RECIFE, Brazil — After leaning over and biting an opponent on the shoulder during a World Cup game this week, Uruguayan soccer star Luis Suarez offered a simple explanation.
“These situations happen on the pitch,” he said.
That statement failed to quell immediate outrage in the sports world and ultimately did nothing to satisfy officials at FIFA, soccer’s governing body, who on Thursday hit Suarez with a nine-game ban, shutting him out for the rest of the World Cup.
“Such behavior cannot be tolerated on any football pitch and in particular not at a FIFA World Cup, when the eyes of millions of people are on the stars on the field,” said Claudio Sulser, chairman of the disciplinary committee for FIFA.
The suspension, which begins with Uruguay’s knockout-round game against Colombia on Saturday, is the harshest penalty for an on-field offense in tournament history.
The 27-year-old striker must also pay a $112,000 fine and is suspended from all soccer-related activity for four months, which will keep him on the sideline when his club team, Liverpool, opens the English Premier League season in August.
Yet, for all the shock and recrimination engendered by his infantile act, he isn’t the first athlete to bite and sports psychologists aren’t surprised, saying that elite sports often require players to walk an emotional tightrope.
“Suarez is very passionate and that passion has helped him,” said Mitch Abrams, author of “Anger Management in Sport.”
“The problem is, there’s a fine line that, when you step over it, you do something stupid.”
The breaking point for Suarez came during a tough match against Italy on Tuesday.
The referee did not see him bite defender Giorgio Chiellini, but FIFA investigators were able to watch video and scrutinize still photos, which showed the Italian tugging down his shirt collar to reveal red puncture marks.
After Uruguay scored the game’s only goal to advance to the knockout round and eliminated Italy, fans and the media kept asking the same question: What was Suarez thinking?
“We tend to forget it’s about emotion, not intellect,” said Adam Naylor, a sports psychology professor at Boston University. “Decisions get made much too quickly under stress.”
In tense moments, the passion to run faster and jump higher can turn to frustration, which experts have identified as a trigger for aggressive behavior. Most athletes have a knack for stopping just short of a blow-up. Not Suarez.
Four years ago, while playing in the Dutch Eredivisie, he served a seven-game suspension for biting an opponent in the neck. More recently, he sat out 10 games over parts of two seasons for a biting a player’s arm.
Suarez also missed a total of nine Premier League games for obscene gestures and racial comments.
In terms of his biting, he joins a select group.
Mike Tyson provided the most famous example in sports history, taking a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a 1997 heavyweight bout. Tyson later said: “I’d do it again.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers had to deal with a similar incident in May after a scuffle broke out in the dugout of their Albuquerque, N.M., minor league affiliate.
Backup catcher Miguel Olivo bit off a large portion of teammate Alex Guerrero’s left ear, an injury that required plastic surgery and has kept Guerrero — a top prospect — out of action through this week.
The team subsequently released Olivo, with team President Stan Kasten saying: “It’s unimaginable, inconceivable and, frankly, unforgivable.”
Tell that to NHL player Alex Burrows, former NBA center Tree Rollins and other professional athletes who bit opponents during games.
If biting seems babyish, that might be a part of big-time sports.
“We like our athletes to be childlike,” Naylor said, adding that former Dodgers and Boston Red Sox star Manny Ramirez “was the world’s biggest kid and it led to him being a really good player.”
Immediately after sinking his teeth into Chiellini, Suarez fell to the ground holding his mouth as if he were the victim. Experts compare his reaction to a young boy breaking a lamp and pointing at his little sister.
In some ways, biting might be a higher form of anger in sports, which often surfaces in the form of cussing at or even spitting on an opponent. Hockey is famous for its fighting.
Naylor believes these acts suggest “no effort at self control.”
“We can work our way up the food chain and the next level is biting,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I tried and tried and then I completely snapped.’”
The trick for athletes is to manage their temper without losing the passion. That could require learning to recognize moments of extreme stress and turning down the emotional volume.
On a broader scale, punishments such as the ban that FIFA handed down to Suarez can play an important role in motivating players to behave.
“How often do we give these great athletes a pass?” Naylor asked. “We have to say it doesn’t matter how good they are, this is unacceptable.”
Wharton reported from Los Angeles.