Injuries happen in sports. They're an unfortunate reality, something most fans aren't exactly comfortable with but a less-than-desirable consequence of the nature of the games we love. Things happen at impossible speed with impossible force, and it's inevitable that there will be incidents. It's something we all have to live with, and that coexistence is far less disconcerting than the reality that athletes must face.
Part of this uneasy truce is the belief that most humans are basically good, that the vast majority of injuries that occur are the result of the nature of the game rather than any real malevolence. And despite my occasional forays into misanthropy, I can buy that. I'll even go one further and say that even in most cases where malice is involved the intent is not to cause severe injury but to give the opponent pause; to be a successful professional athlete requires a certain belief in one's own invincibility, to the point that severe injury is put so far out of mind that it seems an impossibility. That is, in part, what referees, umpires, the rulebook and the league office is for. Athletes are going to do dangerous things by their very nature and it is up to the authorities to mete out the proper punishment when they do so.
Unfortunately, on some occasions said punishment will come far too late. Steve Zakuani is as promising a player as you'll find in MLS, blessed with an obscene amount of natural talent and growing before the eyes of Sounders fans into a more complete footballer. When Zakuani entered the league he tended to lean on his God-given abilities, using his speed to blow past defenders and create havoc on the wing. As dangerous as he was, he saw the need to refine his skills and room to grow into a truly elite player, and signs of that development were evident last year where Zakuani blossomed into one of the better young players in the league. So far this season the third-year winger has shown a tremendous leap in development, his level of skill beginning to match his raw ability and the promise of a bright and lucrative future in Europe seeming a definite possibility.
In a flash, all of that might be gone. I don't doubt Brian Mullan when he says that he had no intention of breaking Zakuani's leg. I don't doubt that there was no intent to injure in the least. But at a certain point that's no longer an excuse, and Mullan went well beyond that point tonight. Upon watching the replay (which I do not recommend) the sequence of events is fairly clear; Mullan felt that he was fouled, didn't get the call and was determined to regain possession for Colorado. His aggressiveness lagged behind the speed of the play and he ended up planting one of the most horrific two-footed tackles that I have ever seen into Steve Zakuani's leg, breaking two bones and putting the winger's future in doubt.
I don't know what thoughts were going through his mind at the time, but I am fairly certain that "I should really go ahead and try to end Steve Zakuani's career" wasn't one of them. At the same time, it's clear that the challenge was reckless-Mullan was upright within a foot of Zakuani and both sets of cleats came in high and nowhere near the ball-and the end result is at best the Sounders being without Zakuani for the majority of the season, but any hopes of a Supporter's Shield Challenge all but out of the question and at worst the end of Steve Zakuani's career as we know it. When all is said and done, the end result of a player's action matters. Tony Pulis can swear up and down that Ryan Shawcross is 'not that type of player' all he wants, but Aaron Ramsey has still lost a vital 18 months of development. All the apologies in the world from Martin Taylor won't restore Eduardo to his former glory and deliver him back to Arsenal from his current home at Shakhtar Donetsk.
I don't wish to demonize Mullan; while I don't think that his post-game comments seemed to indicate legitimate contrition I am also willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in that he didn't believe that a tackle that was intended only to win back possession could have ever caused such a horrific as the one suffered by Zakuani. It's a fine line between empathy and sympathy, and while I do recognize that Brian Mullan must be feeling quite awful at the moment I do not feel bad for him in any respect. Mullan's recklessness must be punished by the league and punished harshly, because while the intent to injure might not have been present the tackles was abhorrent and the end result a severe injury to the player on the receiving end. There are countless circumstances in life where the consequences for one's actions are increasingly severe depending on the end result of said actions. Brian Mullan may have made that challenge "hundreds of times" as he was quoted, and of those hundreds of times the consequences of his actions might have reached their potential only once. But that doesn't diminish the reality of what transpired; a poor decision is a poor decision, not matter how many times one is allowed to get away with it.
In the end, the goal is not to assign blame but to solve the problem of overly physical play in MLS. An extended suspension for Brian Mullan won't accomplish that goal in and of itself, but it could very well be a start. A great many people are wishing for Steve Zakuani's full recovery, and that group isn't limited to Sounders fans alone. But if the league does not take decisive action to curb such behaviors, it's only a matter of time before it happens again.