The Traumatic Injury Clause

April 26, 2011

In professional soccer, sometimes a long ban for an injury-causing tackle isn't enough.

April 26, 2011

In the last week in Major League Soccer, two teams have had star players receive season ending injuries from hard and violent tackles. Steve Zakuani broke both his tibia and fibula when he was tackled by Brian Mullan, while 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira suffered a broken ankle from a tackle by Jonathan Leathers. The Mullan tackle received a straight red, while the Leathers tackle was not even called a foul. In addition, in February of 2010, Aaron Ramsey was on the receiving end of a tackle that left him with an injury similar to Zakuani's.

In the case of the Ramsey tackle, Ryan Shawcross received a 3 match ban for the incident. Estimates for Mullan range from 3-5 matches, while Leathers is unlikely to receive significant punishment. To many people, the punishment isn't sufficient given the extreme result of the incidents. The punishments are in line with FIFA recommendations. However, FIFA has never had any rules on the books that address the serious injuries that can end a player's season or career. Therefore, I believe that FIFA needs to implement a "Traumatic Injury Clause".

This clause would cover incidents like Ramsey/Shawcross, or Zakuani/Mullan, and to a lesser extent, Ferreira/Leathers. In essence, for any foul that results in a player being severely injured, the player that committed the foul would automatically be suspended from the league until such time as the other player is deemed fit to return to play.

For example, it's easy to determine when broken bones have healed, plus given an acceptable time for recovery a league would be able to determine fairly accurately how long a given suspension would be. Muscle strains or tears are more difficult to handle, and injuries such as ACL/MCL tears are a little difficult as well. However, guidelines would have to be established by doctors for each case.

If a player caused an injury in the MLS, they would be suspended from the MLS until the other player was able to return. The player wouldn't be forbidden from playing in another league, such as the Bundesliga or EPL. This would also mean that if a player committed a foul that resulted in a traumatic injury while on international duty, they would subsequently be suspended from further international duty until the other player was able to return. This may sound like extreme punishment, but the idea is to offer extreme discouragement for extreme circumstances.

Right now, extremely hard tackles are avoided now on a "gentleman's agreement". Players try to avoid these incidents simply because each player also knows that the same situation could happen to them. However, there exists a situation where horrifically injuring a player from another team can actually benefit another team, even taking into account the suspension that would result from a violent tackle. For example, one player could take out the opponent's star player. The player that commits the foul would be suspended anywhere from one to five games, while the player that was injured could potentially miss 30 or more matches in a given season. They could even miss multiple seasons. If a player of medium or minor importance takes out a star player from another team, they ultimately come out ahead given one team suffers a huge loss -- one which could cause that team to miss the playoffs.

In the case of Aaron Ramsey, he spent 6 months in recovery before returning to training. (February 27 to mid-October 2010 per Wikipedia). However, he didn't return to Arsenal and make a start until March 19, making it more than a year since receiving the injury. Suspending an offending player for a year or more doesn't make sense given that pro footballers/soccer players make their living playing the sport.

However the disparity between a 3-5 match suspension they currently receive and the huge amount of time that the injured players lose is hard to reconcile. In the 2009-10 and 10-11 seasons, Ramsey appeared 48 times in all competitions. If you take out appearances made while on load to other teams (for recovery), that number drops to 31. Meanwhile, Shawcross had 69 appearances (even with his suspension) between '09 and '11 -- a difference of 38 or 21.

At this point, no timetables are known for either the recovery of Zakuani or Ferreira. Unofficial estimates put Ferreira's return around 3 months, while Sounders FC are "hopeful" that Zakuani will return for the playoffs. Taking into account the Ramsey case, Zakuani probably won't return until 2012 and Ferreira may miss more than the 3 month estimate. Meanwhile, Mullan and Leathers will undoubtedly be back in action no later than June.

In the end, the Traumatic Injury Clause is about punishment and discouragement. It's one thing to suspend players for dangerous plays that could result in injuries. But, if there is no real consequences for actual dangerous plays that do result in serious injuries, players will have no real deterrent to avoid serious injuries to other players. As of now, FIFA doesn't have any rules on the books that address real situations where players are injured. And frankly for the safety of those players, they need to. Enacting rules for traumatic injuries won't save Ramsey, Zakuani, or Ferreira from the injuries they've already received, but it might make players like Shawcross, Mullan, or others think again before they act rashly, and make sure that their actions aren't going to cause serious injuries to other players — lest they spend the rest of the season watching their team play on TV.