Earlier this year, Qin Sheng, a footballer for Shanghai Shenhua, one of the Chinese Super League's leading teams, was shown a red card for stamping on an opponent. The victim was unhurt and went on to score later in the game. The red card itself was fairly uncontroversial – video replays showing that it was a blatant and intentional infringement. The six month ban that was handed out to Qin by the Chinese Football Association (the "CFA") did, however, cause a few eyebrows to be raised.
Qin was also granted no indulgence by his club who dropped him to the reserve team, fined him and cut his salary for the remainder of the season to the minimum wage for a Shanghai worker. Qin also apologised to his teammates in front of TV cameras and received a very public dressing down from his club's chairman.
For an ordinary sending off in the Chinese Super League (the "CSL"), a player gets a one game ban, although it is not unusual for longer bans to be given for more severe offences. Similar incidents in other football leagues around the world have resulted in much less severe punishments. When the Bournemouth player Tyrone Mings was adjudged to have stamped on Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he received a five match ban from The Football Association in England.
So why did the CFA hand down such a long ban for, what in the eyes of many, was a relatively low-grade incident? Was this actually the right decision? And who decides how long bans are in the first place?
To the seasoned football fan, Qin's ban was undoubtedly harsh. Some journalists have speculated that the length of the ban and Qin's treatment reflected the CFA's desire to save "face" and show the world that the increasingly-globally viewed CSL doesn't accept this type of on pitch behaviour. It was perhaps significant that the incident occurred in a match that was broadcast internationally on a number of foreign networks.
But, if this is true, the CFA's reaction may have been somewhat of an own-goal, as the western media clamoured to denounce the six month ban as unduly harsh and representative of a system which isn't transparent or fair.
The CSL and CFA are not alone in being criticised for disciplinary decisions relating to on-field incidents. Luiz Suarez was famously handed a four month ban by FIFA for an apparent bite on an Italian player during a World Cup match in 2016, which, given it was not his first offence of a similar nature, many considered lenient. Chelsea (ex-)captain John Terry's ban of four matches and £220,000 fine for racially abusing an opposition player was also criticised by some for being lenient in light of the gravity of the offence.
The question for all sports governing bodies that also have a disciplinary function to deal with on-field offences is what can be done to ensure these disciplinary structures are properly equipped to both hand out the appropriate sanctions and also ensure that those sanctions are appropriate in the context of the perception and advancement of the sport more widely?
To answer this question, it is worth taking a step back to think about what a disciplinary function in relation to on-field incidents is designed to do. This is a question which is worthy of academic debate in itself, but one theory is that it can be boiled down to two simple objectives: (a) to provide appropriate sanctions for rule infringements to uphold the laws of the game; and (b) creating a practical, fair and transparent system which promotes wider understanding of how the laws of the game will be applied.
Although this sounds simple enough, there are a number of practical difficulties with putting in place appropriate structures to achieve these aims.
Getting a disciplinary structure right is not easy. There is no "one size fits all" approach and different sports and jurisdictions have to look at what is right for them in the context of their specific circumstances. A number of different models can be adopted.
In rugby, for example, typically a national union convenes a first instance disciplinary panel shortly after a weekend's games to review videos and take evidence from players, citing officials and referees in relation to specific red-card incidents, before deciding what sanction to apply with reference to the sanctioning guidelines set out in the World Rugby regulations. Appeals are allowed on certain specific grounds and are usually (but not always) decided behind closed doors without reference to external independent bodies.
Other sports take different approaches, but to achieve the desired outcomes discussed above, there are a number of things that sports governing bodies should take into account when designing disciplinary processes:
Putting in place effective disciplinary structures is not easy, and requires significant forethought and planning, both in drafting the rules, procedures and sanctioning guidelines, but also in terms of ensuring they are workable and easy to administer in practice. Advance consultation of stakeholders (such as clubs and players) is also a helpful way to show transparency and also to ensure disciplinary processes are appropriate.
A failure to put in place effective structures can open up not only questions about the appropriateness of sanctions, but also about the integrity of governing bodies themselves, meaning this is something that all sports governing bodies should have a keen eye on.