Monday, November 16, 2009
The lead stories on Monday's Today show were, in order, Hurricane Ida, the Fort Hood shootings, and a female soccer player accused of rough play. The fact that in the midst of wars, economic concerns, and health reform, the manner of play in a soccer game would warrant the number three lead story on a national news show instantly piqued my interest.
For those of you unaware of this story here's a short recap. Last week BYU hosted New Mexico's Lobos women's team for a game. One Lobos player overstepped the boundaries of civilized play. Her behavior included kicking a ball full force right in the face of a downed player, punching another player in the back with her fist, and most horrifyingly yanking a player's pony tail so violently that her neck arched back and she collapsed on the ground. Did she ever get a card or at minimum a whistle? She was admonished just once with a yellow over the ball in the face. Otherwise all her actions went unnoticed and unpenalized. When the video of her actions hit YouTube and the national news, her coach suspended her from the team for an unspecified time and many in the public clamored for her suspension from the university. The player in question apologized for her behavior by stating that, "I let my emotions get the best of me in a heated situation." She knew she had chosen to behave badly.
We read stories like this all the time, and worse we personally witness violence in sports. For example, this fall I witnessed a player long after play had stopped stomp on a downed defender's head opening a wound that required five stitches. He was sent off with a red. French player and three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane head butted two players in 2000 and 2006 respectively. He also was sent off with a red. Just recently a Rhode Island high school girls' soccer championship game turned into a brawl between the teams. The game was suspended. A club player last year was sucker punched as he walked off the field. The victim ended up in a coma with severe head injuries. Although no card was issued because the game was over.
Assault and battery are legally defined as "the intentional and unjustified use of force upon the person of another, however slight, or the intentional doing of a wanton or grossly negligent act causing personal injury to another." Assault is also defined as "the threat of violence while battery is the actual act of violence resulting in injury" (Judicial Definitions, State of Massachusetts). We excuse battery in the course of a sporting event because we accept it as a justifiable offshoot of the aggressive nature of the competition. In reality it's not. Sports have rules that carefully and constructively lay out the acceptable limits of behavior. Most sports don't tolerate excessive aggression or contact between players, and that is certainly true of soccer. Yet players consistently get away with extremely unacceptable violent behavior with little more than a card and possibly a one or two game suspension. Referees have limited ability to enforce anything further than sending a player off. The real police need to be coaches and the governing agencies of the sport. When a player is unnecessarily violent – and those instances should be clear to all who witness them – then a coach needs to exercise swift and serious consequences.
A case in point was a recent event between the University of Oregon and Boise State University football players LeGarrette Blount and Byron Hout respectively. Hout taunted Blount after the U of O lost to BSU and then tapped his shoulder in a mildly aggressive way. Blount retaliated by punching Hout and momentarily knocking him out. The U of O coach and AD both responded within hours of the event with a suspension of Blount from the football team. Blount's behavior was no more dangerous than that of the player who stomped on the defender's head in a soccer game. And at least Blount was directly provoked by Hout. But in the case of the soccer player only a red card was issued, he served a one game suspension, and was back to playing soccer without any further recourse. That's not right. While the letter of the law was followed, the spirit was certainly neglected. Players need to be held as accountable for their on-field actions as they are for their off-field actions. The same weekend as the head stomping incident, a student was suspended from school for kicking another student in the face during the course of a verbal argument. The injury required some stitches and no hospitalization. So it was on a similar level as the injury the soccer player administered. The only difference was that one injury occurred during the course of a verbal confrontation and the other occurred during the course of a sport competition. Both were unacceptable and excessive demonstrations of violence and both were preventable had the aggressor made the choice not to follow through with harm.
That is the key point. Any contact sport will have violent moments. It comes as a matter of course from heavy, moving objects flying about. But when the violence comes from an action outside the boundaries of play, then it is a choice made by a player. I'm talking about intentional infliction of injury by one player upon another and not those injuries which might be intentional, but come about due to reckless play such as tripping or sliding cleats up. Intentional injury, for this argument, comes when an aggressor has time to consider his or her actions and then decides to proceed.
The video of the Lobos player showed that all of her actions were a matter of choice and didn't arise from the flow of the game. For that reason and no others, she needs to be held accountable. Luckily nothing she did resulted in injury, but it could have. She was a poor representative of her team and played with poor sportsmanship not to mention the potential for injury. Better she got caught now rather than later with more serious results. Coaches need to be willing to address those actions and to let it be known that they won't be tolerated. Should injury occur they need to institute serious and extended consequences. We can't eliminate violence on the field, but we can certainly make sure that it is dealt with swiftly and seriously. Knowing how gravely a coach will react might give a player extra pause in that moment he or she considers an attack. At least it will erase the false protection of the pitch as a place with different societal rules.