more on Suarez handball, and why it matters for the rules, the integrity of the game, etc.
This Suarez controversy may be more complicated than I my original reaction implied, and it's definitely useful as a thought-provoker about what has quickly become a theme on this blog: the economics and psychology of soccer.
A reader commented on my last post about Suarez:
"Can someone please explain to me how this handball was fundamentally different from other fouls in soccer? (Personally, I don't think that it was)...You say: "The whole point of having punishments for breaking the rules is to deter players from breaking the rules." This is definitely not true in soccer. For example, if two players are fighting for the ball in midfield and one of them is holding the other's shirt because he is about to lose the ball and a foul is called, it will not deter the player from doing it again."
Now, to get to it, there are two basic answers to the reader's question of why Suarez's foul was different. Without even getting into any philosophy about rules, infractions, and punishment, the first reason is largely procedural: only because of the unique situation of the game did Suarez's foul make rational sense; in 99.9% of soccer matches he wouldn't have made the same play, because of the suspension he would receive combined with the risk of the penalty kick. In other words, the rules generally function well enough to deter this kind of blatant foul, but not in this particular situation. It's as if Suarez found and exploited a loophole in the system of punishments to break the rules in a way that otherwise wouldn't pay off.
My point about the purpose of punishments for rules is true, but I guess needs some explanation with respect to soccer. [I personally believe, as I've been stating on this blog from the beginning over and over and over, that the rules of soccer could use some improvement, mostly to more efficiently deter fouling ... although yellow cards are the extra incentive not to commit the given foul you cite, or at least not repeatedly.]
The problem is, when designing a set of punishments for infractions in soccer, you can't make the punishments so severe as to deter all rule-breaking, because in making them so severe you would also make it nearly impossible to play in a rule-abiding manner. If you punished every foul with a red card, defending players wouldn't be able to make even the cleanest attempts at tackles out of fear that they would miss the ball and be tossed from the game. In addition, overly draconian penalties lead to a loss of marginal deterrence of the severity of the infraction...(if you commit a foul and are gonna get tossed from the game, you might as well take a chunk out of a player's leg too!). There's an optimum level of punishment for infractions that carefully balances these opposing considerations: allowing teams to defend vigorously, but punishing them adequately for unfair play. Soccer might not quite reach that optimum level on all occasions, but it functions pretty well.
So to get to the other half of my short answer: most of the fouls committed in the course of a soccer game are committed in good faith, as a result of honest attempts to win the ball fairly from the other team.
Doping, intentionally injuring players, and diving to save a goal with one's hands are all examples that are, I think, generally considered cheating and unsportsmanlike, because they have no relation, incidental or otherwise, to "good-faith" play. Because of this, they should be severely punished, should never be rationally desirable, and should more or less universally deterred, unlike fouling in general. The existing punishments generally reflect this need for increased deterrence.
This whole controversy also requires a discussion of "norms" that supplement "rules" in soccer (as discussed here), especially regarding "professional fouls" and other misconduct that are generally punishable with yellow and red cards, because I think those are closer to the sorts of fouls the commenter is getting at, and complicate the situation somewhat, since many professional fouls aren't made in honest attempts to play the ball. Suffice it to say for now that there are different levels of professional fouls, and that there are different levels of "intention" when we're talking about fouling.
The general point is this: even the cleanest players commit fouls, and even get cards, without any prior intention to break the rules for their own team's benefit. Fouls and cards are inevitable, even in the normal course of play. Suarez's play is as far from this category as you can get!