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Tap-in and Taboo

Tom Brown's Schooldays

It’s February of 2011: the Super Bowl. The New York Jets are leading the Minnesota Vikings 24-20 in the fourth quarter—in fact there are only four seconds left in the game. But the Vikings have the ball on the Jet 23-yard line. Time for one shot to the end zone. Brett Favre drops back and lofts a pass to the right sideline, where Adrian Peterson is (surprisingly) running a wheel route. Jets linebacker Bryan Thomas is chasing Peterson but knows he’s in trouble: just as Peterson crosses the goal line—but before he touches the ball—Thomas dives, reaches as far as he can, clips Peterson’s ankle. Peterson and the ball fall to the turf. The side judge throws his flag for pass interference in the end zone. Thomas spreads his arms out wide in the universal gesture of innocence, but everyone on the stadium knows that he committed the penalty and did so intentionally.

The clock reads all zeroes, but the Vikings get one more play from the one-yard line. Favre takes the snap, but as he is turning to hand the ball to Peterson his center steps on his foot. He stretches out the ball as he’s falling but it bounces off Peterson’s leg and onto the turf; Peterson picks it up but has no time to make a move before the Jets’ defenders are on him. Game over. The Jets win the Super Bowl.

If this happens, what will people say about Bryan Thomas (on Twitter, in newspapers, on comment threads)? Will anyone say that he has violated the ethics of the game, that he deserves further punishment? Will anyone argue that the rules of the game need to be changed so that teams cannot benefit from committing a penalty? I suspect, rather, that Thomas will be generally credited with a very smart play.

How is what Luis Suárez did at the end of yesterday’s match against Ghana any different?

I think it’s different in two ways—though I am not sure how important these differences are. First, in the example I give above, Peterson could drop the ball—receivers drop perfectly thrown balls fairly frequently—whereas the ball Suárez slapped away was unquestionably headed into the goal. The act of preventing something that otherwise would certainly have happened simply is more significant than the act of preventing something that would likely have happened. (Brian tweeted yesterday, “Seriously, how is Suárez different from an NBA player fouling to stop a dunk at the end of a tie game?” It’s different because basketball players do sometimes miss dunks, or lose the ball as they’re going up for a shot, or get called for traveling—none of those things often, not as often as receivers drop passes, but sometimes.) And of course, given the game time, the certain goal would also have meant a certain win for Ghana.

Second, and more important, Thomas’s act feels far less transgressive because there is no taboo involved. Defensive players tackle offensive players from behind repeatedly during any given game: Thomas’s offense is simply a matter of inappropriate timing. Similarly, soccer players regularly commit intentional fouls, which we call “professional” if we support the team doing the fouling, and “cynical” if we support the team being fouled. But outfield players are never to touch the ball during play.

Moreover, one of the strange but universally true things about taboos—absolute prohibitions within a particular community—is that they bear upon us with more force when they are, or seem, arbitrary. “It’s just wrong” or “We don’t ever do that” are more psychologically compelling explanations than “We don’t do that for the following rational reasons.” If you tell me not to eat pork because I could get trichinosis, I might think, well, how bad is trichinosis, really? And maybe I’ll be one of the lucky ones to avoid it, because man, that bacon really smells good. But if you tell me simply that the pig is unclean (Leviticus 11), that’s actually scarier, especially if I don’t know how it’s unclean. As Paul Ricoeur has taught us, few terrors are greater than the terror of invisible pollution. And that’s what a handball does: it pollutes the offender, all the more so because the prohibition is arbitrary—if it’s taken away you don’t die, you just find yourself in a rugby match. Where of course you might die, but my point stands.

So that’s why I think people are so freaked out about what Suárez did: he prevented a certain goal (which would certainly have sent Ghana through to the next round) by breaking a taboo. If at precisely the same stage of the match, Suárez had deliberately and violently fouled a player who had the ball at his feet as near the goal as, say, Miroslav Klose was on Germany’s second goal against Argentina today, and in that way prevented a certain score, and did so without using his hands, the soccer world would not be in such an uproar. The violation of taboo multiplies the anger exponentially.

All that said, I don’t get all the wrath directed at Suárez himself. Every other player in the World Cup would have done exactly the same thing in his situation; and almost every fan would have done it for his or her team. You can’t expect moral heroism at moments like that; you really can’t ever expect moral heroism from mere human beings. The rules can be changed, and perhaps should be, but not human nature.

And finally: in general, the laws of soccer are already rather fierce when it comes to violations of this essential taboo: look at what happened to Harry Kewell, as already discussed in these pages. This is one area in which the law-makers seems likely to stir themselves. I bet we’ll get changes in the goal-line-handball rules before we get instant replays of goal-line calls.

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Tap-in and Taboo

by Alan Jacobs · July 3, 2010

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