Footballers should be held to higher ethical standard

Luis Suárez has been undoubtedly typecast as the villain after Liverpool’s controversial 2-1 win in the FA Cup over fifth-division side Mansfield Town. I cannot imagine that any other player on Liverpool would have been criticized to the extent that Suárez has been for a similar offense. For instance, if the ball had struck Steven Gerrard's outstretched wrist, few would have labeled him a cheat. That raises the question: has Suárez been unfairly maligned? The culture of football is such that players are not expected to fess up when they commit an infringement, and to a large extent, players are even expected to break the rules surreptitiously in order to gain any advantage they can over opponents. We see this in form of jersey pulling, shoving opposing players to make space, and simulation. While many commentators express disgust and disapprobation at this sort of activity, few are surprised by it. This cheating, which by the way is the appropriate term for the behavior, is as prominent a feature of the modern game as tiny Spaniards dictating the run of play. So, in an important sense, it is completely unfair to blame an individual player for a systemic problem in the sport.

On the other hand, cheating should not be tolerated, and condemning perpetrators of such acts seems not only appropriate but also a promising method to discourage further cheating. Sure, many footballers will continue to seek unfair advantages, but they will need to consider the cost to their reputation.1 Few individuals take pride in being known as a cheat. Moreover, if the football community—fans, commentators, players, managers, and referees—forcefully make clear their disapproval of cheating, the sport's governing bodies will be pressured to implement policies (e.g., retroactive punishment for simulation) to reduce its prevalence in the game.

A related issue is whether a player's intent matters.2 That is, should we condemn Suárez if he did not deliberately handle the ball? This is a more complicated issue that I am still thinking through. While not a perfect analogy, an unintentional handball is like a cashier giving you extra change (e.g., change for a $50 when you only paid $20), and the deliberate handball is akin to stealing money from the cash register when the cashier isn't looking. The latter is unambiguously theft, while many people would not consider the former an act of theft. Nevertheless, in both cases, the cashier is unfairly worse off. In my view, it is clearly wrong not to return the extra money that does not belong to you.

Regardless of whether the handball was intentional or whether the perpetrator of the handball is considered a serial cheater or an upstanding citizen, Mansfield Town have every right to feel aggrieved. That players in the past have not confessed to rule infractions, intentional or otherwise, is not an adequate justification and does not make it right. This moment in the FA Cup fixture presented Suárez with an opportunity to atone for his past misdeeds and demonstrate that he is indeed "misunderstood," as he asserted in an interview at the beginning of this season. I firmly believe that Suárez would have transformed his reputation and garnered immense respect from football fans everywhere had he told the referee that the goal should not stand, as Miroslav Klose and Daniele De Rossi did in similar situations. Instead, he celebrated the goal by kissing the wrist that allowed him to score unfairly.3 He perpetuated his status as Public Enemy Number One and demonstrated what we all already knew: he is a fierce competitor who believes in winning at all costs. The real shame is that the victims, the players of Mansfield Town, likely will never play a more important game for their club on such a large stage. Suárez could have given Mansfield Town the replay they so deserved. Sadly, he did what most footballers would do—he didn't fess up and he chose to win.

1. The example of Suárez seems to suggest that some players do not have reputational concerns. He has been condemned widely for his past antics and yet he seems to care little. He deliberately handled the ball on the goal line to prevent Ghana from advancing in the World Cup and then distastefully celebrated with glee when they missed their ensuing penalty; the FA convicted him of racially abusing Patrice Evra, and he later refused to Evra's outstretched hand in a pre-match handshake.
2. It is unclear whether the Suárez handball was in fact intentional. My interpretation of the video is that it was deliberate, but others quite reasonably disagree.
3. It should be noted that he kisses his right wrist after every goal, as he has tattoos with name of his wife and daughter on his wrist.