Morality in sport: Suarez strikes again!

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Global sporting events such as the World Cup or Olympic Games see individuals placed under immense pressure to make split second decisions and for some the outcome can be questionable when viewed from a moral standpoint. Examples of this are common within football, for instance diving in the penalty box, handling the ball off the line or deliberately injuring another player. Luis Suarez from Uruguay is a prime example of someone who appears to struggle with his self-control and moral reasoning (deciding what is right or wrong) in the heat of the moment. In Uruguay, Suarez is a national treasure; the poverty stricken boy who went from working as a street sweeper to becoming an international football superstar. He is portrayed as a family man and loving father who married his childhood sweetheart (Thompson, 2014). Yet his football career is certainly not flawless. In the 2010 World Cup Suarez was penalised for handling the ball on the line to prevent Ghana beating Uruguay in the final minute of extra-time in the quarter-finals, Ghana missed the resulting penalty and Uruguay won the shootout to reach the semi-finals. Whilst playing for Dutch side Ajax in November 2010 Suarez received a seven- match ban for biting Otman Bakkal on the shoulder and in April 2013 received a ten game ban for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic (BBC, 2014). Last night the world saw this side of Suarez again when he bit Italy’s Chiellini on the shoulder. So what is it that makes players like Suarez react in such a way?

At crucial times under intense pressure a person’s moral reasoning plays a key role in their decision making. Within sport the most widely used approach to understanding morality is named the structural development approach (Kohlberg, 1984; Haan, 1983). This views a person as moving through three stages of moral development which occur as a result of interaction between the person and the environment. Moral growth and maturity influences a person’s moral reasoning and it would seem that Suarez is lacking in both.

In the first of the three stages of moral development an individual puts their own needs first and does not understand the impact of social norms and rules on their own moral responsibility. At the second stage a person relies on their group or society to define what is right. At the third and most developed level individuals do not rely on societal norms but instead apply universal values such as justice, equality and honesty upon which to base their moral decisions. Suarez’s three almost identical incidents would imply he is not functioning at this top level and it seems a very unfortunate pattern of behaviour. It would be fascinating to discuss with him to see the extent that he is unaware of social norms and rules and simply responding to immediate heightened emotions or if he is relying on the moral environment of those around him. Bredemeier and Shields (1984) suggest that aggression, in particular an attack with the intent to injure someone, is an issue of what they term contextual morality i.e. when morality is influenced by social-environment variables such as the moral atmosphere and goal structure of the team.

Studies investigating morals in sport support the view that team sports, in particular those involving medium to high contact, are linked to lower levels of moral reasoning, aggressive tendencies, beliefs that acts to intentionally injure are acceptable, and moral intention. The social context of the sport also plays its part, in particular the moral atmosphere of the team and the moral climate set by the coach. For example the ‘win at all costs’ mentality can be related to low moral reasoning and unsportsmanlike attitudes and behaviours. Similarly the morals of significant others such as parents and friends is associated with moral development. If those close to the athlete do not see improper actions as out of the ordinary then the individual is more likely to engage in such behaviours. These can all impact their moral reasoning, culminating in an incident such as those displayed by Suarez.

With FIFA opening disciplinary proceedings we will soon know the implications that Suarez’s poor moral reasoning will have on both him as an individual and the Uruguay team.

References:
BBC (2014) ‘Luis Suarez ‘bite’: Uruguay striker in World Cup controversy’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/28008605 (Accessed 25 June 2014)

Bredemeier, B.J., and Shields, D.L. (1984) ‘The utility of moral stage analysis in the investigation of athletic aggression. Sociology of Sport Journal. Vol.1. pp.138-149.

Kohlberg, L. (1984) ‘Essays on moral development’. The psychology of moral development. Vol.2. San Francisco. Harper & Row.

Haan, N. (1983) ‘An interactional Morality of everyday life’. In N. Haan, R. Bellah, P. Rabinow and W. Sallivan (eds) Social Science as a moral inquiry. New York. Columbia University Press.

Thompson, W. (2014) ‘Portrait of a serial winner: A journey in pursuit of Louis Suarez, who – when he’s not biting opponents – is the most beautiful player in the game’ [online] Available from: http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/10984370/portrait-serial-winner-l (Accessed 25 June 2014)

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