Ensuring that professional sportsmen play within the defined and accepted rules of the sport is always a challenge.
Top-flight sports athletes, no matter what their sport, are at the top of their sport for reasons that have a lot to do with talent, but also to do with a burning desire to not only compete, but also to win.
As a result, competitive athletes often end up believing that the means do justify the ends, if the end is an individual or team victory. They would certainly regard any argument that their actions were against “the spirit of the sport” or “the spirit of the rules” as naive talk coming from uncompetitive wimps.
The teams for which the athletes compete usually have the same level of competitive desire, so they are unlikely to ever tell the athlete to “tone it down” or do anything that they think would put the athlete or the team at a competitive disadvantage. So it is no use anybody looking in that direction as a way of ensuring that competitors always obey the rules. (The team may choose to intervene in situations where the athlete has become a pain in the ass to deal with for any number of reasons, but plenty of assholes stayed in teams and competed. Winning gets you a lot of indulgence for bad behavior).
As a result, managing compliance with the rules has to be down to the governing bodies of a sport. They are the only interested party that can and should take on that role.
Unfortunately, many sports governing bodies consistently and persistently fail to discharge that role. They do so for a number of reasons:
1 Pressure from teams and broadcast partners to not penalize bad behavior with suspensions, in order to allow offenders (who are often the high-priced stars) to continue to play
2 A conviction that any publicity is good publicity. If an athlete does or says something outrageous, that generates column inches and web hits a.k.a. controversy
3 Fear that penalizing over-aggressive behavior will cause conservative fans and traditionalists to moan about the sport being “dumbed down” or “pussified”
The result of all of those conflicting pressures is that many sporting bodies, instead of suspending performers for bad behavior, instead subject them to fines, penalty points, probationary periods and other penalties that stop short of outright suspension.
For driven competitors, none of those punishments really matter. As long they can still compete, they won’t care about being fined or told off by email. For a top star earning millions of dollars in a year, even a fine of $500,000 is merely a cost of doing business.
For some lesser-paid players, fines do hurt their pocket-book. However, many players, particularly in team sports, are not going to change their approach, since they risk being written off as insufficiently competitive.
The conclusion that I reached years ago is that in some sports, the disciplinary process is merely window-dressing, a fig-leaf to enable the sport’s owners to say things like “we care about player conduct”, while doing next to nothing to effectively regulate it.
Sometimes that laissez-faire approach backfires badly on a sport, especially contact and collision sports. Professional hockey and rugby have both found themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of bad publicity after player in both sports engaged in unprovoked assaults during games. What many practitioners of contact sports often fail to notice is that the laws governing assault are still in force during a sports event. Sports often use tools that are potentially lethal if misused. A hockey stick is every bit as dangerous a weapon when wielded by an NH player in a red mist as a baseball bat is when wielded by a street thug. Ditto a racing car when being used as a weapon in a race.
So, when somebody says “well, Graham, how would YOU regulate competitor behavior?”, here is my short summary.
1. Make the rules of the sport governing competitor behavior on and off the field of play during the time of an event simple, clear, and not subject to on-the-spot interpretation by officials.
Complex and subjective rules end up placing the burden of ruling into the event officials, which creates all sorts of potential for inconsistency
2. Fines should be levied as a percentage of the competitor’s earnings for an event or for a series of events, not a fixed monetary amount.
The stars and the middle-tier competitors should all feel the pain equally for financial punishment
3. Suspensions should be used for any competitor that engages in reckless, dangerous play or who commmits assault.
Forget fines, letters of contrition, probation etc. They are competitors. The right way to punish them is to deny them the opportunity to compete.
4. The appeal process should follow these principles:
– Appeals should be timely, heard by a small number of independent arbiters, and competitors should not be permitted to bring lawyers and other professional advocates.
Competitors need to be directly accountable for their behavior in front of the disciplinary body. Having professional advocates gives them the ability to hide behind those advocates.
– If the appeal fails, any punishment is applied immediately, and cannot be deferred
– If the appeal is deemed to be frivolous or evasive, the governing body reserves the right to increase the punishment, up to three times the original punishment, and to refuse to allow any further appeal on the matter at any level
Every sports body has competitors to try to game the system, by appealing every punishment, sometimes not even to get the punishment modified, but simply to avoid serving the punishment until after some important event. The only effective way to deter frivolous appeals is to punish competitors for attempting them.
If all governing bodies implemented those principles, a lot of sports would start to have a lot less of a problem with competitor misbehavior.