The Ethics Of A Handball, And How Karma's A B*tch!

Uruguay's defender Martin Caceres (L) re i i

hide captionUruguay's Luis Suarez, who was suspended from the game because he received a red card for a handball, comforts defender Martin Caceres.

Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images
Uruguay's defender Martin Caceres (L) re

Uruguay's Luis Suarez, who was suspended from the game because he received a red card for a handball, comforts defender Martin Caceres.

Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

In the end, it was a handball and a missed penalty that got Uruguay into the semifinals. And it was likely a missed penalty call that sent them home after today’s game with Holland.

In case you missed Uruguay’s last game against Ghana, let me recap:

The game had gone into its' 120th minute. A few seconds were left in over time, when Ghana mounted one final attack and after a couple of near misses, Ghana shot on goal. That shot was supposed to end the game and make Ghana the first African country to advance this far in a World Cup, but Luis Suarez knowing that he couldn't get to the ball using his head, extended his hands and volleyed it out of the net. It was a two handed effort and there’s no doubt in my mind it was a conscious, if split second, decision.

When it happened, I thought, wow, Suarez is brilliant. He's given Uruguay one more tiny opportunity. Suarez was handed a red card; he left the court crying, knowing full well what he'd done and knowing that if his decision did indeed work, he wouldn't be playing the next game. It worked. Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty. Ghana went home; Uruguay proceeded to the semifinals.

Yet, days after that game was over, and as they faced Holland today, I wondered about what Suarez did.

Was it heroic? Was it Suarez throwing himself in front of a bus to save a child? Or was it the work of a cheat? Was it Suarez cutting the brakes of an opponent's car?

The analysis can be pretty complex.

Jan Boxill, director of the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC-Chapel Hill and editor of Sports Ethics, explains there are two types of rules in sports: Rules of fairplay, which “include penalties for moves of strategy within the game.” And rules of decency, which “reflect basic moral standards.”

Boxill adds:

So with specific reference to the hand rule in soccer: the rule is quite clear and Suarez of Uruguay blatantly violated the rule. Is it cheating? Well it does involve an intentional violation of the rules for one’s advantage, which may be a good definition of cheating. But then every infraction would be cheating.

Sharon Stoll, co-author of Sport Ethics: Applications for Fair Play and a noted sports ethicist, takes a much broader view.

Whether Suarez is a cheat depends on whether you’re a purist or realist, she says.

The ethical problem for all athletes is to answer the question: What is the purpose of the game? Is the purpose to win?  Or is the purpose to play the game within the boundaries of the rules and the ethic of the rule.  Most fans are realists today – it’s all for the win.  The purists would say that playing the game only for the win misses the opportunity to gain the greatest benefits from the internal "goods" of the game – the challenge.

Boxill points out the parallel between fouling in basketball to stop the clock. No one cries cheater when that happens.

“There is an interesting dissimilarity,” she says. In basketball, depending on the ball’s trajectory, the player would be awarded the point and given a free throw. If soccer had a similar rule Ghana would have won.

I decided that these kinds of dilemmas are resolved by the universe. That German victory over England after a botched call from the referee? It was the universe correcting that 1966 Geoff Hurst “ghost goal.”

Uruguay just finished playing Holland. They lost 3-2. And guess what? In the first half the referee very likely missed a penalty call in favor of Uruguay. It would have meant the South Americans would’ve had one more chance at the World Cup. It would’ve meant that Suarez handball could’ve gotten Uruguay to the finals. But ultimately, they are headed home.

I don’t know about you, but to me it’s a sign that karma is a ... purist.

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