Ball Handling

I graduated from Lafayette College in the spring of 2010, and spent the early part of the summer on the couch of my childhood home, applying for a few jobs and watching a lot of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. As I write this Blogcat over 2 years later, a few aspects of that footie tournament stand out in my memory. Landon Donovan’s triumphant goal in extra time that allowed the U.S. to advance, finally putting away an Algeria team who was sand-bagging the entire game with their we-can’t-advance-but-if-we-don’t-lose-outright-you-won’t-either-so-we’re-not-even-going-to-try-to-win-but-instead-play-for-a-tie attitude. The Octopus correctly predicting the outcome of the German team’s games, seven times out of seven. “Vuvuzela” becoming the media’s favorite buzzword to the point that you’d hear about it 3.95 times per day. These story lines will all go down in the annals of sports history, but a different event during that summer’s Cup has stayed with me for, for lack of a better term, philosophical reasons.

During one of the Quarterfinals, Uruguay and Ghana were locked in a tie during the waning seconds of injury time. Ghana knocked the ball into the box, and after it ricocheted off a number of players, it careened past the goalie headed for the back of the net. Had it done so, Ghana would have been assured victory. However, one of Uruguay’s top players, Luis Suarez, made one the most controversial, and in my opinion genius, decisions in sports history. He intentionally handled the ball.

Of course, playing the ball with the hand is “against the rules,” and, based on the gravity and intentionality of the infraction, results in various penalties that range from a blown whistle to a full-blown Red-card  In this case, as Suarez handled the ball in the box, deliberately preventing a goal, he was issued a Red-card and was forced to immediately leave the field. However, while these types of violations are typically synced with negative consequences, Suarez’s move instead won his team the game; Ghana missed the awarded penalty kick, and then lost the subsequent shootout. Had Suarez “played by the rules,” his team would have lost; by “breaking the rules,” they were victorious. Hail to the victors valiant.

Suarez’s action is so controversial because many fans feel that it was an instance of cheating. For example, here is a choice comment I pulled off of a YouTube video of the game:

“Its fucking CHEATING bro, diving is cheating, intentional fouls are cheating, why? Because you’re manipulating the rules to win. Rules are made to prevent certain things from happening, not as an offensive tactic.”

First, I love the “bro” this goober throws out. Classic. Second, I absolutely see this individual’s point and understand why he’s frustrated. Suarez is, by no means, playing by what I’d call “Gentleman’s Rules.”

However, Suarez is not cheating. Cheating would mean he’s “breaking” the rules without suffering any consequence. In this instance, that would mean that he committed a handball but was not issued a Red-card. For an example of that happening, see:

The fascinating thing I took away from our friend’s comments is the statement “rules are made to prevent certain things from happening.” That thesis seems true to me. The aforementioned handball rule is in place because handling the ball gives a player an advantage, and the threat of a Red-card typically disincentivizes players enough that they avoid doing so 99.395% of the time – winning games becomes a lot more difficult when you’re down a player. Rules, though, aren’t exactly what our friend thinks they are, and I disagree with his statement that Suarez is “manipulating the rules to win.” Rules not absolute disallowances, as in “you are not allowed to handle the ball.” That’s how we conceptualize rules, but that’s simply not the case.

Rules, instead, are sets of pre-determined tradeoffs. They seem to me to be logical statements of the format “if X, then Y;” in this case, “If you intentionally handle the ball in the box, then you will be issued a Redcard and removed from the game.” There’s nothing in the rulebook saying that you are “not allowed” to handle the ball, or that you “can’t” do it. I don’t even know what that would look like. In logical terms, it would be something like, “not X,” but that doesn’t seem possible in terms of real world application.

This is not the only instance of athlete’s breaking the rules in a way that works in their favor. The first example I can think of is “Hack-A-Shaq” in basketball, a tactic where teams will intentionally foul a poor free-throw shooter because they know it’s a less efficient way for their opposition to score. What’s crazy to think about is how this same attitude can be applied toward the laws of our legal system. “Yes, I do know I was going 50 miles over the speed limit. Yes, I do realize that I will be fined $2,000. What’s with the attitude, Mr. Police Officer?! It’s written into your laws that I can do this!! You’ve established that I can drive 115 miles per hour, all I have to do is pay the entrance fee!”

In conclusion, I can’t see any way to argue that Suarez was “cheating;” I would even argue that it was a perfectly ethical action. Certainly he wasn’t following suit with the intention behind the rule, but that’s not his problem. What he did was well within the rules; he knew that if he handled the ball, he would be ejected from the game, and he chose to do so because it benefited his team. What he did was think outside the box, even as he stood inside it (sorry, I had to), and did what it took to win his team the game. To me, that’s freaking brilliant.

One response to “Ball Handling

  1. Batman broke the rules, but he did it knowing the consequences and he did it for Gotham. So, Suarez is kind of like Batman.

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