Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Don't hate the player, hate the game

Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail looks at Luis Suarez of the Uruguayan soccer team, who helped his team advance to the semi-finals at the World Cup by cheating intentionally. Playing Ghana in extra time, Suarez stuck his hand out to stop a shot that was a certain goal. For the offense, he received a red card and a suspension from the next match. Ghana received a penalty kick that went off the crossbar. The game went to penalty kicks and Uruguay won.

Brunt pointed out the ludicrous situation we have here. A player cheated, won the game for his team and was lauded by his country as a hero. Moreover, in the event that Uruguay had beaten the Netherlands earlier this morning, he would have been back to play in the final. This hardly seems to be the fitting reward for a cheater. More troubling was that FIFA had the option to impose a stiffer penalty on Suarez, but declined.

However, Suarez didn't really commit a moral failure like doping or assaulting another player. His actions were simply not in keeping with the spirit of the game, roughly speaking, but the spirit of the game isn't exactly the same with wanting to win at any costs. If this had been a game between 22 friends or amateurs, Suarez's act would be despicable, but not in the quarterfinal of the biggest sporting event in the world.

In football, for example, defensive backs will simply tackle receivers that they know are going to catch a pass and score a sure touchdown. It's better, logically, to take the penalty, even if it's a 50-yard penalty that results in the football equivalent of a penalty shot. That, like Suarez's actions, is shrewd calculus more than a lack of sportsmanship. Shrewd calculus is, again, at odds with sportsmanship, a quaint Victorian idea that is more chicken soup for the soul than especially relevant or central to sport.

In university, for example, many classes had late penalties of two percent per day. If we were exceptionally lucky, it was two percent per business day for a paper due on Friday. Rather than stay up all night just to hand in a paper that was going to get a B, it made sense given the constraints and the structure of the activity to simply go to bed, wake up early with a clear head and calmly take the extra time to write a better paper. It might not be in keeping with the original spirit of essay-writing, but it certainly was the smart thing to do from every perspective save the one that says anything other than blind selflessness is bad for you.

What Suarez did was to work within the rules of the game to find a way to win. Uruguay didn't win on an unseen handball or a phantom goal. It won on a unique play at a unique juncture in the game. At most other points in the game, Suarez's actions would have given Ghana a penalty shot and an 11-10 advantage, which I want to say is worth at least 0.9 goals. Caveat: I'm not sure if stopping a goal with your hand carries the same punishment in all cases. Second caveat: I presume more people don't do this because they don't want to give up an 11-10 disadvantage.

This makes him a smart player who does something cerebral that helps his team win the game, but not quite a hero in the way that he has been celebrated. Of course, the emotions in this game are much higher, and he did quite literally save the game, so it's understandable. A win is a win, but while Uruguay's win was perfectly legitimate in that was within the rules, it doesn't mean Suarez deserves a commendation for what was not a breathtaking piece of athleticism.


Jennifer said...

It's interesting that it's called "cheating" when really it's just taking a penalty. Considering all of the delay tactics and injury faking that seems to happen in soccer, this infraction seems minor to me.

Shan said...

In hockey, covering the puck with one's hand in the crease is cause for a penalty shot, but that play is not looked at as cheating. There is no suspension for it. If you make the smart play of stopping a sure goal the only way you can, you'll probably get kudos for it, but it's not a brag-worthy play. Then again, maybe it should be, as a play to prevent a goal is just as good as a play to score one. But given that this defensive play alone cannot guarantee no goal being scored, it's more equivalent to an assist than a goal.