Why athletes like Uruguay’s Luis Suarez bite


Luis Suarez of Uruguay celebrates after scoring the 2-1 goal during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group D preliminary round match between Uruguay and England in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 19, 2014. (EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL)

*This story has been corrected.

Few things give people more pause than a human biting another human. It’s a primal, base act that reminds our species of its animal origins. It also happens to be a specialty of Uruguay soccer player Luis Suarez, who’s got a mouth full of white teeth and an alleged taste for human flesh.

Early Wednesday morning, FIFA officially charged Suarez with biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup match with Italy. The organization could strip Uruguay of its best offensive player who scored two decisive goals in its win over England last week. If the FIFA panel finds Suarez guilty of assaulting Chiellini, Suarez will face a ban of at least two matches up to a maximum of 24 months.

“These are things that happen on the pitch, we were both in the area, he thrust his shoulder into me,” explained Suarez, who didn’t deny biting Chiellini and has teethed two other players before. “These things happen on the pitch, and we don’t have to give them so much [importance].”

These things happen. It seems as a good excuse as any for why a world class athlete would bite another on arguably the world’s biggest stage. But still, some were left reeling. “What was Suárez thinking?” the New York Times asked. “What will happen to him now? And, perhaps most pointedly, after two previous instances like this, how in the world could Suárez have done it again?”

One explanation: “Suarez really does suck,” Deadspin offered, calling the athlete “Soccer’s Notorious Supervillian.”

More seriously, according to several sports psychologists, Suarez’s bite was a moment of emotion trumping reason — a moment of temporary insanity that could happen to any athlete.

“When the ball is in play, emotions drive athlete behavior much more than rational thought,” Adam Naylor, a Boston Univeristy sports psychologist, told New York Magazine. “Intense emotions can lead to incredible performances, but they can also lead to total boneheadedness. Frustration in particular is known to lead to aggression.”

Naylor added that such frustration reflects a failure to suppress our human impulses. “Ironically,” he said, “the more we try to control our impulses under stress, the tougher it gets. So my initial thought is something this odd actually could be a result of his increased efforts at emotional control.”

Indeed, Suarez himself has said he’s not proud of his biting past. “Obviously, it’s not the most attractive image that I can have for myself,” he once said. “But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to do things right. I really, really do.”

His inability to tame his biting demons may convey an inability to control anxiety, Naylor said: “It’s easier to remember that something like punching is acceptable, but without another well-developed way to manage stress, some sort of odd emotional release is going to occur.”

This “odd emotional release” has occurred for numerous athletes. The most salient example: Mike Tyson biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, which he then spat out. Tyson, who is today as defined by The Bite as by his boxing accolades, was disqualified. Even years later, Tyson didn’t regret the 1997 bite: “I’d do it again,” he said in 1999.

But Tyson is not the first athlete to bare his incisors. There was a basketball gnashing in 1983 that spawned great headlines. During a scuffle, an Atlanta Hawks player named Tree Rollins bit a Boston Celtic finger down to the tendon. The next day’s Boston Herald: “Tree Bites Man.”

The vast majority of biting in sports comes in such frenzied moments, the BBC reported last year following another one of Suarez’s bites. They happen when players are protected from view — at the bottom of a football pile or in the corner of a boxing ring. When there’s a possibility that an athlete can get away with it, there’s greater chance of a bite.

Still, it’s indisputably an impetuous act. “It’s not pre-planned — it’s a very spontaneous, emotional response,” is how Thomas Fawcett, a University of Salford sports psychologist, explained Suarez’s 2013 bite to the BBC. “He’s doing it on impulse.”

Though the biting instinct is sometimes associated with frustration or anger, other emotions also do the trick. In 2001, Sevilla midfielder Francisco Gallardo was so pumped when his teammate Jose Antonio Reyes scored a goal that he bit him … right in the genitals.

The Royal Spanish Football Federation wasn’t forgiving. It fined and suspended Gallardo, saying the bite violated “sporting dignity and decorum.”

Correction: This story has been updated to amend an inaccurately attributed quote. Francisco Gallardo did not say “It was a split second decision,” after he bit another player’s genitals. It was Peter Filandia, in fact, who said those words after he bit another soccer player’s genitals. 

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Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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