Aside from breaking the hearts of millions of Irish soccer fans and catapulting France into the World Cup, Thierry Henry's infamous handball against Ireland in World Cup Qualifying raised two (slightly less significant) issues. First, should Roger Federer be worried about the Gillette jinx? And, second, should Henry be worried about a suspension for the handball? We'll have to wait and see on the first question, but the FIFA Disciplinary Committee answered the second question on Monday morning, announcing that Henry would not be suspended for doing everything short of handing the ball to William Gallas in front of Ireland's goal.
Why did FIFA decline to punish Henry? Before we answer that question, let's take a look at how these types of issues are handled in by professional sports leagues in the United States. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB rules give their commissioners a fair amount of discretion to discipline players for misconduct that takes place on the playing field or court. There is no list of punishable offenses and there are no guidelines that dictate a specific punishment for a particular offense. The rules are intentionally vague to allow the commissioner to be flexible and take into account all of the facts and circumstances of the case--how severe was the conduct, was this a first offense, was there provocation, etc.--and to allow the commissioner's decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis. More serious misconduct committed by repeat offenders can be treated more harshly than mild offenses committed by otherwise model citizens. Here is a quick look at the discipline meted out by commissioners for some of the more notable cases of on-the-field misconduct.
• Rick Porcello suspended 5 games in 2009 for hitting Kevin Youkilis with a pitch amidst a flurry of beanballs by the Tigers and Red Sox (MLB);
• Chris Simon suspended for 30 games in 2007 for stomping on the leg of Jarko Ruutu (NHL);
• Jose Offerman suspended indefinitely from the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball after attacking a player with a bat in 2007, then banned for life earlier this week from the Dominican Republic Winter League for punching an umpire;
• Albert Haynesworth suspended for 5 games in 2006 for stomping on the head of a helmet-less Andre Gurode (NFL);
• Sammy Sosa suspended for 8 games (later reduced to 7 by an arbitrator)in 2003 for using a corked bat during a game (MLB);
• Ron Artest suspended for the remainder of the season (which meant 73 regular season games plus 13 playoff games) in 2004 for charging into the stands and fighting with fans after an on-court altercation with Ben Wallace (NBA);
• Joe Horn fined $30,000 in 2004 for making a cell phone call in the end zone to celebrate a touchdown (NFL);
• Rodney Harrison suspended for 1 game in 2002 for hitting Jerry Rice with his helmet (NFL);
• Roger Clemens fined $50,000 for throwing a splintered bat at Mike Piazza during Game 2 of the 2000 World Series (MLB);
• Roberto Alomar suspended for 5 games in 1996 for spitting on an umpire (MLB);
• Charles Martin suspended for 2 games in 1986 for throwing Jim McMahon to the ground (NFL);
• Kermit Washington suspended for 26 games in 1973 for punching Rudy Tomjanovich in the face (NBA).
So, how should FIFA have handled (no pun intended) Henry's handball? Was this a case of serious misconduct? Was this "cheating," like corking a bat in baseball? Or, was this a mild offense? Was this just a penalty that should be dealt with (or not, as was the case with Henry) on the field? Well, we know what FIFA decided to do--nothing. And, their decision to do nothing was met with a collective, "duh," as most of the folks who chimed in on the subject seemed to think that it would be ludicrous for FIFA to suspend a player for merely using his hands during a game. The general sentiment seemed to go something like this: Yes, the goal should have been disallowed and, yes, Henry should have received a card, and yes, it was unfair to Ireland, but the real blame lies with the ref, not Henry, and Henry should not be suspended.
But, a closer look at the FIFA Disciplinary Code shows that a suspension for Henry's handball was not so farfetched. Unlike the rules governing commissioner discipline for U.S. sports leagues, the FIFA code provides a specific list of punishable offenses ("serious infringements") and punishment guidelines for each infringement. In particular, the rules provide for a minimum 2 game suspension for "assaulting (elbowing, punching, kicking etc.) an opponent;" a minimum 6 game suspension for "spitting at an opponent or any other person;" and a 1 game suspension for "denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball." Deliberately handling the ball to help your own team score a goal, however, is not listed as a serious infringement (it likely constitutes "unsporting behavior," which does not subject a players to suspension), so FIFA claimed that they simply did not have the ability to suspend Henry under their own rules.
From the perspective of disciplining a player, is there a real difference between using your hand to score a goal versus using your hand to prevent a goal? And, is it (4 games) worse to spit on an opponent's foot than it is to punch him in the face? Maybe, maybe not. But, unlike the commissioners of the professional sports leagues, the FIFA Disciplinary Committee does not get to make those judgments.