Why Luis Suarez bites like a delinquent toddler

While biting is more common among delinquent toddlers, psychologists say that adult biters such as Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez involved in that kind of primitive attack behaviour likely have childhood impulse-control deficiencies.

Blame athlete worship, lack of impulse control for soccer star's serial biting, psychologists say

Uruguay's Luis Suarez reacts after clashing with Italy's Giorgio Chiellini during Wednesday's World Cup Group D match in Brazil. Suarez allegedly bit the Italian defender in the shoulder, in what would be the third time he has been accused of biting another player. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

If superstar Uruguay striker Luis Suarez wanted to make an impression on the soccer pitch, he may have done so with his teeth.

What appear to be chomp marks visible on the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during Wednesday's FIFA World Cup match between Uruguay and Italy are again bringing attention to Suarez, a known biter.

FIFA is investigating what has become the third biting incident of the English Premier League MVP’s career.

While biting is more common among delinquent toddlers, psychologists say that adult biters involved in that kind of primitive attack behaviour likely have childhood impulse-control deficiencies.

"When we talk about biting, it's a very bizarre thing," said Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist with Boston University.

"I would argue the more bizarre the action, the more it might be a sign of someone actually trying to control their emotions. And if you don’t have any emotional management compass and you try and control it, it’s going to end up looking really weird when you don’t."

A desperate act

The Suarez incident brings to mind boxer Mike Tyson taking a piece out of Evander Holyfield's ear in 1997, Tree Rollins's 1983 NBA gnawing of Danny Ainge's middle finger during a playoff scuffle, and Alex Burrows's nip at Patrice Bergeron's hand during Game 1 of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

It's a childish act that smacks of desperation, Naylor said.

"Children usually outgrow the habit as they find other means of communicating their frustration," said Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in State College, Penn.

That Suarez has been sanctioned in the past for sinking his teeth into other players "and would expect to be punished again" would suggest the alleged attack against Chiellini arose because "he just couldn't control that impulsive desire," she added.

Mike Tyson bites the ear of Evander Holyfield during the third round of the WBA Heavyweight Championship fight in Las Vegas, June 28, 1997. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Sports often heaps praise on athletes who play with emotion and toss out inhibitions, much in the same way children compete.

Suarez is known for a mercurial style that sportswriters say makes him "the most beautiful player" to watch in the game.

"Children play freely. Take your sport and it's fluid, free playing, not worrying about mistakes," Naylor said. "And when you think about children, aren't they emotional."

In the context of the World Cup tournament, in which the difference between winning and losing on the global stage can feel like life or death, and the frenzy over attacking the goal can manifest into attacking the players.

A 'more personal' assault

Fists and kicks can inflict harm, but getting teeth involved is "a lot more personal," said child psychologist Stanley Goldstein, who has written about defusing juvenile biting tantrums in his book Troubled Children/Troubled Parents.

"It's like the difference between a knife and a gun," he said. "It's so babyish. It shows real problems with impulse control."

A degree of spoiled-child syndrome may also be in play, with Suarez seemingly getting a pass for his transgressions because he’s so talented.

"It’s the way we accidentally treat talented athletes," Naylor said. "We’re willing to put up with a lot, as long as they’re playing well."

The RCMP’s national office said it does not break down crime statistics specifically enough to give a picture of biting cases in Canada. Statistics Canada’s violent crime statistics include types of weapons used, but not whether assaults involved biting.

Retired RCMP investigator Glenn Woods, who specializes in behavioural analysis and worked in B.C. for 35 years, said biting cases are rare, but not unheard of.

"You see it when somebody is outgunned in terms of fighting [ability], they’ll resort to that," Woods said. "Biting, kicking, scratching. If everything else isn’t working, you just use what’s at your disposal, and that might be teeth. It’s an instinctive thing to do."

'My fist with his face'

Other times, there's little in the way of reason to explain such vicious attacks.

A 2009 police report revealed that singer Rihanna, savagely beaten by pop star Chris Brown, suffered "horrific" facial injuries but also appeared to have been mauled, with "bite marks on one of her arms and on several fingers."

In 2010, a St. John’s court convicted a drug dealer of aggravated assault after he was found to have bit off part of a bartender’s ear.

Suarez has claimed that Chiellini "thrust his shoulder into" his mouth — a defence that Woods would often hear in his days with the Mounties.

"That’s the kind of thing you would hear on the street: ‘That guy hit my fist with his face,’" he said.

Bite wounds can cause more than just discomfort, said Dr. Euan Swan with the Canadian Dental Association. There’s a small risk they can lead to all kinds of viral infections, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV if they puncture flesh.

As for how to clamp down on biting injuries in sports?

"Wear mouth guards," Swan advised. "If Suarez had a mouth guard in place, he would have just bumped up against the shoulder with his mouth guard, and that would have been it."


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