On Biting In Sport
The Case of Luis Suárez
By Professor Jim Parry (Charles University)
June 10, 2015 Tony Gentile/REUTERS
This article is part of The Critique Exclusive The Philosophy of Sport In Practice Part I: The FIFA World Cup.
The Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez has confessed, apologised and given assurances as to future good behaviour, after his World Cup assault on the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. This confession means that we can now quickly dispense with some of the more ludicrous apologetic reactions to the incident, such as denying that a bite occurred, claiming that the bite marks were ‘Photoshopped’, blaming the furore on the English press, alleging victimisation and a ‘manhunt’, etc. Instead, given an admission of guilt, we might move to a consideration of some of the more interesting exculpatory arguments:
(1) It was inconsequential.
The Uruguayan captain, Diego Lugano, described the incident as ‘inconsequential’, by which we can take him to mean ‘not affecting the outcome of the match’. However, the biting incident was followed immediately (i.e. in the next attack) by a goal. The claim that the biting was inconsequential for the goal cannot simply be asserted, since it is arguable that at least one defender (the one bitten) might have been seriously upset and distracted by such an unwarranted and unpunished assault. And it might further be argued that this was Suárez’ intention.
(2) It was no different from many other ‘assaults’.
The President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, is reported as commenting:
“We didn’t choose him to be a philosopher, or a mechanic, or to have good manners – he’s a great player,” said Mujica … “I didn’t see him bite anyone. But they sure can bash each other with kicks and chops.” (Reuters/Guardian 2014)
His point here is, presumably, that many kinds of assault take place on the football field, but these are dealt with by the referee in the usual manner, with free kicks, yellow cards and expulsions. In that case they should be seen as just part of the game. In similar vein, Suárez’ lawyer, Alejandro Balbi, said:
… if Chiellini can show a scratch on one shoulder, Suárez can show a bruised and an almost closed eye. (Gibson 2014)
Yet the cuts and bruises of the standard rough-and-tumble of football are accepted on all sides as the expected outcome of a fiercely contested contact game. So, the argument goes, why all the fuss about a (little) bite, which is no different from many other forms of assault?
(3) It was not particularly serious.
Many sources make the point that no serious harm befell the victim, and that much more serious, violent and harmful incidents at the World Cup were not subject to the same scrutiny (Maradona asked, “Who did he kill?” – see Corrigan 2014). And it is true that a bite on the shoulder is a less serious outcome of a challenge, in terms of physical trauma, than a broken ankle or a damaged vertebra. So we must ask: what, if anything, makes biting in sport such a bad thing, especially since it does not seem always to threaten as much harm to opponents as some other practices? Let us begin by examining the place of biting in sports rules.
RULES AND CONSENT
Contact sports and combat sports – sports rules and biting
A specific prohibition against biting an opponent is not included in the rules of most contact sports, including football, in which there is a list of acts against the person that are prohibited as fouls, such as kicking, tripping, pushing, striking, etc. However, from the fact that biting is not explicitly proscribed, the conclusion that it is permissible does not immediately follow. Nowhere in the rules of football does it prohibit the goalkeeper from carrying and using a machine-gun, either.
The reason why kicking, tripping, pushing, striking, etc., are explicitly proscribed in the rules is that these are actions that are similar to, or close to, those actions required for successful participation in the game, such as kicking the ball, tackling the opponent, shoulder-charging, challenging and struggling for possession – the constitutive skills of the activity (see Torres 2000). These acts are internally related to the aims of the game. The proscribed acts are prohibited precisely because they are unacceptable versions (or extensions) of legitimate practices – those that are permitted precisely as the internal skills of the game.
“From the fact that biting is not explicitly proscribed, the conclusion that it is permissible does not immediately follow. Nowhere in the rules of football does it prohibit the goalkeeper from carrying and using a machine-gun, either”
Since biting is not a likely strategy in most contact sports, there is no need to exclude it. So it is in football. Since biting is totally unrelated to the internal aims of the game, rule makers would not have seen it as a potential or possible game-skill, and saw no need to exclude it explicitly by rule. Of course, if, in the development of the game, players start to use biting more frequently as a tactic, then it might be necessary to introduce new prohibitions.
The situation is different in contact-combat sports where the outcome is determined by physical abilities and physical skills designed to directly overcome an opponent. Biting is usually explicitly prohibited in those martial sports that are contact-combat sports. For example, already in ancient Greece, biting was prohibited in the toughest form of fighting, pankration, which was a combination of boxing and wrestling with only two proscriptions: against biting and eye-gouging, which were also prohibited even at the beginning of Ultimate Fighting Championship (when the sport was least regulated). Imagine what contests would be like if biting and eye-gouging were allowed – these two would rapidly become the tactics of success, and other skills would diminish in importance, thus distorting the nature of the contest.
We can conclude, then, that whilst biting is permissible in close combat and self-defence (when one’s life or personal security is in question), nearly all contact-combat sports have explicit prohibitions against it, in order to prevent its use as a tactic or skill. Other contact sports do not include prohibitions against biting because it is not a skill related to game-aims.
