In the hours that have followed the World Cup quarterfinal match between Uruguay and Ghana, the discussion on ESPN’s account of the game is whether Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez is a cheater in the career-tainting manner of Thierry Henry or not for an incident at the end of extra time. (Henry of course used his hand to control the ball and set up the goal that got France to the World Cup.)

In the very last minute of extra time, with the game tied 1-1 and a shootout only seconds away, Suarez used his hands to clear the ball off the line and away from the goal. The referee spotted this, ejected Suarez, and awarded Ghana a penalty kick, giving the African side a chance to win the game with no time left. It seemed just, but then the improbable happened: Ghana missed the kick, the game went to the ever-unjust penalty shootout, and Uruguay ended up winning.

Enter the high-horse crowd. Suarez is suddenly a dirty player in the eyes of a bunch of people who place the “spirit of competition” on the moral high ground. These people have clearly never played anything more competitive or adrenaline filled than bocce ball or croquet. This is the freaking World Cup. There may be no sporting event as big as this in terms of pressure and scrutiny on the players. This is the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and Olympic medal count added together and raised to the power of the Kentucky Derby. [That’s (WS + SB + SC + OMC)^KD for those of you figuring this out on your old TI-83+.] It’s big. You don’t finish a game, say, “Oh, splendid shot to win there, Melvin. Shall we go mix ourselves another mint julep and talk about the good old days?”

In short: You want to win.

What Suarez did wasn’t some crime against the game or a crime against the spirit of competition. It was a crime against Ghana in that moment, a crime in the spirit of competition. Suarez knew his team was about to lose, so he sacrificed himself to give them a chance not to. He got himself ejected to turn the 100 percent chance of Ghana scoring into an 80-90 percent chance of Ghana scoring. The odds were still firmly in Ghana’s favor that it would score the penalty kick and win the game. That’s what competition is.

It’s the act of stacking the odds in your favor in order to achieve superiority over another team or individual. It’s the pitcher who intentionally loads the bases to get a shot at a double play on any ground ball; it’s the cornerback who commits pass interference when he’s beat and about to give up a touchdown in the fourth quarter; it’s the losing basketball team that intentionally fouls at the end of the game so it can get the ball back. All of these are strategies that often do nothing to help a team win. Pitchers give up a three-run double that could have been only two; football teams give up a touchdown later in the drive and have less time to come back; the basketball team ends up losing by more points because of all the free throws they give away. No one would accuse the pitcher of being a stain on the sport because he kills a rally by inducing a double play to end a playoff series; no one would call for an extended suspension for that cornerback for keeping the other team off the board; no one blames the basketball team if it comes back to win because the opposition missed five out of six free throws in the last 45 seconds.

None of those are examples of poor sportsmanship. They’re examples of gamesmanship. Gamesmanship fits an awkward gray area in terms of acceptance. It certainly isn’t participation-trophy noble, but it’s not steroid diabolical either. It’s just a part of any sport that’s become an accepted element based almost entirely on the argument that “anyone would do the same in that situation.” It’s throwing inside on a batter stood and watched a home run his last time up; it’s hockey’s enforcers going at it because one of them hit the opposing playmaker; it’s the center setting his feet and getting kneed in the chest while taking a charge. It’s doing something that has a negative consequence in exchange for a chance at a positive outcome, losing the battle but winning the war, the ends justifying the means.

But it’s not cheating. It’s doing something that’s not against the rules, even if action doesn’t necessarily benefit you. There’s nothing in any set of rules that forbids you from intentionally accepting the consequences of doing something against the rules. It becomes part of strategy. It’s the intentional walk or foul; it’s giving the opponent a chance to hurt you; it’s doing what it takes to win.

If Ghana had converted the high-probability penalty kick and won, no one would think anything of the red, or they’d say shrug their shoulders slightly and say, “Well, he was almost in the right place.” The fact Uruguay’s long-shot came up big makes Suarez neither a villain nor a hero. It’s not the reason Ghana lost, but it’s not the reason Uruguay won, either. It was just part of the game. Suarez simply took one for the team.

You’d have done the exact same thing.


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