McCarthy's Musings: MLS Disciplinary Committee leans on process to implement its directives

In its quest to mold the fare on the field and stamp out physical play, MLS relies on its enforcement body to guide players along the proper path.

NEW YORK – At the end of every season, the five anonymous members of the MLS Disciplinary Committee receive the same sort of scrutiny they apply on a weekly basis.

MLS commissioner Don Garber and the Board of Governors contribute their thoughts. Coaches and players issue their evaluations through the technical committee as they do on a monthly basis during the campaign. The members even use the distance provided by the brief offseason to review their own decisions.

The parties assessed plenty of incidents and initiatives. Garber and the Board of Governors implored the Disciplinary Committee to take a more active role in 2012 to enforce the Laws of the Game and protect the players on the field. The committee adopted and enacted its brief under withering scrutiny from skeptical observers urged onward by seemingly inconsistent decisions and noticeable hiccups within the process.

“It was the most active the committee had been in reviewing plays,” MLS executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations Nelson Rodriguez said during an interview last week. “More plays fell into its purview than in previous years based on the direction given. And there was a belief that as we got to the end of the season that we may have been – the key is may – seeing a modification of player behavior in the direction that we want.”

The downturn in discipline meted out toward the business end of the season – a pragmatic response by coaches and players to the decisions issued earlier in the year as the matches increased in importance – encouraged Garber and the Board of Governors to stay the course for the upcoming campaign. All five members of the committee will return in 2013, according to Rodriguez. They will follow the same directives and try to implement them as consistently as possible according to the process established and tweaked over the past few years.

It is a procedure that requires significant energy and time to complete on a normal weekend. At least two people – committee members, league officials or trusted observers – watch every match live. The number increases to five (or more) by the end of the weekend. Those viewers highlight possible incidents and take notes. Committee members then receive clips of the noteworthy conflicts through a match analysis system to continue the review process. On occasion, clubs forward their own incidents after waiting for a proscribed no-contact period – 24 hours from the completion of the match – to pass. 

The background work provides the foundation for a conference call including Rodriguez and the committee members on Sunday night. Committee members discuss the incidents at hand in light of the principles and parameters set forth by the league. Rodriguez shepherds the committee through the process. Some decisions are reached by the end of the call. Other incidents are tabled for further assessment or reflection. Most of the decisions are completed by the end of a conference call on Monday morning, but the committee will occasionally wait for further evidence if the incident requires further reflection. Clubs are informed of potential discipline as the process unfolds, according to Rodriguez.

Once a decision is reached, the MLS Players Union and the involved player are notified. Those parties possess the right to appeal under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. If they choose to exercise that right, then the appeals are heard by either Garber or an appointed designee (usually within 24 hours). If the disciplinary action is upheld, it is then revealed to the public.

The extensive nature of the process often conflicts with the needs and the preparations of the players and teams subjected to it. Midweek matches, in particular, present a logistical challenge. The furor surrounding former Vancouver midfielder Barry Robson's one-match ban in August – a suspension announced hours before the game and revealed to the Whitecaps less than 24 hours before a match against Seattle – highlighted the inherent tensions created by competitive and disciplinary concerns. Rodriguez said the committee attempts to inform clubs and players as early as possible to prevent such conflicts, but he noted those pressures would not influence the integrity of the process.

“It's much, much better, I believe,” Rodriguez said. “I think there's a recognition around the league that it is better, but, again, the decisions are too important and due process is too important. If we have to take a little extra time and teams have to make hard decisions as to whether they train with a guy or not or travel with an extra guy or not, they'll have to bear those decisions.”

Clubs and players rarely exhibit similar patience regarding the consistency of the decisions from week to week. Several instances cropped up last season – including a comparison between a yellow card issued to Montréal midfielder Sanna Nyassi and a one-match ban handed to New England midfielder Kelyn Rowe in the Musings last July and pretty much any incident involving David Beckham – to raise valid questions about the coherence of the supplemental discipline rendered.

Part of the problem with assessing the consistency lays with the fact-specific nature of the situations, according to Rodriguez. The unique circumstances surrounding each incident influence the Committee's thinking and prompt apparent inconsistencies. Although Rodriguez questioned the practice of labeling decisions inconsistent without the benefits of context and time, he said the consistency within the membership and the shared history between the members should reduce those external concerns in the future.

“We think the process has gotten much, much better,” Rodriguez said. “If we can keep the consistency of the committee and keep the consistency of the parameters and the direction – and this year, we've been told to keep it as it was in 2012 – it tends to lead to more 'consistent' decision making. The biggest thing is that we cannot deviate from the process.”

The process will continue to evolve as the season approaches. Most of the fundamentals will remain the same, but Rodriguez said he hopes to increase external and internal transparency this season. Clubs will receive more information during the season about incidents involving other teams. Rodriguez said the league also plans to produce explanatory videos – similar to the offerings created by the NHL's Dept. of Player Safety – on selected controversial incidents during the season.

“Over the years, we've tried to find the right balance between continuity – which I think is really important – and improvement,” Rodriguez said. “How do we get better? How do we make things better?”

The answers to those questions will not come easily, but the dialogue will continue. And that internal debate will prove crucial as the league charts its course regarding player discipline and endeavors to produce the desired results year after year.

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