A Case Study of Soccer Ethics

By | April 11, 2015

There are the published rules of the game, like the offsides rule, no hands, and so on. And then there are the actual rules of the games- the ones that aren’t necessarily published but guide the way we act and interact with the published set of rules. These unspoken rules, or norms, are what form soccer ethics.

The ethics of soccer is a complicated topic to approach. First of all, soccer is a global sport, so its ethical lines transcend the boundaries of nations. Yet, regional differences clearly play a role in what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ action in sports as well as in daily life.

However, there are definite cases of ethical lines and boundaries. I am going to look at two separate instances- one where a rule was broken and there were no ramifications, and one where a rule was broken and punishment was swiftly and strictly administered.

CASE ONE: A broken rule with mixed reactions

On the 22nd of June, 1986, Argentina defeated England in a World Cup quarterfinal, partly in thanks to a controversial goal scored by Diego Maradona. The goal, referred to as the ‘Hand of God,’ was clearly in violation of the rules, as video shows. Neither referee were sure at the time whether or not it had been a violation, but videos show Maradona’s use of his hand. The goal illicited intense reactions from soccer fans- some celebrated the goal, others decried it- but no further action was taken[1]. So, while the act wasn’t necessarily a ‘good’ one, it wasn’t deemed ethically wrong enough for outside entities to step in.

So what we’re left with is an example of when breaking the rules is morally acceptable. Maradona used his hand, in clear violation of basic football rules, but he wasn’t punished for it. His goal counted, the win stood, and there were no other ramifications. While some people were upset, it isn’t all that clear whether it was English fans that were more upset over losing because of the illegal goal or if they actually rejected Maradona’s rule-breaking goal on principle. Rather, his goal is more often met with general amusement, sly smiles, and blame on the refs for not calling it- not on the player for trying it [2].

This stands in stark contrast with Case Two.

CASE TWO: A broken rule resulting in punishment

In a match against Italy during the 2014 World Cup, Uruguayan player Luis Suarez appeared to have bitten Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. This type of violent action against an opposing player is clearly against the rules- it’s prohibited, just as the use of a hand is also prohibited. Yet, this act caused a stronger reaction in response. The act is condemned and abhorred, and Suarez was, after the game was over and the incident reviewed, suspended from “all football-related activity” for four months, as well as having to pay a fine for the incident [3]. This action was strictly met with punishment- not amusement.

Italy's Giorgio Chiellini after he was bitten by Luis Suarez.

Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini after he was bitten by Luis Suarez.

Suarez’s action crossed some unspoken ethical line. But that ethical line doesn’t seem so clear.

Perhaps the line is injury- that doing something that would likely injure an opponent is considered unethical. This seems like a compelling option. After all, we like to think that this is true, and we even act like it is at times. For instance, players ‘flop’ or fake extreme pain to increase the likelihood that the other player will be reprimanded and have a foul called on them.

But is it really as simple as that? If we really, truly believe that intentionally causing injury is wrong, then why do we allow and encourage certain types of behavior that almost always result in injury? For example, slide tackles are painful, and I would argue that, to some extent, a player that slide tackles another intends to cause some slight form of injury. That could be a scraped knee, a jolt from hitting the ground hard, pressure on the ankles, and so on. And some people even encourage particularly painful-yet still legal- slide tackles for the very reason that they will hinder the activity of that player in some way if they are executed correctly.


So maybe ‘causing injury’ was too simplistic of an ethical line to draw. Perhaps it’s a little deeper, or a more theoretical idea of ‘wrong.’ Perhaps people rejected Suarez’s act as opposed to Maradona’s because the biting was inhumane or animalistic. Yet, again, I can think of a million examples where the same people that condemn Suarez also fight each other like vicious animals in the stands, hurtle horrific insults at the athletes, and plenty of other inhumane activities like that. So perhaps that’s not it either.

