Judging from my facebook page, the Ghana-Uruguay match aroused a lot of strong sentiment among people who had never previously been deeply invested in narratives of Uruguayan perfidy and Ghanian virtue. The match’s ending is interesting because it went down more or less like this:

For those of you who didn’t watch the match, in the 120th minute, literally the last few seconds of the 30 minutes of extra time in the match, Ghana had a series of shots on goal, three if memory serves me correctly (and it seldom does). The first two shots were parried by the Uruguayan keeper and a defender on the line, legitimately. The third, a header, was deliberately punched away — by Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan striker. In other words, one of the ten guys in blue and black who technically can not touch the ball with his hands. Unlike the 2002 Quarter Final match between the USA and Germany, the ref spotted the foul, red carded Suarez, and awarded Ghana a penalty.

It was a smart move by Suarez, in a sense. No hand foul, and Uruguay loses; foul, and Ghana gets a penalty kick that might, and did, go astray. But a lot of people seem bent out of shape about it because Suarez deliberately violated the rule for strategic advantage and that seems wrong, or unseemly, or bad in some other way.

Brockington reasons this way. Suarez did not cheat because:

He did the rational thing. It was perhaps not the sporting, moral, or ethical choice, and definitely the cynical choice, but given the nature of the match, he made the correct decision.

This is sloppy, but it gets us into an interesting (and longstanding) debate in the philosophy of sport. First the sloppiness. That the act was rational doesn’t rule out the act being an instance of cheating. James Bond might need to cheat at cards to defeat the evil villain; his cheating is rationally and morally justified while still being an act of cheating. The interesting issue is what to make of intentional rule violations.

The most obvious pro-Suarez view is to say that penalties are like a tax or fine: we tell you in advance that if you do such-and-such, there will be a cost, and it’s up to you to decide what to do in light of these incentives. Suarez judged that the benefit of the handball exceeded its cost, he paid the price for increased handball emissions, and off he went. (Another clear example of strategic fouling is the Hack-a-Shaq.)

Against that view, we might try to argue that there’s some ethos violated by the strategic violation– a moral violation (because the foul violates an implicit contract between players) or a violation of sportsmanship (because violations are contrary to the spirit of the game). This would help explain why there’s so much opprobrium directed at Suarez.

But how to make this work? Hard to say in detail here. One interesting idea comes from CR Torres[1] via Warren P. Fraleigh.[2] Roughly, the idea rests on the distinction between constitutive skills and restorative skills. CS “define and shape the character of games. They exist to bring games to life and, in terms of such skills, players are to show their superiority” (Torres: 86). RS, on the other hand, are those involved in penalties that restore balance after rule violations. The regulative rules of a game establish regulative skills because they

prescribe precise penalties and methods for re-establishing the lusory project, but in doing so they generate additional skills that are employed during what may be labeled the regulative phase of the game, the period during which an interruption occurs and a need arises to put the game back on track. (Torres: 85)

Constitutive skills include dribbling, passing, shooting, etc., while restorative skills are things like free throws, corner kicks, and so on.

Fraleigh notes that there’s an important difference between constitutive and restorative skills. Restorative skills

are, indeed, part of the game, but their significance is derivative. They come into being when the central lusory project has been interrupted. Although they are part of the game their importance is not necessarily in the same way that constitutive skills are. (Fraleigh: 171)

The problem of some tactical fouling, in Fraleigh’s view, is that it shifts the game’s emphasis from constitutive to restorative skills and thus undermines the nature of the sport. For example, he says, of the intentional handball in soccer, that it “substitutes a prohibited skill for a constitutive skill and, thus, changes the central test of the sport” (Fraleigh: 174). This seems plausible insofar as it helps us understand our reactions of unfairness to the use of rule violations to tactical advantage: the acts are gaming the system but in doing so they undermine the true test of sport.

[1] Torres, CR. “What counts as part of a game? A look at skills.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport XXVII, 2000, 81-92.
[2] Fraleigh, WP. “Intentional rules violations– one more time.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport XXX, 2003, 166-176.