Proportionality. Have we forgotten what the word means? In criminal law, it means that the punishment reflects the severity of the crime. The febrile reaction to the latest Luis Suárez biting incident suggests that we’ve lost all sense of proportion. We’ve made a three-course meal out of a harmless little nibble.
FIFA has handed Suárez a record nine-match international ban and a four-month ban on having anything to do with football. Some will argue that even this sanction is too lenient. There had been calls for the Uruguay striker to be hit with a lifetime ban. BBC pundit Danny Mills said: ‘They have got to throw him in jail and lock him up forever.’ As I said, no sense of proportion. The problem we face is this: how do we calculate Suárez’s punishment in a proportionate way? Is it by measuring malicious intent? If so, good luck with that. There are cameras at every angle in the ground these days, but as yet no one’s invented an inside-the-brain camera to read a player’s mind.
What about punishing according to the degree of harm caused? Apart from teeth marks and wounded pride, there was no significant harm caused by Suárez’s bite. No blood was drawn, no flesh was torn. Nobody got eaten. It wasn’t a career-wrecking assault. It was a violent act, but was it any worse than a punch, a headbutt, a studs-up tackle or an elbow to the throat? Clearly not. So why does a bite warrant a stiffer penalty than all these acts of violence?
It seems that Suárez is being punished for violating a social taboo. Biting, like spitting, is considered uncivilised. Suárez’s punishment therefore would appear to include an additional moral premium. But whose morals are we talking about? Sure, there’s been plenty of frothing outrage, particularly in England. But while some were outraged, the rest of us were pissing ourselves laughing. That’s right: we thought it was bloody hilarious. Top notch entertainment. So, there’s not even a moral consensus over the alleged crime.
I propose a simple and proportionate punishment, based on philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ‘hedonistic calculus’, weighing up the amount of pleasure or pain caused. The bite itself deserves a three-match ban (actual cannibalism would carry a stiffer, six-match sanction). However, as the bite caused almost as much pleasure as it did pain, I’d offset the penalty with a two-game ‘mirth bonus’. The net result is a one-match ban. A reasonable sanction or a recipe for cannibalism? I’ll leave you, dear reader, to chew over that question.