Best Of

Best of 2012: Slurs create Controversy of the Year

MLSsoccer.com polled 20 of our editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists to bring you the Best of 2012, running Dec. 17 through Jan. 2. Each day we'll hand out an award in a variety of categories culled from the storylines of MLS and US international players, including Biggest Controversy, Breakout Player of the Year and, via fan vote revealed on Dec. 31, the Moment of the Year.

Senior editor Nick Firchau tackles the Controversy of the Year, an easy pick for the panel in 2012. There was no bigger issue than the two players caught using homophobic slurs during games, and the implications of the penalties that followed.

Major League Soccer found itself in a somewhat tricky and wholly unfamiliar position in 2012, and more than likely, the league never truly wanted any part of it in the first place.

The issue at hand? Two league veterans caught red-handed using homophobic slurs during nationally-televised games, and the ensuing argument about how much we’re willing to tolerate from players using inappropriate language on the field of play.

As it turned out, the league wasn’t having any of it. Commissioner Don Garber promptly handed down a three-game penalty, undisclosed fine and mandatory sensitivity training to both Houston’s Colin Clark and Seattle’s Marc Burch, the two players who bookended the season with similar incidents that forced the league into unfamiliar action.

Were the penalties too much? Too little? There was really no precedent to call upon. MLS has long punished players, coaches and even owners for publicly criticizing the referees – Sigi Schmid, Ben Olsen, Jesse Marsch and Merritt Paulson each took one on the chin this year – and it certainly knew how to deal with disciplining players for physical altercations on the field. But when Clark was overheard on a field-side microphone using a slur against a CenturyLink Field ball boy in March, prompting Twitter to erupt with calls for discipline for the incident, MLS entered new territory.

The NBA had been there before – Kobe Bryant was hit with a $100,000 fine for using a similar slur against a referee in 2011 – and so had Major League Baseball, most recently when Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was slapped with a $90,000 fine and a three-game suspension for writing a slur in Spanish in the eye black on his face before a game in September. The NFL and NHL, meanwhile, both passed on chances to fine players for uses of similar language in 2011.

But MLS had more proactive intentions, with an eye keenly fixed on what the incident meant for its image and its fans. Professional soccer continues to be the second most popular sport among Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 – trailing only the NFL – and MLS took a stand not only because of how the incidents might affect the opinions of its established fans, but also because of what it could mean to another, younger generation still to come.

Both Clark and Burch publicly apologized for the incidents and Burch still faces one game on his suspension next season, but is the book really closed on all this? Hardly. We’ll never completely eradicate this kind of language from sports, but at least we learned how much MLS is willing to take: none.

2. Hurricane Sandy madness

The night the lights went out at Red Bull Arena. Remember it, because it was the tipping point for perhaps the craziest playoff series in league history, complete with a site swap, home-field advantage lost and in the second leg, a freak snowstorm that stranded devoted fans and left one team (New York) huddled in the locker room while the other (D.C. United) went all Lieutenant Dan on us: “You call this a storm?!”

3. Peter Nowak disassembles the Union

Philadelphia fans won’t soon forget a six-month span in 2012 that saw their once-beloved but always bizarre manager set a flame thrower to the bridges built between the club and its captain, first-ever draft pick and the best player in the brief history of the franchise. Nowak was gone by June, but no personality in MLS left a bigger wake of destruction in 2012.