In sum, there are a couple of things that we take away from this discussion. While it is unclear what ethical line Suarez crossed to elicit such a harsh response, it is clear that the rules of the game aren’t inherently ‘right’ or ‘moral.’ There are instances where breaking the rules doesn’t really matter, because people don’t tie any deeper ethical significance to the rule in the first place. Thus, soccer ethics is separate from the rules of the game.

Furthermore, it’s very difficult to quantify or explain the ethical norms and ideas surrounding the game of football. Football is a global sport influenced by a global span of ideas of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ There are regional differences, ethnic differences, personal differences, and so on that add to the difficulty of pinpointing an objective ethical line. But while it’s hard to clearly explain or see what our ethical ideas are, the paradox of it all is that ethics dictate our actions (related to soccer and beyond) more than the rule of law could ever do.


[1] http://www.we-heart.com/2014/06/10/maradonas-hand-of-god-the-making-of-an-icon/

[2] http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/484301/Gary-Lineker-congratulates-Diego-Maradona-for-Hand-of-God-Goal

[3] http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/28023882


5 thoughts on “A Case Study of Soccer Ethics

  1. Margaret R

    Hi Haley, I enjoyed reading your post about soccer ethics. I’m studying neuroscience and philosophy at Duke, and it’s interesting to connect your post to what I’ve learned in some of my philosophy and neuroethics classes, particularly regarding Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. In general, people perceive moral transgressions as more severe than conventional transgression. A moral transgression involves harming a person’s well being. In contrast, conventions are applied to protect the order of society and are more easily modified. Starting in kindergarden, children are able to differentiate between these two moral and conventional transgressions. To me it seems like some rules of soccer fall into the convention category– for instance rules like off-sides that are created to define the structure of the game. Additionally, rules involving physical contact between players might fit also fit into the moral transgression category. I think this could in part explain why some rule violations elicit stronger reactions from referees and the crowds than others. Violations of “conventional” rules like hand-balls might be overlooked while “moral” ones draw stronger condemnation.

  2. Catherine Foy

    This is a very interesting piece. It is interesting to think that the ethics of soccer are concepts that transcend all borders and your comparison between the hand of god and Luiz Suarez’s infamous biting technique is interesting. Another instance you could add to the list is when Uruguay played Ghana in the 2010 World Cup and Suarez clearly used his hand to stop a goal from happening. This was definitely viewed as a violation of ethics and he was red carded and sent off. This is interestingly similar to the hand of god, and the differing outcome could be the result of a change in time period. However, just as Maradona was celebrated in Argentina, Luiz Suarez’s was celebrated in Uruguay. Because of Luiz Suarez’s actions, Uruguay won the game and advanced to the next round.

  3. Raya

    I never thought of the ethics of soccer transcending all nations, but it makes complete sense. What one culture considers moral doesn’t match that of another country. I think it’s definitely something referees take into account when they make calls, but also leave so much up to interpretations…which is probably why the refs usually face so much hatred

  4. Ben Taylor

    The idea that there are “regional, ethnic, and personal” differences in sports ethics is an interesting one, and one that I tend to agree with. However, I would disagree with your claim that” ‘causing injury’ was too simplistic of an ethical line to draw” in that in my experience any attempt at causing injury results in almost unanimous agreement that the player is wrong. It is not the actual causing of injury that matters, but rather the intent. To answer your predominant question, I would say the one major “wrong” that it seems extends to all cultures is that intentionally causing an injury – in this there is no grey area. It is not the punishment or end result that matters, but rather the intent. If the intent is causing an injury, there can be no argument that the action can be perceived as ethical.

  5. Shane Thomas

    Just to piggyback the conversation around the Hand of God goal, England’s colonialist history also played a part in certain reactions to the goal. The reasoning being that it was karma, and England had something like that coming to them. As someone in Argentina said. “If it was with the hand, we stole from a thief who knows a lot about stealing.” – https://youtu.be/a25llkHkpOw?t=986


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