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Opinion: John Herdman's DARVO response

Did the Toronto FC head coach accuse Nick Cushing of assault out of concern for his players? Or was he trying to evade blame for his own misconduct?

Toronto FC head coach John Herdman | Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get into soccer, let's quickly go over some psychology.

In 1997, Dr. Jennifer Freyd wrote about how an abusive person uses mental jiujitsu to turn themself into the victim, and the victim into the abuser. The "offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one," she wrote. "The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense." It's gaslighting with an edge.

Freyd is credited with first identifying what is known as a DARVO response — the acronym stands for deny, attack, and reverse the victim and offender. It's a handy term that describes the moves that a manipulator uses to flip others on their heads: Not only do they get in their punches, but they get an apology after.

It's worth taking a moment to look at every part of the acronym.

• Step 1, deny: It never happened. You might have been there and witnessed it, but I will not acknowledge it.

• Step 2, attack: You're the problem — we have an issue because of you.

• Step 3, reverse the victim and offender: I was only protecting myself from you because you're dangerous, and you need to be held to account.

"This sequence," Dr. Mark Travers wrote in Forbes earlier this year, "serves as a blueprint for manipulative tactics aimed at shifting blame and preserving the perpetrator’s power. Through DARVO, perpetrators not only absolve themselves of responsibility, but also undermine the credibility and agency of their victims — perpetuating a cycle of abuse and manipulation."

Which brings us to soccer.

MLS exonerates Cushing, kinda

Yesterday, Major League Soccer issued a statement addressing an allegation made on May 11 by Toronto FC head coach John Herdman that New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing punched a 19-year-old Toronto player "in the face." MLS investigated the alleged incident at the request of New York City.

The statement doesn't validate the allegation that Cushing punched or assaulted another person. It doesn't even mention the accusation. But it doesn't exactly exonerate Cushing.

The statement is just two paragraphs long, and is light on details. (You can read the full text here.) Here's the second paragraph in its entirety: "The League conducted a review of both incidents and determined that players and staff from both teams involved in the altercation exhibited poor judgment and engaged in behavior contradictory to MLS values. While no additional suspensions or fines have been issued, head coaches and executives from both clubs were required to meet with MLS Commissioner Don Garber to discuss League expectations for behavior and conduct."

In other words, everybody was called into the principal's office for a stern talking-to.

Presumably, if "no additional suspensions or fines have been issued," then the league concluded that Cushing didn't assault anybody. But the statement doesn't say that. Instead, it distributes blame vaguely and evenly.

It's a peculiar conclusion to what is easily one of the most scandalous stories of the 2024 season.

If the league suspects that Cushing is a danger to other players, you'd think they would take action to protect the safety of others and the integrity of MLS — or at least place him on leave while they continue their investigation. MLS did exactly that to former New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena last year, when they placed the winningest head coach in US Soccer history on administrative leave in August. He was later removed from his position at New England.

But Cushing was never suspended. He has worked continuously since the allegation was raised on May 11 — he was even named to the Team of the Matchday as head coach by the league on Monday.

MLS don't seem to think Cushing is a threat. In fact, it was Herdman who was handed a one-match suspension by the league for his conduct on May 11. (More on that below.)

But maybe Cushing's suitability to work in MLS is beside the point. When you look at what Herdman said – and when he said it – his allegation doesn't seem to be about protecting his players. Instead his accusation shifted the spotlight to Cushing so that Herdman and his team could, in the words of Dr. Travers, "absolve themselves of responsibility" for the ugly behavior that took place after Toronto lost to New York City.

To better understand that, we need to look again at what happened on May 11.

Toronto FC 2 - 3 New York City FC

New York City defeated Toronto on May 11 in a close and testy match that took place at BMO Field, and that ended with a red card shown to Toronto star Federico Bernardeschi in stoppage time. Immediately after the final whistle, members of both clubs confronted each other on the field, and some of those encounters turned physical.

Herdman first publicly accused Cushing of punching a 19-year-old Toronto player "in the face" in Toronto's postgame press conference on May 11 immediately following those physical confrontations.

But Herdman's accusation wasn't about something that just happened. His accusation was an alleged incident that he claimed took place back nearly two months earlier on March 16, when the two sides played at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.

Herdman first made the allegation when following up on a response to a question made by Toronto captain Jonathan Osorio, who was also in the press conference. In vague terms, Osorio accused New York City staff and players of cornering and assaulting a "19-year-old" Toronto player when the two teams played each other in March. The scuffles that had taken place immediately before the press conference that day, according to Osorio, were a product of the "bad blood" from the game in March. "So we're just letting them know we don't forget about that," Osorio said.

When pressed by reporters to clarify Osorio's statements, Herdman affirmed that that it was Cushing who cornered the Toronto player and "punched [him] in the face."

It was a classic DARVO response.

Step 1, deny: We're not going to address what happened on May 11, because we did nothing wrong.

Step 2, attack: They started it — he assaulted a teenager, and he should be held accountable.

Step 3, reverse the victim and offender: We have no choice but to protect ourselves from his aggressive and predatory behavior.

Neither Herdman nor Osorio witnessed the alleged assault. Herdman later clarified that Toronto requested and received security footage from Yankee Stadium, but the cameras didn't document the alleged assault.

