It’s hard to ever be truly unbiased as a sports fan. Decisions by referees that help your team are usually correct; decisions that hurt it are often wrong, or at least questionable. Sometimes, though, a player manages to do something so utterly stupid that only the most delusional can’t agree.
A little over a week ago, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was caught on camera biting — yes, biting — Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during a contest between their two teams. Though unpunished during the game, the English Football Association took it upon itself to review the incident in the ensuing days and subsequently banned Suarez for 10 matches, a punishment that will keep him out of action not just this season, but for a hefty chunk of the start of the next, too.
In case you’re not familiar with the name Suarez, you might remember him as the Uruguayan player who infamously crushed Ghana’s dreams of making it to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup by keeping Dominic Adiyiah’s header out of the net with his hand. His rap sheet, though, is longer and much more damning than that. He has already served a seven-match ban — also for biting — from his time at Ajax, an eight-match ban for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and a one-match ban for making an abusive gesture towards Fulham fans — yeah, he’s not exactly a role model.
To their credit, many Liverpool fans, including the official supporters club, came out in support of the FA’s decision. Suarez may have been the club’s top scorer over the last year, but any number of goals doesn’t make it ok to behave like a naughty first grader.
The club, though, has taken a rather different approach, expressing shock and disappointment over the severity of the punishment.
“If I had more players of a similar mentality, we would be in a different position,” said manager Brendan Rodgers, referring to the team’s current seventh-place position in the league standings and Suarez’s goal-scoring abilities, not his taste for human flesh. “He has not let me down one bit.”
Now I understand that Rodgers has a responsibility to stand up for his players, but he also has the responsibility to keep them in line, to ensure they play the game and don’t constantly get banned for their behavior. And ultimately the buck for everything that happens on and off the field stops with Rodgers. Turning a blind eye does not make you a strong manager, nor does criticizing a player make you disloyal.
Is Suarez’s punishment harsh? Was the FA probably influenced by his troubled reputation? And does a lengthy ban fail to address the root causes for why he would bite someone? Yes, yes and yes. But it is still unquestionably the correct decision.
Suarez has clearly earned his reputation, and a lighter touch this time would only send the wrong message. Fines have little impact on star soccer players because they don’t make much of a dent in their huge salaries. The only real punishment is a ban, not just stopping them from playing the game they love, but even making repeat offenders less attractive to big clubs; there is little point in signing a talented player who is just going to spend his career on the bench.
Whether this will work with Suarez is unclear. It’s hard to imagine the bite was premeditated — if so he’s far from the smartest cookie. Whether the referees saw it or not, the television cameras were clearly going to. And if it really was a spur-of-the-moment reaction, sitting out for a few games probably won’t, on its own, change much — though his opponents at least won’t be in danger of being bitten for the next few months.
If he can be changed, that is not the FA’s responsibility but that of Liverpool and Suarez himself. Instead of laying the blame on the punishment, they could both do everything that they can to ensure he doesn’t spend any more time on the sidelines. His $180,000-a-week salary would easily cover a few sessions of anger-management therapy, and he now at least is free for a couple extra hours a week.
But most of all it sends a clear message that this behavior will not be accepted in the sport. Making an example of the biggest players will teach aspiring young players that no amount of talent will make up for any amount of violence or racism. No one’s role model is the guy who never plays.
Tom Taylor is currently appealing his 12-match IM soccer ban for assault with a banana. To help Tom with his appeal, email him at tom.taylor ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.