Headspace Morality

Suarez, and inconsistent vs disproportionate responses

Those of you who watch football might have heard of Luis Suarez, and in particular of his habit (if three instances counts as a habit) of occasionally biting opponents in the heat of battle. I want to briefly offer a distinction for your consideration, because – as is so often the case on social media – the reactions to his most recent offence have tended towards the hysterical.

The most recent offence occurred in a World Cup game where Uruguay beat (and in consequence, eliminated) Italy. Suarez. The video below clearly shows Suarez lining himself up for a chomp at Chiellini’s shoulder, and Fifa are currently discussing how long Suarez should be banned for (6000 has the scoop on that, by the way).

There’s no question that Suarez deserves sanctions of some sort. And this is where the distinction comes in: one can – and should – separate the issue of what a proportionate punishment would be from the issue of whether we’re treating this case as we treat similar (or worse) offences.

Just like in the last World Cup, when Suarez handballed against Ghana, some folk seem to want him hung, drawn and quartered. The reaction was disproportionate then, especially in South Africa, perhaps thanks to our bizarre adoption of Ghana as our surrogate team. Suarez is a nasty piece of work, as far as I can tell – there’s the three instances of biting, the racism, and the fact that he’s rather good yet plays for Liverpool.

But despite this, we shouldn’t let the fact that biting someone seems particularly strange – animalistic – obscure the fact that biting someone is a far less serious offence than repeated violent play, of the sort that can break legs and end careers. Our reactions to Suarez are inconsistent with our reactions to other serial offenders, who offend in ways other than biting.

Take Pepe as example, with reference to the video below:

Pepe attracts cards fairly frequently – 42 yellow cards and 5 red cards over the years 2008 to 2012 – as one might expect after watching that clip. Yet while the intensity and regularity of his violence attract comment from football fans along the lines of “he’s a dirty bastard” or what have you, I don’t see many people calling for a lifetime ban or many months of suspension.

But tell me: would you rather play against Suarez, with the possibility that he might take a bite of your arm or shoulder, or against Pepe, who might kick you in the head while you’re lying on the turf? As disreputable as Suarez might be – and this fantastic ESPN profile is worth a read, to see his history in this regard, as well as the lengths people go to to defend him – his offences are more notable for their sheer oddity than for their brutality, and we should keep this in mind when calling for his head.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

2 replies on “Suarez, and inconsistent vs disproportionate responses”

Good points, and while I agree with the hysteria, I can also appreciate why a bite is perceived as worse than a kick. There’s a social stigma attached to biting, and it is almost animalistic – horror movies capitalize on a deep-seated, perhaps evolutionary response to this threat, so I do understand why in the case of a footballer, a bite is always worse than a bark. Or kick, or whatever.

In that Pepe clip you posted, there are some ugly incidents, but there are also some that are relatively common in football (each person can decide what that says about football!). Think Nigel de Jongh in the 2010 Final, for example. Valencia last night, etc. Perhaps we accept that part of the price that is paid for playing a game where a moving target is kept at or near the feet is that they’ll be kicked from time to time, not always by accident, but acceptably. In that regard, isn’t a trip or kick (not the extreme of a stamp or what Pepe does in the first incident in that clip, which is horrific) similar to a spear tackle in rugby, in the sense that it can happen, it’s punished when it does, and it’s debatable whether it’s on purpose or by accident?

Also, I must say, Pepe is a reviled character. Certainly not as much as Suarez, but 100 people were asked to put together a team of football’s worst, he’d be in it! I’d argue that he, as much as Suarez, should be banned for many more matches than he is. But the failure to ban Pepe is more an indicator of football’s wrong (in my opinion) attitude towards foul play and ‘thuggery’ than it is a reason to be more lenient on Suarez. Both deserve condemnation, not for isolated incidents, but the pattern they demonstrate.

Ross Tucker

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