for actions after full time. Reportedly, a fan with an alcoholic beverage in hand was able to get in Howard’s face and harass him with obscenities. Howard responded with profanity and was thus suspended. On FS1 on Sunday Alexi Lalas stated that his sources indicate that the league saw the video from during play and Howard was only suspended for play after full time.
MLS has yet to clarify which incidents were part of the suspension and when they took place, in typical MLS fashion.
MLS Setting New Precedent With Crackdown On Verbal Abuse:
Say what you will about MLS and PRO, they are light years ahead of the rest of the world on multiple fronts. While other leagues are having violent issues with fans, players, and officials, MLS is cracking down on these interactions
We saw US Soccer put its foot down with referee assault in 2015. First Clint Dempsey was suspended in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for ripping up an official’s notebook. MLS continued the crack down when it suspended Jermaine Jones six games for shoving an official in a playoff game. This came years after MLS took a stand against homophobic language like no other professional sports league in the US.
This year, MLS and PRO established new rules on verbal dissent towards officials. Players now know that physical altercations, verbal dissent, and mass confrontation will be punished. As a result, we’re seeing less and less of these incidents.
We’ve also seen the first ever suspension for embellishment in league history. Now we’ve seen the league take the verbal abuse full circle with the Howard suspension.
Compare that to La Liga with its institutionalized flopping. Compare it with some Eastern European leagues that have major issues with racism and crossing the line. Compare it to leagues where referee abuse goes way beyond shoving and swearing.
Howard And Others Point Out Hypocrisy And Double Standard:
Various entities have come out since the suspension and made their opinions clear: Howard was in the wrong, a three game suspension was a little harsh, and there’s a double standard here. The Colorado Rapids issued a statement making it clear that Don’t Cross The Line matters and they do not condone Howard’s actions.
The MLS Players Union issued a statement putting the league and Sporting KC stadium security on blast. While they agree Howard was in the wrong, they pointed out that the Fan Code of Conduct (specifically ‘obscene or abusive language’) was violated by the fan in question. Neither the fan nor Sporting KC have been disciplined, when both could have prevented this confrontation in the first place.
Howard made a statement via Facebook last Friday. He accepted responsibility and apologized for his actions. He pointed out that the initial contact could have been avoided and was not right (both that it happened and how the fan acted towards him). The fan-to-athlete interaction could be reevaluated by the league and its clubs. He also pointed out that he doesn’t want to censor everything.
Other players have come to his defense as well. After the last home match against Real Salt Lake, Yura Movsisyan said “it’s actually kind of funny that a player gets suspended and nothing happens to the fans when the fans were provocating everything.” That says something when a rival stands up for you.
What It Means Going Forward:
As Last Word SC Radio talked about this week, a lot of this was in good fun. Howard was going back and forth with The Cauldron in the first half. Supporters groups can be rebellious trolls sometimes and the back and forth they have with players can be highly entertaining. It builds drama, shows personality, creates villains. That’s good for the league’s growth.
In the context of the game, the fans loved it and Howard got his team fired up in a competitive and exciting first half.
But there is a line and both Howard and the fan crossed it. Like previous incidents, the league isn’t afraid to make an example of a star and International Player. This clearly sets an example and a warning to the rest of the league. I still think three games is too harsh a ban. Nigel de Jong’s tackle on Darlington Nagbe last year got earned him a three game suspension. Howard’s profanity isn’t nearly as heinous an act as that.
But unlike the suspensions mentioned above, this is the first time the victim (the fan in Howard’s case) is also in the wrong. MLS has done a great job with the Don’t Cross The Line PR campaign. For the most part, Supporters Groups have done a good job self policing when it comes to crossing the line. The P word occasionally comes up, and the league, teams, and SGs haven’t always cracked down or sanctioned those who start that chant.
This was an opportunity for the league to send a message to the pitch invaders and harassers. There aren’t many of them in MLS stadiums, but they exist. And the lack of action by the league condones this behavior. It also suggests that the league is content with the level of security teams provide in their stadiums to prevent these situations.
For this, Howard and the Player’s Union have a valid grievance.
Another tough precedent is set here. If NFL refs called holding by the books, the number of holding calls would increase three fold at least. If saying a few swears at a fan was punished every time with a three game suspension, would we see a three game suspension handed out every week?
I for one am appalled that professional athletes in America (most of them college educated) can’t find other ways to articulate themselves. I just wonder how much of this suspension was because Howard got caught on camera and not because of the actual infraction itself. How much of it was because Howard is a DP and was involved in the most recent Don’t Cross The Line commercial?
We’ll have to see how the league handles the next incident like this and how transparent they are with handling it.