Prokop: Now comes the critical part – will the EHF have the necessary courage?

As noted by my colleague John Ryan in his earlier posting, and as many of you are likely to have found in the media, the reactions of disgust after Prokop’s actions are so strong and so widespread, that I probably would not need to add my own opinion. Moreover, to retain credibility as a columnist it is sometimes necessary to show some restraint and not give in completely to one’s feelings. In this particular case, however, I see no need and no possibility to hold back. [u]Prokop’s actions are simply the most despicable ones I have experienced or heard of in my more than 50 years in handball.[/u]

Therefore, it is no surprise that reactions from handball people around the world are so strong. They can feel what the impact is for our sport when something like this happens, they can put themselves in the position of the opponents in the match, and they clearly recognize the complete lack of ethics and propriety. So I fully understand, for instance, the reactions of Ulrik Wilbek, the Danish national team coach, a person well-known for his decency both during matches and in between, when he argues that Prokop should be banned for life. I also particularly appreciate the reactions of Austrian federation president Gerhard Hofbauer, another person whom I know as very correct and proper in his views and behavior. He publicly deplores the actions and does not rule out independent disciplinary measures by his federation.

However, it is also very telling that nobody seems to be entirely surprised by Prokop’s actions. Indeed, if these actions were described to a large group of handball insiders, and they were asked who they thought were the person responsible, I suspect almost everyone would get it right! In every large group of whatever kind, there is always someone who is so frequently behaving in an outrageous manner that, instead of being shunned or severely criticized, they are instead ignored or laughed at, because it is assumed that they are what they are and will never change. Through this misguided tolerance, we tend to create ‘Frankenstein’s monsters’ and in some sense we share the blame.

I think this is also why so many are so extremely upset. Finally they sense that ‘enough is enough.’ If the same actions had been taken at the spur of the moment by someone with a long and impeccable record, one would be more ready to except it as a temporary mental lapse. But when the guilty party is so notorious, is seen receiving his ‘red card’ with a big grin of satisfaction, and then cynically expresses a pride in ‘having done his duty’ as a tactical and experienced coach, then it has gone too far. No subsequent retractions or apologies would change that.

One aspect of ‘misguided tolerance’ that perhaps not so many know about, and that certainly would have caused the reactions of outrage to be even greater, is that Prokop, presumably on account of his many years in women’s handball, holds senior and important positions in the EHF hierarchy: he is the Chair of the Committee for Women’s Clubs and he is a Member of the EHF Competitions Commission. Clearly, one would hope that such positions of honor would be filled on the basis of factors other than pure longevity…

Turning then to the important issue of punishment that now needs to be meted out, I can have some understanding for those who focus on rules and refereeing. They ask if the referees did the right thing when they did not award a 7-meter throw, as such a decision might have negated Prokop’s actions and intentions, and they wonder if one might need to change the rules in some way. Here I first want to support the referees: they could possibly have been justified in ‘stretching’ the definition of ‘clear scoring chance’ and thus in giving a 7-meter, but clearly their decision was not a mistake. And my basic point is that this whole situation goes beyond rules and refereeing. Rules cannot, and should not endeavor to, become so geared towards ‘once in a lifetime’ situations and such deviant behavior. They must focus on being clear and simple for normal persons and normal situations. [u]Instead the real deterrent must come in the form of individual punishments that are so severe that they serve to keep such persons out of our sport![/u]

From this web site we have occasionally been critical of EHF disciplinary actions as being too soft, typically in cases of attempted referee bribery and similar forms of corruption. Clearly, an organization needs to apply consistent guidelines and procedures, and existing regulations may set limits for actions. In this regard, I was encouraged by comments from the EHF Secretary General, who stressed the ‘unique’ nature of this case, thus seemingly suggesting that it would also be ‘off the charts’ as regards the scope for punishment. Here the discussion cannot be about the number of games but the [u]number of years[/u]! Similarly, Prokop’s club (and, as insiders know, it is really literally ‘Prokop’s club’) must be made to know that their participation in EHF competitions is not accepted as long as it relies on such ‘leadership’.

Finally, I commented earlier on Prokop’s positions of honor in the EHF hierarchy. I do not know what the rules are for filling these positions and for firing incumbents, but in the current circumstances that should be irrelevant. Let me put it is this way: every day from now on that he is allowed to remain in his positions amounts to a day of flagrantly insulting the international handball community!