The Pittsburgh Riverhounds dismissed Romeo Parkes after the forward infamously kicked New York Red Bulls II’s Karl Ouimette in the back during a match on Saturday, May 8. Outrage over the on-field violence reverberated throughout much of the soccer world, and the USL reacted swiftly to the incident by suspending Parkes for the remainder of the season.
Since the time that Parkes was banished from the league, cheap shots from other USL players have continued. The Harrisburg City Islanders’ Aaron Wheeler received a two-game suspension for kicking FC Cincinnati’s Harrison Delbridge in the face while Delbridge was seated on the ground, defenseless. Louisville City FC’s Ben Newnam punched Orlando City B’s Harrison Heath in the torso from behind and was punished with a three-game suspension.
In each of the three incidents described, a player committed an intentional act of violence against another player, who was either unable to see the oncoming attack, or not in a position to defend himself. The league handed out three different punishments for each of the incidents. The disparity in repercussions has raised questions regarding how the USL handles discipline.
To answer these questions, Scratching the Pitch conversed with David Wagner, the USL Vice President of Competition & Operations. Although the specific details of actual incidents were not discussed, Wagner offered insight into the process the USL Disciplinary Committee employs to decide upon punishments.
Egregious infractions, like the one committed by Parkes, are handled in an expedited fashion. Typically, Wagner, three others in the Operations Department, and Mike Tanner, a referee serving as a liaison to the USL, typically arrive in the league offices on Monday morning and immediately begin to review all of the disciplinary issues from the weekend.
Disciplinary issues, red cards and other serious incidents, come to the league’s attention through a number of mechanisms. USL staff members watch matches for themselves, but not every infraction is readily apparent. In some circumstances, the Disciplinary Committee must rely on reports filed by referees after each match.
“We go through and discuss them,” Wagner said. “Then we just go off of what we feel is appropriate.”
The league considers a host of criteria when arriving at a level of punishment that it deems appropriate, but most of the factors can be distilled into four categories: (1) What Happened, (2) Context, (3) Intent, and (4) Force.
A slap is different from a punch, which is different from a kick. The league takes this into consideration during its judgment of an incident.
“Whether it was a closed fist or an open fist, that could be something that discerns the level of severity, ” said Wagner.
A punch to the shoulder is also different from a punch to the face.
“Things that are to people’s heads are things that we look at to be much more serious,” Wagner said. “So, a strike to the head or a blow to the head, especially one with intent, is something that we don’t mess around with and we take very seriously.”
The context surrounding the incident weighs heavily in the league’s determination of the incident’s severity. Recklessness during the run of play is one thing, but violence during a stoppage and/or away from the ball is something else entirely. Knocking heads while challenging in the air is not the same as a Zidane headbutt.
Wagner explained, “Obviously it’s difficult to discern intent. We can’t peel back the guy’s head and look into what he was thinking. Does it look like there was intent?”
Context can assist in the judgment of whether or not an action was intentional or malicious. The Disciplinary Committee looks at events leading up to an incident do determine what may have provoked the action. Whether or not the player has had time to cool off after provocation is also considered.
All other things being equal, the level of punishment is directly proportional to the level of force applied during an incident.
Wagner provided contrasting hypothetical examples as a simple demonstration of how the Disciplinary Committee takes all the criteria into account during its review of incidents requiring disciplinary action:
In the first case, one player elbows another player, who was coming in from behind the first player, in the head as the two of them jump to compete for a head ball.
In the second case, a player slaps another player in the face during a stoppage in play.
The guy getting slapped might not have been hit has hard as the player who took the elbow, but the context is different.
“There’s no real excuse there,” Wagner said “versus going up and trying to win a ball.”
There is no set rubric for deciding upon an appropriate level of punishment, but the league does rely upon precedent when arriving at a decision.
“Obviously, every incident is unique. It’s not like, okay, he punched him in the head, therefore it’s four games,” Wagner said. “We try and keep everything in context to what’s happening, but we do try to be consistent so that the teams can expect for certain types of discipline, this is what you’re going to be looking at.”
The horrific nature of what Parkes did to Ouimette may have exposed a nerve that will remain raw for some fans for the foreseeable future. Each successive act of violence has brought with it increased scrutiny and the impression that these incidents are occurring with more regularity than in the past.
Wagner is not of the opinion the number of events this year varies significantly from any of the six that he has been involved with the league.
“Every year is going is going to have something crazy, right,” stated Wagner. “We had the unfortunate incident with Romeo Parkes this year. If you go back to a few seasons ago, there was an incident involving Charleston and an Antigua player.”
Wagner was referencing an on-field kerfuffle between Dane Kelly and Antigua’s Lawson Robinson. Kelly slapped Robinson on the top of the head after a rough challenge between the two. Kelly was issued a caution, but Robinson was not satisfied with the referee’s justice, so he punched Kelly.
Wagner stated, “For me, I don’t think that this year has been any crazier or more eventful than another season.”
When asked how rates of these types of incidents in the USL compares to other leagues, Wagner pointed out that the Disciplinary Committee also reviews disciplinary incidents from Major League Soccer every week. He does not believe that the frequency is higher in the USL.
The league’s growing fan base does not have the historical perspective of someone who has worked for the league for the greater part of a decade. When they see excessive violence, they want it stopped.
Some have suggested that fines be levied against offending players, teams, or both. This is already happening to a certain extent. When the Disciplinary Committee issues a suspension to a player, fines are assessed to teams when the league feels it is appropriate. Whether or not that fine is passed on to the player is up to each team.
“We take any sort of disciplinary incident very seriously. We don’t just let people off the hook or go light on somebody when there’s something that occurs. We don’t want guys going out there and getting away with things. We take everything that occurs on the field very seriously. If we feel that warrants serious discipline, we go for it,” said Wagner.
“We’re satisfied with how we think we’re handling things now. At the same time, going forward we’re a league that doesn’t settle for the status quo. If we feel that we can improve our process and how we review incidents, then we’re going to make those changes going forward. I think that’s been the case for everything that we’ve done from an operations and competition standpoint, never to be satisfied with how we do things. If we can improve them, we’re always going to look to do so.”
Whether or not everyone is satisfied with how the league handles disciplinary processes, one thing is certain. The USL Disciplinary Committee would have no need to improve its processes if every player would adopt the attitude of former Charleston Battery captain Colin Falvey. The Post and Courier quoted Falvey as having said, “You want to punish them, stick the ball in the net. Don’t throw a punch, do it with your foot instead.”