Stade Francais scrum half Jerome Fillol was cited after video footage incontrovertibly showed him spitting directly in the face of Peter Stringer his Bath opponent during an Amlin Cup European match at the Recreation Ground 2 weeks ago. Fillol was at risk of a ban of between 4 and 52 weeks pursuant to IRB regulations. His action generated widespread revulsion and was described as the lowest of the lows. Stringer himself stated on Twitter that there was no place for such action in any walk of life. Brett Gosper CEO of the International Rugby Board also proclaimed on Twitter that Fillol should be punished to the 'full extent of the Law'.
Fillol duly appeared before the IRB Panel in Dublin today and received a 14 week suspension. The Panel decided that the entry point was 26 weeks and reduced that for 'genuine remorse, exemplary record, and strong character references'. Via Twitter rugby pundit and ex England hooker, Brian Moore, described the ban as 'hard but fair' and stated that the entry point could not be said to be 'unreasonable'.
Fillol's action infringed IRB Regulation 10.4 (m): A player must not do anything that is against the spirit of good sportsmanship in the enclosure'. The sanction for such conduct depends on the starting point: Low end 4 weeks, Mid Range 7 weeks, Top End 11 + up to 52 weeks.
Opinions certainly varied as to the appropriate penalty.
In February 2012 Uttoxeter winger Paul Milward received a 12 month suspension from an RFU Disciplinary Panel after he spat at a female spectator during a bad tempered altercation. The match itself was eventually abandoned. The Disciplinary Panel found that this was a deliberate 'assault'. The spit struck the coat of the victim. She described herself as 'humiliated'. The Panel, headed by Judge Sean Enright, found that Milward's actions were more serious than those relating to merely spitting at a player and that 10.4 (m) did not cover spitting at a spectator. Milward was charged pursuant to RFU Regulation 5.12 ('conduct prejudicial to the interest of the Union'). The Panel referred to the interests of the game and made reference to, inter alia, the effect upon the image of the game and the response of potential sponsors. Milward denied the allegation at both the original hearing and a subsequent appeal, but lost on the facts. The Appeal Panel found him guilty, but reduced the ban to only 9 weeks. This case perhaps demonstrates the difficulties in fixing the level of penalty. The Appeal Panel's decision is strangely not available on the RFU's website or seemingly anywhere else.
Looking back at previous incidents in American sports suggests that perhaps this spitting offence is not quite viewed with the same degree of abhorrence as in Europe. Blue Jays second baseman, aggrieved at being struck out by the umpire in 1996 proceeded to spit in his face. He was banned for 5 games and resolved the matter with the umpire by means of a handshake.
Basketball superstar Charles Barkley was racially abused by a 'fan'. At the end of the game Barkley rounded on the spectator and spat at him. Unfortunately he missed and hit a young girl instead. He was banned for one game. He later stated that this was the one incident he regretted in his career.
In football Patrick Vieira became so enraged by Neil Ruddock's taunts that he gave him a 'mouthful' back and received a 6 game ban as a result. Fabien Barthez playing for Monaco spat at a referee and received a 6 month ban (of which 3 suspended).
I am sure we all feel the revulsion. However where does Fillol's offence sit alongside gratuitous acts of violence such as stamping on a helpless player (Cian Healy for instance - 2 week ban)? Moreover when you consider that UEFA has just announced 10 game bans for racist abuse, which side of that line would spitting fall? The spit does not hurt or truly harm, it just shows complete and utter disrespect for the victim (and the sport in general). It says an awful lot about the perpetrator.
Meanwhile rugby referee Hugh Watkins has just been banned for 12 matches. His crime? Watching the Hong Kong 7s on TV he wrote on Twitter about a refereeing decision
"Sorry that's a shocker. Had to be a red no other option. we need referees to be consistent in this"
Now of course it was unwise and a breach of WRFU Code of Conduct to publicly criticise another referee, but a 12 week ban? Watkins has quit the game in disgust after 20 years service. Now that is a shocker!