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Referee acusations and unsettling league precedent

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Why the lack of a concrete investigation into the alleged comments of Kevin Stott is detrimental to league credibility.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

After the LA Galaxy victory over the Seattle Sounders, LA players made an accusation of referee Kevin Stott refusing to give a second yellow. There have been a lot of developments in these alleged comments to Galaxy players. If you haven't seen it, here is our exclusive video of Omar Gonzalez making those allegations.

Early in the week, I talked to referee expert Dr. Errol Sweeney to get a sense seriousness of the allegations.  He was reluctant to comment on unproven allegations, but expressed concern over the implications of the allegations:

"If it is true that the referee made that remark then this amounts to game tampering and, in essence, match fixing...I would ask that these allegations be investigated fully to determine if the referee did make these comments as alleged by the players concerned in the interview."

Peter Walton, the general manager of the Professional Referees Organization, had this to say:

"Referee Kevin Stott has no recollection of telling L.A. Galaxy players that he wasn't going to hand out a second yellow card to players in last Sunday's Western Conference semifinal first leg against the Seattle Sounders."

We contacted the league for a comment on the situation and inquired whether there would be an investigation. They insisted that referee calls are always debated and that PRO continues to make strides in improving the quality of officiating. The league stands behind the statement made by Peter Walton.

We reached out directly to PRO with the same inquiry about whether or not there would be any further investigation, but received no response. By the sound of the statement made by Peter Walton, the extent of the investigation was talking to Kevin Stott and taking him at his word.

In my mind, this is problematic for a number of reasons. Peter Waltons' conclusion that Kevin Stott's comments were taken out of context or misunderstood is highly possible, especially given that Omar Gonzalez was not the player the comments were allegedly made to and therefore could have easily been misconstrued in their passing. Much like a game of telephone. With no formal investigation being launched, what kind of message does this send the referees and the players?

The message has now been sent to referees that PRO will back them up even if the allegations are virtually on par with match fixing, as suggested by Dr. Sweeney. This is a dangerous precedent. By not formally investigating Omar's comments, a message has been sent to players that there is absolutely no risk in making allegations against referees. Although it is unlikely that Omar flat out made up the allegations, for the league to not formally investigate whether he did or not sends a message to players that they can accuse referees of cheating with absolutely no consequences; also a dangerous precedent.

Perhaps if Omar had filed his complaint through proper channels, and not the media, a more formal investigation would have taken place. It is unclear what the mechanisms for investigating referees in this situation are. If those mechanisms lie within PRO itself, this is also troublesome because PRO has an interest in protecting its referees.

In a case like this where it's alleged internal directives come under fire, the stakes of protecting the referee in question are even higher. What do I mean by alleged internal directives? Consider the following quote from a Brian Straus article in which he interviewed Mark Geiger following the World Cup.

"I may call a few more simple fouls in an international game then worry about promoting the game-flow model that they want in MLS ... There's an entertainment factor that comes in a little bit more when you're dealing with the domestic leagues."

The quote raises the obvious question. What is the "game-flow model" and who are the "they" Mark Geiger is refereeing to? We reached out to PRO for further clarification on this, but they did not respond. The lack of clarification of these quotes leaves us with nothing but speculation. Is PRO directing it's referee's to take entertainment value into account in regards to their calls? If so, wouldn't this explain the alleged stance of Kevin Stott?

And here again we see why PRO has to protect Stott in this situation, because it is a charge that is inherently tied to a charge against them. In this situation, PRO is also having to defend itself. Here is a statement that Peter Walton made to ESPNFC.

"There has certainly been nothing coming out of our office saying as such [about second yellows]... There has been nothing remotely said to any of our referees about that. They should referee the game the same way they did during the regular season."

And perhaps this is why PRO is so eager to take Stott's "I don't recall," non-denial, denial, at face value. They want this story to go away. So why should we trust them to give a fair investigation? To be clear, I'm not saying that PRO is protecting Stott because there is an internal model of refereeing that they don't want exposed to criticism which does take entertainment into account. I'm merely stating that there is a perception among many that they are, and the mere fact that there is speculation completely ruins the credibility of any internal investigation.

In the end, this is something that the league should investigate independent of PRO. By letting players make accusations like this without reprisal, or letting serious allegations against referees go uninvestigated, a dangerous precedent is being set. In the end, it doesn't matter what said investigation turns up. It only matters that the league appears to be taking it seriously.