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Major League Soccer's New Red Card Appeal Process is a Good Step, but Not Perfect

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A new policy has been implemented this season in MLS to fix situations in which unwarranted red cards can be overturned if an appeal is successful. The main headlines I've heard surrounding the new process seemed frankly kind of crazy, but it wasn't until this week that a club appealed a red card. The New England Revolution appealed to have Fernando Cardenas' suspension and fine overturned after he was given a red card for a tackle on Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave. In this first instance, the Revs were successful, and Cardenas is available for New England's upcoming match against Vancouver.

So this time, the process seemed to work well, and the initial impressions are that the new appeal process is useful. Complaints in the past that red cards could not be overturned for any reason except mistaken identity seemed overly harsh, as even the league that is held up to be a global model, the English Premier League, allows for red card appeals. So having a process at all is a positive step.

But have you heard how this all works? Over at, Kyle McCarthy had a terrific article on this week's appeal and the guidelines of the process. I urge you to take a look at his breakdown. But I have to say, the measures intended to prevent "frivolous" appeals are ridiculous.

As McCarthy explains, there are three actions the independent three-person panel that reviews red card appeals can take: agree with the appeal and overturn the red card, reject the appeal and keep the suspension and fine in place, or reject the appeal and conclude it is "frivolous." McCarthy does a good job explaining not only the procedure, but also the context for this language, so I'll quote this passage:

If the panel reaches a unanimous judgment backing the referee's actions on the field and unanimously concludes that the club had no "objective rational basis" within the Laws of the Game for contending that the red card should not have been issued, then the punishment handed to the player is doubled, the club forfeits its $25,000 bond and loses the right to mount an appeal for the remainder of the current season and the entirety of the following season.

(Note: The "objective rational basis" language used by the league here borrows from the legal term of art used to describe one of the three levels of scrutiny usually applied as part of the judicial analysis of cases pertaining to certain parts of the U.S. Constitution. Rational basis review represents "the most deferential of the standards of review that courts use in due process and equal protection analysis," according to Black's Law Dictionary. For non-lawyers, the take-home message boils down to this point: the standard should present a low bar for any club to hurdle to retain its bond and sustain its right to appeal unsuccessfully if it has any unsuccessful appeals remaining. If the standard is applied as it might be in a court of law, a club would have to contest an incident along the lines of a leg-breaking tackle or a punch in the face in order for the panel to unanimously deem it frivolous. In practicality, the actual standard may settle somewhere just north of that line. No club will probably want to be the first to test exactly where the panel may fall on its particular interpretation of the standard.)

I understand the rationale behind these measures on some level. Like a law that threatens a lifetime prison sentence for drug offenses, the $25,000 bond and inability to appeal red cards for the rest of the 2012 and 2013 seasons is meant to provide a deterrent for teams that might otherwise clog the panel's docket with appeals that aren't warranted. And we've seen this become a nuisance from time to time in the EPL, as players typically appeal red cards as a matter of course.

But come on. $25,000 (that's almost a whole player's salary!) plus doubling the player's punishment plus the forfeiture of any other appeals this season plus the forfeiture of any appeals in 2013. That's completely excessive. Don't even get me started on the pretension to act like an MLS Supreme Court (just this observation: when the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't want to hear a case, they simply refuse to hear it. They don't throw the appellant in jail or make them pay a fine for simply making the appeal).

Consider this hypothetical situation: It's September, and the San Chicago Impact Bulls FC are having a bad end to the season. The players have checked out, the coach and front office are on their way out the door, and things are going so bad that the team decides to challenge a red card that caused an injury to an opponent "because our guy got to the ball first." People use this rationalization all the time, don't they, even if it misses the point of a reckless challenge? Plus, if the coach and GM are losing their jobs soon, what do they have to lose? They won't have to worry about forfeiting challenges the following season, and they won't be on the hook to the owner for the $25,000.

I realize hypothetical situations aren't always useful in the real world, and I'm not entirely sure any coaches would be so reckless as to file a "frivolous" appeal, even if they were about to lose their job, considering they probably would want to work again (except Peter Nowak, he would probably totally do it, even if he wasn't about to get fired). But my point is this: penalizing a team for making a "frivolous" appeal by taking away their right to appeal next season in addition to the other measures is excessively punitive.

I think this process to institutionalize an appeal system for unwarranted red cards is a great step for the league to take. And I understand the motivation to give teams pause before appealing for every red card offense they receive. But merely giving teams two opportunities a season to appeal, full stop, seems like an appropriate deterrent. Maybe the financial penalty of the $25,000 bond also raises the ante in a reasonable manner, although that also seems harsh. And doubling the player's penalty seems excessive considering it is not ultimately his choice whether or not to appeal the red card. But potentially stripping teams of the right to appeal incorrect red cards beyond this season is too much, and I hope MLS can take a step back and modify the procedure in future seasons.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!