In case you hadn't heard, Luis Suarez bit a guy. This playful act of mastication has sparked public outrage to such extent that it has overshadowed two incredibly dramatic football matches played among four of the biggest clubs in England. But Luis Suarez bit a guy, and as far as media narrative goes, that transcends any of the actual football being played. So I'd ask you to forgive me in advance for engaging in this same practice rather than writing about Spurs' wonderful comeback victory over Manchester City.
Reading this piece on The Liverpool Offside, about Chelsea fans who defend players like John Terry while demonizing Luis Suarez, left me equal parts incensed, confused, and soul-searching. Incensed because it smacks of rationalizing and blame-shifting and confused because in spite of that fact, it still raises good points about fan hypocrisy and the right to moral outrage. And soul-searching because it's forced me to look at my own support of Tottenham Hotspur and the stones I've thrown at the villains of other clubs.
Villains are an integral part of any sport and the media is always searching for the next footballing devil to to burn in effigy. Broadly speaking, there are three categories villainous behavior can fall under: 1) dirty on pitch behavior (rash tackles, diving, theatrics); 2) off-pitch shenanigans (drunken buffoonery, criminal behavior, sordid personal lives); 3) and crazy on pitch behavior (abuse, headbutting, biting). And, rightly or wrongly, each category tends to be viewed as increasingly worse than the one before it.
Leg-breaking tackles are easily rationalized as all part of the game while the behind the scenes infractions can be just as easily overlooked as irrelevant to the game. It's when a player's personal brand of crazy finds its way onto the pitch and transcends the rules of the game that true villains are born (though not always, see Zidane's headbutt heard round the world).
Thus we have Ryan Shawcross who snaps someone's leg but is Not That Kind of Player and Ryan Giggs who sleeps with his brother's wife but boy he's won a lot of medals, and by and large all is forgiven. Paul Scholes is notoriously dangerous in the tackle, and even though every time he throws himself into a challenge with full knowledge that he might just end someone's career, the announcers laugh off his inevitable yellow as a typical "Scholesian" tackle. No villains there.
But Luis Suarez and John Terry? These guys are villains. The media tells us so. Their antics are so much worse. Racial abuse, biting people, sleeping with teammates' partners. And we obligingly hate them. Screw John Terry. To hell with Luis Suarez.
And not only do we hate them, we hate the fans who support them. They're blinkered and delusional. They have a responsibility to decry this behavior. Liverpool should sell Luis Suarez if they care about their club. You should stop being a Liverpool fan if they don't. You have to draw a line somewhere. If we had players who did terrible things, we would bring the tar and feather ourselves, we smugly proclaim.
I wonder to myself, how would I act, really, if I were confronted with having to support a footballing villain. More than that, how would I feel supporting someone who might legitimately be a bad person? What would I do if my team had players racially abusing people, assaulting people at bars (non-villain Stevie G), and biting opponents?
It turns out, I love them.
Not too long ago, our cartilage free captain Ledley King was arrested for racially abusing a door man at a bar, and if believed, said some really nasty stuff. And capped it off by punching him in the face. Jermain Defoe bit Javier Mascherano in the middle of a football match. (Not to mention Defoe's countless infidelities)
I love both of these players. We all do. Ledley King holds anointed status with every fan of this club. But he's done some condemnable things. Our first instinct is to say, "That guy's full of crap, Ledley was drunk, it probably wasn't that bad." Which may be true. But those same words out of a Chelsea fan's mouth about John Terry would be met with eye-rolling derision. Jermain Defoe isn't held in quite the same regard as St. Ledley, but he's still a Yiddo. And he bit somebody in a football match.
Here's what then-coach Martin Jol had to say about Defoe's mid-game snack:
He was nibbling his arm - there will be no mark. Ask Mascherano if he has got a mark.
It is part of the game. They kicked him three times from behind in 10 minutes and he wanted to show his frustration in a nice, comical way.
Are you kidding me? We'd be having Brendan Rodgers for lunch if he said Luis Suarez merely engaged in a comical nibble.
And the worst part is? I don't even remember Jermain Defoe doing this. It sounded familiar when someone mentioned that it happened, but no part of my brain actively retained this information. How is this possible? We've seen over the past 24 hours that biting someone is literally the craziest and worst thing you could do on a football pitch. It's possible because Jermain Defoe isn't a villain.
We can all make excuses for why this is the case. Defoe's not a repeat offender. Ledley didn't abuse anyone on the pitch. Suarez abused people and bit people, so it's worse. But ultimately it's semantics. I have no idea why some people rise to the status of True Evil while others are merely badboys of football, and some get a pass altogether. But we need to appreciate that we all hold dear some rather rough-around-the-edges sorts. Even if they're not crucified by the media.
Every club has had their share of reprehensible characters. Manchester City has been home to Joey Barton (put a cigar out in a teammate's eye, for one), Ben Thatcher (head-hunted Pedro Mendes on the field and hospitalized him with a forearm to the skull), and Mario Balotelli (ate a baby, probably). United's home to Robin van Persie and Jonny Evans, who have been accused of rape, in addition to the aforementioned Scholes and Giggs. We've got Defoe and Ledley.
At what point are we obligated to stop supporting our players? At what point does the club have a responsibility to cut ties with these monsters? At what point does it become so bad that all right-thinking people would stop supporting the team altogether?
I have no idea. But until we have our own house in order, it's probably good idea not to tell other clubs and fans how to behave.
But that's not to say we lose all right to moral outrage. What Luis Suarez did was unreservedly wrong and deserves blanket criticism from every corner of the world. No matter what terrible characters happen to play for the club you support. Just because John Terry is a piece of shit doesn't mean Luis Suarez isn't also a piece of shit. And Chelsea fans can still hate Luis Suarez. And if Ledley King is a piece of shit, I'm not going to hate John Terry any less, even if it's completely unfair. I believe we still have the right to hate other players even if our own players are just as bad. That's rivalry, that's competition, that's sports. But it stinks of hypocrisy to pretend that we're any better than other fans. We're not.
Ultimately we're all a bunch of idiots who care way too much about grown manchildren running around chasing a ball. Who are also idiots. And we're all going to act in completely stupid, irrational ways. Some of us just wear different colored kits.