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The Suarez Handball and the Debate Over Ethics In Sport

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Not surprisingly, the internet soccer community has been abuzz over Luis Suarez's handball that prevented a certain goal for Ghana and allowed the match to proceed to a penalty shootout from which Uruguay ultimately emerged victorious. Some believe that Suarez did the only thing he could have done. By handling to ball he was aware that he would award Ghana a penalty, be sent off and be forced to miss the semi-final should Uruguay advance, but seeing as how the alternative was almost certain defeat, he was left with little choice. Others believe that once the ball was headed towards goal that Suarez has an ethical responsibility to adhere to the rules of the game and that by knowingly handling the ball he was being disrespectful towards not only the game but the very concept of sportsmanship in general. To those opposed to Suarez's actions Uruguay's victory is tainted and to a not-insignificant number of them Suarez will most likely be thought of as a cheater for the duration of his career.

It's an interesting debate. For the record, I don't have much of a problem with what Suarez did (and I should point out that I was pulling for Ghana to advance.) Several people have compared this situation to the Thierry Henry handball that led to France defeating Ireland to earn a spot in the World Cup. I find this comparison very difficult to accept. For one, Henry was intentionally deceptive, a charge which I do not think anyone would level at Suarez. For another, I think there's a difference between handling the ball in order to prevent a goal, especially (and this is an important distinction in my view) when done in such a blatant fashion and handling the ball as a method of scoring a goal. Denying the opposition an obvious goal through the use of the hands is a penalty and an automatic red card. Using your hand in an effort to score a goal will, at worst, result in a yellow card. The penalty for Suarez's actions is far more severe, and by committing the act the odds of Ghana scoring in that situation were reduced by only ~25%. To me it's not meaningfully different than a professional foul, and I doubt many would call such an occurrence unethical and label the player committing the foul a cheater.

With that being said, I find the opposite side of the argument interesting. In my view the only unethical actions that can take place on the field are those that are reckless enough that the chance of inflicting injury on one's opponent is implicit and those that attempt to dramatically alter the course of the game through deception. I find Fernando Torres' dive against Chile several orders of magnitude more deplorable than Suarez's handball. Likewise Felipe Melo's rash tackle and spiking of Arjen Robben. I don't see Suarez's actions as unethical; it was blatant, he was punished and it ended up being a worthwhile gamble. Others disagree.And while there is always a risk in attempting to summarize an opposing argument, my interpretation of their opinion would be that knowingly violating the rules in a desperate attempt to stave off defeat is desperate, cynical and the very definition of poor sportsmanship. I wouldn't disagree that it's at least one of those, and I could probably be convinced that it's at least two.

In the end though, if the goal of the game is to win, I think you are within your rights to do whatever is in your power to achieve that goal so long as you are not doing so through deception or the use of dangerous force. I would not be opposed to a rule change in that situation that allows the referee the power to grant the attacking team a goal, but considering that we are speaking of FIFA such a radical step seems unlikely. That being the case, I would want players on the teams that I support to make the exact same decision that Suarez made and I would not begrudge an opponent for doing the same.

In the end, it's a shame it had to happen. Even before the controversial ending this was the most exciting match of this World Cup and it's a shame that it is sullied in the eyes of some. I would have preferred the ball find the back of the net (for several reasons) and, failing that, I would have preferred Gyan convert the penalty (for similar reasons.) It wouldn't be the World Cup without a bit of controversy though, and given the choice I'd prefer something like this to yet another reminder of the insanity of FIFA's opposition to technology as refereeing aids.