Luis Suarez: Everyone's favourite villain

Dominic Neo takes a step back to examine the moral implications surrounding that Luis Suarez bite and the world's reaction to a now infamous episiode.

Just to make it very clear: what Luis Suárez did to Giorgio Chiellini was very wrong. Biting another person, be it on or outside of a football pitch, is a reprehensible, unacceptable gesture. And, of course, to make things worse, he has thrice committed the act, if you've somehow missed the deluge of media reports mentioning it. Suarez is no doubt a repeat offender.

More importantly, this is a grown, 28 year old man with a young family. He should have known much better, regardless of whether Chiellini had provoked him in one way or another before and during the game. His moment of sheer petulance and belligerence deserves to be punished.

Indeed, Suárez has been severely punished by FIFA: he has been prohibited from all football activity for four months, as well as nine international games. FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke adds that Suárez should seek help during his ban. Whether he does have psychological issues is not for us non-medical professionals to determine, but it is safe to say that he needs to stop biting people.

Yet, there is something troubling, besides his behavior, that has arisen from the brouhaha too: the relentless public persecution and opportunistic self-promotion. Looking past the multitude of memes of Suárez depicted as, amongst many things, a shark, a dog, a vampire and a cannibal, that has sprung out of this incident, it is the media and international brands’ eagerness to milk his indiscretion for hits and likes that does not feel right.  

This incident was also going to fill front and back pages of newspapers. One of the world’s best football players committed a violent and strange act, at a crunch World Cup match between two former world champions. Yet, where does one draw the line on the coverage, with regards to reporting the facts of the incident?

The media have a right to comment on the incident and to make a judgment. This is the news: they report news worthy incidents and comment on them. But they should ideally be committed to reporting facts as well. Ben D’Arcy pointed out on Twitter how The Mirror appeared to have doctored the image of Chiellini’s wound:

If what D’Arcy notes is true, there is then an attempt to make the situation look worse than it actually is. Does making the wound appear more vivid vilify the Liverpool forward to a greater extent? Do the media not have a responsibility to depict the bare facts before setting their own agenda? Or is a bite a bite, regardless of how bad the wound looks?

Having said that, The Mirror is openly a tabloid. There is bound to be a hint of sensationalism. However, when less sensational news sources like The Straits Times promotes memes and nicknames a man, who has bitten and not eaten someone, a cannibal, there seems to be something wrong.

It is well within their right to promote whatever content they feel is appropriate. Yet, this stills feels slightly crass by their standards, almost contemptuously mocking a man who has behavioral issues for hits and retweets. Is this okay because he is a very well paid footballer, who is excellent at his job but clearly struggles with a dark, violent side? It seems somewhat okay if a football jokes or parody account forwarded the same link. But it does appear questionable when mainstream, non-sensational media joins in poking fun – or pointing towards where to poke fun – at a troubled man.

Of course, freedom of speech is a basic human right. The media and everyone else have a right to express an opinion. Besides, we laugh and mock people all the time. Some call it banter whilst others call it bullying. There is a grey area, which is highly subjective and morally ambiguous. Right or wrong, it really depends on you.

This is an interstitial space that brands find themselves occupying when they use the situation to promote themselves. Brands feel that being witty and topical enhances their image because they better engage their consumers. Their brand personality, if you like, would be more distinct, more human, and more likeable. This is brand management and marketing 101.

International brands like Snickers, Nando’s, McDonalds and even Listerine chomped at the bit – look, I can use a topical pun too – to gain traction for their brands, following the incident. These brands boosted their brand awareness as they experienced a heavy spike in the number likes and retweets. Listerine Global, in particular, experienced an 86700% increase in retweets, judging from the single retweet that they receive per post, on average.

Snickers

Nandos

McDonalds

Listerine

The fact that I am mentioning these brands and plastering their tweets all over this page will please their public relations teams – I have further publicized their brands. They showed great wit, which has undoubtedly boosted their brand image. Yet, they can also be said to be mercilessly opportunistic, promoting their brands at the expense of a man who had just made a mistake, albeit one that he has committed multiple times. Are we really a society that mocks and laughs at someone who clearly needs help of some kind? It all seems a bit cold and callous to me. Perhaps, I am being way too naïve and stuffy.  

I may be taking everything too seriously. Maybe I am humorlessly pontificating on a strange, violent incident that borders on ridicule. So ridiculous that humor should be accepted and promoted. We should all laugh at him and the incident because what he did was so abnormal that it becomes morally reprehensible.

Orin Starn, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and History at Duke University, Durham, USA, states that “[biting] breaks the boundary of the body, which in western culture is a taboo…if you go a long way back it is associated with death and evil”. He adds that “it is not about the act itself, it is the symbol that it represents”.   

Yet, the spotlight on Suárez still seems somewhat disproportionate to the severity of his offence. Chiellini appeared more disturbed and shocked than physically injured by the bite. Is biting someone, then, really physically worse than, say... (viewer discretion advised) deliberately breaking someone’s leg, planting your studs into someone's back, trying to punch someone or actually punching someone?

The second heaviest punishment handed out by FIFA was the eight-game ban imposed on Mauro Tassotti when he broke Luis Enrique’s nose during USA 1994 with an elbow to the face. Since, Suárez’s ban is slightly more severe than Tassotti’s, there is a suggestion that the stigma associated with and abnormality of the offence supersedes the severity of the injury.

And indeed, there are people who feel that the ban is too harsh. Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez had some choice words for FIFA and the English media on the punishment, and Chiellini has called the suspension “excessive”. Diego Maradona and Fred have expressed their support for Suárez, while Joey Barton tweeted: “[a]ll things considered, I’d rather receive a bite than a leg-breaking challenge”.  

Some would argue that the fact that Suárez is a repeat offender renders this point, and my whole article, moot. These same people have also called for him to be banned from the game completely for failing to act like a decent human being. And just like the media coverage and opportunism, it feels a bit too harsh, especially considering that there is more physically damaging acts which are constantly committed on the football pitch. Then again, this is like judging the smallest giant contest – nobody really wins in committing the vilest offence.     

Yes, all things considered, biting someone remains completely unacceptable. However, as a society, we seem to have become too quick to mock and judge, especially in the age of social media, where everyone has a voice, where every business is vying to be louder than the other voices.

Is there any room left for compassion, sympathy and support for Suárez, a self-professed family man, who was so proud of his newborn son that he paraded him and his three year old daughter before a mid-season game. Most likely not, especially after he seemed to have played down the incident after the game.

And his apology, which some suggest is motivated by the Barcelona FC higher management to push a move to the Catalan giants, was carefully crafted not to explicitly own up to the offence. Disingenuous or not, the apology came slightly too late as well. The damage had been done – he has and always will be the pantomime villain.