On June 30, 2012, in an entertaining game before the sellout crowd of 50,000 that saw a total of seven goals scored, San Jose Earthquakes defeated LA Galaxy 4:3. The spectators witnessed a flurry of goals and their home team clawing back from a 1:3 deficit to win the game 4:3. There was another goal — a game wining goal — by a league leading scorer Chris Wondolowski in the 61st minute of the game and also a spectacular goal by David Beckham in the 31st minute of the game. But Beckham was also involved in another – much less glamorous – incident in the 93rd minute of the game which almost caused a melee between the two teams.
During the incident, which occurred during a stoppage time, Beckham was standing on the sideline waiting to take a thrown-in. Understandably, with his team losing and time running out, Beckham wanted to take a throw-in quickly. The referee Hilario Grajeda, however, stopped the play because San Jose midfielder, Sam Cronin, was laying down in the San Jose’s penalty box apparently suffering from an injury sustained shortly before the ball left the field of play. From 20-30 yards away, frustrated Beckham kicked the ball towards laying Cronin, hitting him in the legs. Now, furious Cronin, quickly and (we may add miraculously) got up and bolted towards Beckham. Thankfully, the intervention of the referee and other players prevented the situation from getting out of control. When things settled down, Mr. Grajeda issued Beckham a yellow card.
Many observers and fans argued that the penalty was much too light and that David Beckham deserved a red card because he was guilty of a “violent conduct” against Cronin. Indeed, it appears to us that it is possible (reasonable) to take two opposing positions and argue that Beckham’s conduct constituted either “violent conduct” or “unsporting behavior.” Our analysis begins below.
A. Relevant Laws
Unsporting Behavior. Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees issued by the International Football Association Board (the “IFAB Interpretations”) states in relevant sections that a player must be cautioned for unsporting behavior, if he “acts in a manner which shows a lack of respect for the game.” According to Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game issued by the United States Soccer Federation (the “Advice to Referees”), acting in a manner showing a lack of respect for the game includes “aggressive attitude, inflammatory behavior, or taunting.”
Violent Conduct. The IFAB Interpretations state in their pertinent part that “a player is guilty of violent conduct if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball.” Law 12 further states that “using excessive force” means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” In addition, the Advice to Referees stated that it “is violent conduct when a player (or substitute) is guilty of aggression towards an opponent (when they are not contesting for the ball) or towards any other person (a teammate, the referee, an assistant referee, a spectator, etc.).” The IFAB Interpretations explain that “violent conduct may occur either on the field of play or outside its boundaries, whether the ball is in play or not.” Finally, “a player, substitute or substituted player who is guilty of violent conduct must be sent off. (Emphasis added.)
B. Yellow Card Decision
One argument is that Beckham did not deserve a red card because he did not use “excessive force or brutality” against Cronin. After all, Law 12 states that “excessive force” occurs when “the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” The video footage above shows that Beckham was standing 20 – 30 yards away when he kicked or lobbed the ball towards Cronin. The ball was not kicked with big force but instead was lobbed towards Cronin and it rather “gently” landed on top of him. It certainly did not cause Cronin any physical injury as he was witnessed to quickly get up and run towards Beckham after the ball made contact with him. Because Beckham’s conduct did not put Cronin in danger of injury – one of the two required elements for “excessive force” to occur – Beckham’s actions did not amount to “violent conduct” and he deserved only a yellow card. In other words, Beckham was guilty of “unsporting behavior” and nothing more because he “acted in a manner which shows a lack of respect for the game” by displaying “aggressive attitude” and/or “inflammatory behavior.”
According to this view, the decision by the MLS Disciplinary Committee to add a one-game suspension for “conduct unacceptable and detrimental to the league’s public image” simply reflects the proper punishment for Beckham’s misconduct.
Interestingly, the match report for the game on MLS website indicated that Beckham was cautioned for “dissent.” There is no doubt that Beckham’s actions could reasonably be interpreted as a show of dissent for the referee’s decision to delay the restart of play. Under such interpretation, and in accordance with Law 12, which states that a player who shows dissent “by word or action” must be cautioned, only a yellow card was required.
In either event, under this view, whether Beckham’s conduct was classified as “dissent” or “unsporting behavior”, the punishment for Beckham misconduct should be a yellow card.
C. Red Card Decision
The second view is that Beckham’s actions, when a totality of the circumstances is considered, constituted “violent conduct” and he should have been sent off. The argument is that he kicked the ball strongly enough to travel the 20-30 yards from where he was standing to where injured Cronin was laying down in the penalty area. Beckham’s misconduct occurred in the 93rd minute of the game with his team down by one goal, increasing the explosiveness of the situation. Indeed, Beckham’s conduct almost caused a melee between the two teams and the IFAB Interpretations specifically state that “referees are reminded that violent conduct often leads to mass confrontation, therefore they must try to avert this with active intervention.” Finally, the MLS Disciplinary Committee added one more game suspension to Beckham’s punishment (he already received one game suspension for yellow cards’ accumulation) – making it a two game suspension — perhaps implicitly acknowledging that Beckham’s conduct deserved a stiffer punishment than a yellow card. Indeed, a source connected to the MLS Referee Department told us that this was in fact the case.
Under this view, Beckham’s conduct (i.e. kicking the ball at Cronin) was akin to “striking” an opponent which required a send off. In fact, according to the Advice to Referees, “ striking can be performed by direct contact using hands, arms, elbows, head, or knees, or by throwing any object (including the ball). While the advice talks about “throwing” any object, functionally and in application the fact that the ball was kicked instead of thrown should not make any difference. The USSF’s advice strongly suggests that “striking”, as a misconduct, always amounts to violent conduct which must be punished by a red card.
Now that you watched the video footage above and read the two competing interpretations, please let us know which approach you find more persuasive. Did Beckham deserve to be cautioned or sent off?