29 April 2013

Luis Suarez, Jermaine Defoe and the Psychology of Adult Biting Behaviour

On his Facebook page, Liverpool FC’s Luis Suarez posted a graphic announcement that stated his acceptance of the English Football Association’s 10-match ban following his infamous bite on the arm of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanović during a recent Premier League match.

The FA, in its written explanation of the lengthy ban, noted that Suarez, by way of his public declaration that anything beyond a 3-match ban would be undeserved, seemed not to have fully appreciated the gravity of his action. Hence, the length of the ban.

I fully understand where the FA is coming from. Having said that, effective discipline is not only about punishment, else the offender will continue to commit the infraction. Instead, for discipline to be effective, punishment has to be given also with remediation and reform as an end goal.

Suarez’s action, make no mistake about it, was bizarre. It was not unique, however. As recently as 2006, England international Jermaine Defoe while playing for Tottenham Hotspur also bit West Ham United’s Javier Mascherano in a Premier League match.

Unless Suarez is being forced out of Liverpool and the Premiership, which is a crying shame because, for all his faults, Suarez is still undeniably a wonderfully gifted football player and a great entertainer.
Even then, the FA was in a position to take a closer look at an obviously abnormal behaviour exhibited by a football player on the pitch, to gain a better perspective if nothing else. As things were, the FA’s position was that, since the referee had already issued a yellow card to Defoe for the action, FIFA statutes prevented it from taking retrospective action against the player.

Thus, Defoe was for all intents and purposes unpunished for a similar act that Suarez has been given a 10-match suspension for. The lengthy ban was issued apparently only with the intent of discouraging others from committing similar infractions. The obvious question, therefore, is why the FA could not have done something preventive on the aftermath of the Defoe incident seven years earlier.

Thus, in his public statement, Suarez makes it clear that while he accepts that FA’s decision, not only does he fail to understand it or the disciplinary committee’s reasoning; he also does not think the decision has been fair.

“...I decided to accept it because whilst 10 games is clearly clearly greater than those bans given in past cases where players have actually been seriously injured...”

In other words, if the FA’s intention was to make Suarez understand the gravity of his action, from all indications they are failing. I have no problems with any number of games that the FA wishes to impose; but if the FA has the authority to prevent players from playing, then it also has the authority to force players to seek counsel.

This way, the punishment becomes not merely punitive but also reformative. The idea, however, seems to have escaped those who run the English game.

Liverpool Manager Brendan Rodgers told the media that, after speaking to Suarez about the incident and asking for an explanation, the latter was at a loss to give one. This, to my mind, is a dead giveaway that counseling may be more efficacious than even a 100-match ban.

Least in my mind as I write this article is to portray Suarez as a victim. However, the bizarreness of his action at least deserves some discernment. After all, a 7-match ban in Holland has not prevented the recurrence of the behaviour. Does the FA assume that 10 matches will?

Biting is considered perfectly normal behaviour for toddlers; and it is estimated that ten per cent of young children bite for a variety of reasons.

For some, biting may be no more than a way to explore the world. Others bite to attract attention. Still others bite as a means to regain control after being overwhelmed by the environment. There are also those who bite to express power, control or dominance.

Outside of childhood, however, the behaviour is so rare that it has not really been given anywhere near the sort of attention that it deserves. It is simply assumed that the child, either through the guidance of the parents or the norms of society itself, eventually learns that biting is unacceptable behaviour. In other words, children are expected to eventually outgrow it.

In fact, given the dearth of literature on adult biting behaviour, whatever there is has been written within the context of deviant sexual behaviour or as part of studies in relation to the commission of violent crimes.

In the context of criminal behaviour, three classifications of biters have been put forth. The ego-cannibalistic biter attempts to consume or destroy a victim; and the act of biting is the way to satisfy a perverse egotistical desire. There is also the sadistic biter who craves for power, control and dominance; and seeks to achieve these by biting a victim.

The third and last type is the one motivated by anger; and biting is brought about by a feeling of frustration and and inability to competently deal with a situation of conflict.

This article in no way attempts to insinuate that Suarez and Defoe, in biting opponents, performed acts similar to those documented from criminals. However, if at all the aforementioned classifications are applicable outside the context of law enforcement, then it is easy to associate the behaviour of the two football players with the third and last type of biter.

Even without attempting to make any sort of association, the abnormality of the behaviour alone suggests that there are deep psychological issues that need to be addressed. Biting is a behaviour that people are expected to outgrow. If they do not, then what is the reason?

More importantly, what needs to be done to make the behaviour go away beyond simply meting out a suspension?

That is why the FA would have skilfully avoided the trap of being inconsistent and unfair by imposing a ban of ‘reasonable’ length coupled with mandatory counseling to get to the root of the biting behaviour.

Unless Suarez is being forced out of Liverpool and the Premiership, which is a crying shame because, for all his faults, Suarez is still undeniably a wonderfully gifted football player and a great entertainer.

Acknowledgment: Forensic Implications of Biting Behavior: A Conceptually Underdeveloped Area of Investigation

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