Consent and Criminal Acts
Another objection to biting in the context of sport lies in the notion of consent. In ‘agreeing’ to the ‘contract to contest’, a footballer accepts that he might suffer the ‘legitimate’ assaults provided for in the rules. He will be tackled, barged and tussled with. He accepts this and consents to it as legitimate for both parties. He is also willing to accept, at least to some extent, deviations from these acts such as are also provided for in the rules as fouls – foul tackles, illegitimate barging (such as from behind), and tussling that involves holding or striking. He can expect to be fouled from time to time, to experience tough physical contact, and to sustain bumps, bruises and falls.
However, he does not accept, and does not consent to, acts that are outwith the rules, or whose seriousness cannot be comprehended or compensated within the sport’s rules. We are thinking here, for example, of assaults off the ball, going ‘over the ball’ to stamp on the leg, elbowing to the face, or other foul play that might result in serious long-term injury. In football (although much more in rugby), many such cases have been taken from the sports field to the law courts, as criminal acts.
REACTIVE AND PROACTIVE BITING
Suarez, though unusual, is not unique as a footballing gnasher. Jermain Defoe bit Javier Mascherano on the arm in a Premiership match in 2006, and received no punishment (Ornstein and Biggs 2006). This example is often adduced as evidence that Suárez has received unequal treatment, and has provoked allegations of racism and victimisation.
The acts are not identical, however, and the context is critical for an appreciation of this. Defoe bit Mascherano after having been floored very heavily by a dreadful tackle from behind, that was punished by the referee with a yellow card. Play had stopped – the ball was dead. Defoe rolled over and bit the opponent while both were still on the ground. It was clearly a direct and immediate reaction to the assault he had suffered – a clear case of reactive biting. Mascherano could not understand why Defoe was not sent off, and said that receiving a bite was “… the worse (sic) thing that has happened to him since he came to England … this was outrageous and unexpected” (Ornstein and Biggs 2006). However, although Mascherano was justified in seeing such a biting incident as an outrageous and unexpected assault, there are reasons to consider Suárez’ assault as a much more serious incident.
To begin with, this was the third time that Suárez had been banned for biting, and all three cases seem to be proactive (not triggered by an immediate act of the opponent), two of them being examples of ‘in-play’ assaults (while the ball was alive). Defoe’s reactive assault of Mascherano brings an explanation with it – but how do we explain the proactive assaults?
One line of explanation is that Suárez is simply ‘out of control’, and that he needs mental health assessment and treatment. Another, however, suggests that the proactive assaults might be seen as instrumental to some game-relevant end.
There are at least two possible motivations to be considered. First, consider the attempt to get a penalty. Biting can be seen as a provocation seeking a reaction that will be seen by the referee, in the hope that a penalty will be awarded. In this case, an outrageous assault, such as biting, is all the more likely to get the desired reaction from the victim. A counterargument here is that only a fool would try something like this with so many cameras trained on the scene. A response is that the cameras would provide only retrospective evidence of an offence, whereas in real time the offence might have contributed to victory. (Remember, in the most recent case, Suárez’ offence went unnoticed and unpunished by the referee.)
Secondly, this most recent assault occurred towards the end of an Italy v Uruguay game that Uruguay had to win, and Italy only needed to draw in order to proceed to the next stage of competition. The game seemed to be drifting towards a draw, with the Italian defence in comfortable control. Then, suddenly, there was consternation amongst Italy’s defenders, as Suárez’ assault on Chiellini escaped the attention of the referee, with Suárez deceptively pretending to be the victim, alleging mouth damage. In the next attack, Uruguay scored. We must at least consider the possibility that Suárez’ motivation was to ‘make something happen’ – to upset and disturb the defence in any way he could, so as to gain some game advantage.
It is difficult to rule out the possibility that proactive biting is an example of Suárez’ willingness to do almost anything (even to bite an opponent for the third time – this time in front of the world’s cameras) in order to win. And … it worked, didn’t it?
Acknowledgement: An extended version of this paper, authored by Irena Martinkova and Jim Parry of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, will appear in Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, Vol 9, No 2, 2016.
Footnotes & References:
 CORRIGAN, D. 2014. Suarez supported by Maradona. ESPN FC, 27 June 2014. Available at http://www.espnfc.com/fifa-world-cup/story/1916492/uruguays-luis-suarez-supported-by-diego-maradona
 GIBSON, O. 2014. Uruguayan FA defends Luis Suárez, claiming bite marks are Photoshopped. The Guardian, 25 June 2014. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/25/luis-suarez-uruguay-fight-against-ban
 HUNT, H. and VARNER, C. 2014. Criminal Conduct & Sports: Luis Suárez – World Class Biter. From the Sidebar,25 June 2014. Available at http://www.fromthesidebar.com/prosecution-defense/criminal-conduct-sports-luis-suarez—world-class-biter/
 ORNSTEIN, D. and BIGGS, A. 2006. Defoe escapes punishment after Mascherano bite. The Guardian, 24 October 2006. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/football/2006/oct/24/newsstory.sport7
 REUTERS/GUARDIAN. 2014. Luis Suárez wasn’t chosen for his manners, says Uruguay’s president. The Guardian, 26 June 2014. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/26/luis-suarez-uruguay-president-defence
 TORRES, C. 2000. What counts as part of a game? A look at skills. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 30: 81-92.