But a DARVO response isn't about making a well-reasoned point or offering proof. It's about avoiding responsibility by creating a false narrative that shifts blame and preserves your power — you absolve yourself by turning yourself into the victim and undermining the credibility of others.

Deny, attack

Back to what happened on the field after the game on May 11. A total of six suspensions were handed out because of that game. Five to Toronto, and one to New York City.

To go by the number of suspensions handed out by the league, the burden of responsibility falls more heavily on Toronto than on New York City.

Red Cards and additional MLS Disciplinary Committee Suspensions after May 11 match between Toronto FC and New York City FC:

• Toronto, head coach John Herdman, suspended for 1 game
• Toronto, Federico Bernardeschi, suspended for 1 game
• Toronto, Sean Johnson, suspended for 1 game
• Toronto, Richie Laryea, suspended for 1 game
• Toronto, Prince Owusu, red card, suspended for 2 games
• New York City, Strahinja Tanasijević, red card, suspended for 2 games

Notably, Herdman was suspended by Major League Soccer for his conduct on the field after the game. He was the only member of the coaching staff of either team to serve a suspension.

In the Apple TV footage from the postgame scrum, you can see Herdman rush up to Cushing and knock into him. New York City and Toronto staff separate the two, and pull Herdman away so that Cushing can continue to leave the field.

Here it is again from a wider angle.

It's unclear if this confrontation is the reason for Herdman's suspension. But this moment is significant because it happened shortly before Herdman's press conference, when he first publicly accuses Cushing of assaulting a player.

First, Herdman rushes to physically confront Cushing, who is calmly walking away from the altercations with his hands in his pocket. Less than 30 minutes later, Herdman publicly alleges that Cushing punched a Toronto player "in the face."

Did the Toronto FC head coach accuse Nick Cushing of assault out of concern for his players? Or was he trying to evade blame for his own misconduct?

Herdman's statement reversed who was the victim, and who was the offender. Herdman had just physically confronted Cushing – you can see it on the Apple TV footage – and possibly realized that intentionally bumping into the opposing head coach would come to the attention of the MLS Disciplinary Committee. But in Herdman's telling, it was Cushing who was the predator — no matter that the aggression in question took place almost two months earlier, and wasn't documented, witnessed, or otherwise confirmed.

Don't believe your eyes, Herdman essentially says. Herdman might go after Cushing, and Cushing might avoid the conflict entirely, but Cushing is the dangerous one.

And with that, the DARVO response is complete.

The damage done

Let's take a step back and look at the impact of Herdman's allegation.

First, the accusation was echoed and amplified throughout the soccer world. MLS doesn't get a lot of press in England, but The Guardian published an article on the accusation titled "NYC FC coach Nick Cushing denies punching teenage Toronto FC player," which was the lead story on the soccer section of the app. According to The Guardian’s publishing director, the publication has 81 million unique viewers every month.

"Nick Cushing ‘categorically denies’ punching Toronto FC player, MLS ‘reviewing’ the situation," read The Athletic. These words will live on the internet for as long as there is an internet.

There's a judgment to be found in those seemingly straightforward headlines. To begin, it's never a good look for a head coach to have their name, "punching," and player in the same large-font sentence. Second, the word "denies" implies guilt. It's inescapable. To deny an allegation is to weasel your way out of it.

The headline that didn't appear in The Guardian or The Athletic? "Toronto head coach John Herdman suspended after confrontation with New York City." (The Athletic did report on the suspensions in a post with the broader headline "MLS disciplinary committee recommends suspensions following NYCFC, Toronto altercation.")

The genius of a DARVO response is that it rewrites history — literally, in this case. The allegation made against Cushing is now a part of the archive, never mind that it was never proven, while the suspension of Herdman is barely a footnote.

We'll quote Dr. Travers one last time: "Perpetrators not only absolve themselves of responsibility, but also undermine the credibility and agency of their victims."

Cushing's credibility remains undermined despite denying the allegation, requesting an investigation, and not being fined or suspended by MLS. The league could have put this matter to rest in the statement they issued yesterday. Instead, it remains unresolved.

If maintaining power by creating doubt is one of the essential goals of a DARVO response, this one was well played.

John Herdman: Toronto player “punched by the coach” of NYCFC
Here’s everything we know about the allegation made by the Toronto FC head coach against New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing.
New York City FC asks MLS to investigate assault allegation
New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing categorically denies that he punched any Toronto FC player or staff member.
Toronto FC head coach John Herdman suspended by MLS
Sean Johnson and Richie Laryea are also suspended as the fallout continues to impact players and staff after Toronto FC’s ill-tempered reaction to New York City FC’s win.
Strahinja Tanasijević suspended after Toronto FC confrontation
Toronto’s Prince Owusu will also serve a suspension for his actions in the brawl that followed New York City FC’s win at BMO Field.
Strahinja Tanasijević suspended additional match for Toronto melee
The New York City defender is suspended for a second match and fined for his role in the on-field ugliness at BMO Field, with Toronto’s Richie Laryea also receiving extra discipline.
MLS clears New York City FC head coach Nick Cushing
“No additional suspensions or fines” after league investigation into assault claim made by Toronto FC head coach John Herdman following on-field altercation.