Just like in politics and law, saying otherwise won’t do anyone any good.
- By Daniel AltmanDaniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled about Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan soccer star who recently bit a player for the third time as a professional, so I’ll make this short: Whatever your opinion of Suárez, his case demonstrates the corrosive absolutism that is crippling public debate in general. In place of Suárez, we may as well be discussing the Keystone pipeline or the war in Iraq. If each side maintains a completely opposite position to the other on an issue with shades of gray, then there is no way to learn or move forward.
Indeed, the one point that both sides seem to agree on is that there is no room for compromise in the Suárez debate. The loudest voices see the issue in black or white, casting Suárez either as an incorrigible degenerate who brings the game into disrepute, or a troubled soul who can’t help himself and needs treatment. (Among those apparently holding the latter view is a club in Kosovo that has offered him a job.) The truth, of course, is likely in between. Say that, however, and the absolutists will shout you down, making you out to be a worse villain than Suárez himself could ever be.
This sort of reaction is always ironic, but it becomes still more so when the topic is Suárez, a man who is himself a bundle of paradoxes and dichotomies. He grew up poor but is now unimaginably rich; he is dull and unremarkable off the field and transcendently brilliant on it; he is embraced unconditionally by one group of foreigners — Liverpool fans — while reviled by many others; and he is a father who seems, more often than you’d like, to act like a child. Suárez is not black or white; he’s both.
That complexity, though, doesn’t make for a good story or an easy argument to defend. One of my first colleagues in journalism, an experienced hack born of London’s take-no-prisoners financial subculture, told me there were only two ways to write a story: say something was great or stick the knife in (which he illustrated, vividly, with a pantomime thrust towards my stomach). So naturally some pundits bay for blood while others beg for understanding.
In the midst of these extremes, FIFA’s job in deciding how to handle Suárez was to find the prudent middle ground — not nothing, but also not a lifetime expulsion from the game. By banning him from all soccer for four months, it certainly did choose a punishment in the middle. But it could have made Suárez’s return to the sport conditional on a treatment program, approval by an independent psychologist, or some other stipulation recognizing the circumstances of his case.
FIFA could also have explained why Suárez’s case was different from that of Cameroon’s Alex Song, who was banned for only three matches after a no less aggressive or deliberate — if not quite as viscerally disgusting — attack on the Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic. FIFA’s judgments will undoubtedly be seen as precedents in the future, yet their scope showed little awareness of this prospect.
FIFA’s role in soccer is played in our society by legislators and judges. They, too, have to put aside the absolutes and find the middle ground, at least when it exists. But these days, they themselves are often the shrillest of the absolutists. Unlike FIFA, though, we elect our legislators, who in turn select our top judges. Perhaps we could all choose a little more carefully?