Further indications of mishandling of punishment procedures in EHF competition

Time to add a BLUE card to the yellow and red!?

I have written about other aspects of this general topic before, but now additional information has come to my attention that raises issues. What triggers my reaction is the sudden decision by the EHF Court of Arbitration (the third and highest level in the EHF structure for legal matters) to accept the appeal from the German Handball Federation (DHB) and rescind the 2-game suspension that had previously been given to Dominik Klein for an unusual situation in the last game of Germany against Poland in EURO 2012 last January.

Many of you will remember this situation, where Klein pushed a Polish player, who in turn fell on top of another German player which caused a serious leg injury. The referees showed Klein a red card, indicating a disqualification, and some days later there was an announcement that Klein had been given a 2-game suspension by the Disciplinary Commission at the EURO 2012, which would keep him out of last week’s and this week’s qualifying games against Bosnia. (The suspension did/does not apply to club games). It was later announced that DHB had appealed the verdict to the Jury (in the case of a centralized competition such as EURO 2012 the second level, equivalent to the EHF Court of Appeals in the case of decentralized competition). The Jury confirmed the decision of the Disciplinary Commission.

But this was not the end of it. More recently it was found that the DHB had appealed to the EHF Court of Arbitration. Many, myself included, found this DHB action rather tasteless, because our observations of the incident when it happened, made us feel that a suspension of that length was quite justified, not because of the injury that happened to occur but because of the seemingly reckless nature of the action. We assumed that the referees had classified the action as ‘particularly reckless or dangerous’ and warranting a report, and that the Disciplinary Commission had used its authority and judgment by reviewing the report and concluding that a suspension of 2 games was warranted. Therefore, there was puzzlement when the recent decision by the Court of Arbitration was announced. What could possibly have been the reason for this reversal? It caused speculation, some of a rather sinister kind, insinuating favorable treatment for DHB etc.

Of course, all the speculation could have been avoided if only the EHF had been using a more transparent system for announcing the decisions of its disciplinary and legal bodies. It is the norm that we just get the result but no indication of the rationale. This is really not a very helpful and appropriate approach. (As a sharp contrast and good model, one could point to system used by the National Hockey League (NHL), where great care is taken to explain exactly why (or why not) a suspension has been decided). More facts and clarity would clearly help provide more credibility for the application of the EHF legal system.

Before I go on and explain what actually seemed to happen back in January and now later in the Court of Arbitration, let me remind about the applicable rules. For many years, the two serious types of personal punishments were ‘disqualification’ and ‘exclusion’. The exclusion meant that not just was the player out for the rest of the game, but the team had to play shorthanded for the duration. This was seen as a far too drastic punishment, so in 2010, the universal IHF rules were changed and the concept of ‘exclusion’ was eliminated. Instead, the rules now have ‘disqualification without report’ and ‘disqualification WITH report’. (As I noted earlier, the latter category is for actions that are seen as particularly reckless or dangerous).

When the referees decide, and the point is that nobody else can decide it, that a foul belongs in the category ‘without report’ (rule 8:5), then there shall be no action beyond the end of the game. (Regrettably, both EHF, DHB and some other federations go against this universal rule and sometimes decide on punishments in any case…). If the referees decide that the foul needs to be classified as warranting disqualification WITH report (rule 8:6), then of course they must indicate this in the match report and submit a separate report directly after the game. The decision as to which category applies must be taken immediately when the situation happens. After showing the red card, the referees must inform both the official for the team and also the match delegate if they have decided that it is ‘8:6 and report’. The team has the right to know immediately. If nothing is being said, this means that the decision was ‘8:5’ and that no report will follow. The player will be eligible for the next game.

BUT, it has now come out that in the case of the Klein incident, the referees did not say anything about 8:6 and report, so the DHB had reason to assume that this was the end of the story. This was apparently confirmed by the absence of a notation in the Match Report. Instead, it seems that the EHF Disciplinary Commission in that group of the EURO 2012, despite having no such authority, must have taken upon itself to change the decision of the referees, placing the action in the category of ‘8:6 with report’ and adding a 2-game suspension. It is astounding that an EHF Disciplinary Commission can show such ignorance or disregard for the playing rules and their own lack of authority. It is equally amazing that the Jury did not discover and counteract this serious error, instead choosing to rubberstamp the initial decision. In other words, when reviewing the matter more carefully, the EHF Court of Arbitration had no choice: it simply had to set aside the decision of the lower levels.

In a nutshell: it is irrelevant whether we agree with the initial decision of the referees, because only they have the right to take the decision of choosing between 8:5 and 8:6. So the DHB opinion on that aspect is not of interest. And it is irrelevant what the reasoning of the EHF Disciplinary Commission was, even if they were present and saw the situation. They have no role to play, if the referees decide that it is 8:5 that applies.

It occurs to me that one small change in the playing rules might be of help. In the past, everyone could immediately see the difference between disqualification (red card) and exclusion (hand signal with crossed arms). Now what we see is simply a red card in both cases, and typically a spectator or TV viewer does not notice if the referees also give verbal information to the match delegate and the team official. Perhaps the time has for an additional/separate card; let me propose a blue one…

But more important is the need for the EHF to improve its decision-making procedures, its adherence to the universal IHF playing rules, and the transparency in its communications about disciplinary cases.