“For the third time in his career, Luis Suarez appeared to bite an opponent. This raises a number of issues regarding mental health and other preventative measures that could be taken – for example, why doesn’t he wear a mouthguard? But, perhaps the most disturbing part of this has been the reaction of the Uruguayan players and public. Right after the incident, his teammates tried to cover up the bite marks on Giorgio Chiellini. After the game, his teammates focused on Suarez, himself, being hurt by the collision and tried to equate biting as normal physical contact. They then went on to argue that replay should not be used to judge the incident. Building on this, Uruguayan officials and journalists allege that there was an English conspiracy, a European conspiracy, and equated FIFA’s ruling to suspend Suarez with fascism. There were even allegations that the photographs were photoshopped,” explained Dr. Ken Pendleton of the Sports Conflict Institute (SCI) when reached by phone (see ESPN’s The 10 best reactions to Luis Suarez allegedly biting Giorgio Chiellini on 6/24/14).

Former Player Chimes In

Former Liverpool, Aston Villa and England striker, Stan Collymore opined on that, “Suarez should be punished, but he should be punished in relation to who he is. It’s more ludicrous to suggest that he just likes to bite people than recognising that he has impulse issues—issues that, while contributing to his genius as a footballer, also make him act out so unacceptably. For me, an evaluation should be made of his mental health.”

Mental Health a Real Concern

Athletes and their mental health are often a neglected part of the support systems in place for athletes. Timothy Neal of Syracuse University highlighted at the PAADS Athlete Development Summit in New York City that, “the athlete has unique stressors and triggers. They’re away from home, they miss holidays, they miss family events, and they’re in the spotlight.”

The Fallacy of the Angry Athlete

“Often there is a fear of interfering with the impulses and aggression of an athlete. There is a fallacy of the angry athlete that carries a deep belief that the type of incident we see from Suarez is simply part of the package involved in competitive sports. Unfortunately, this belief can serve as a barrier to providing supports for athletes’ mental health and destigmatizing mental health challenges that are far more prevalent that the sporting public is aware,” notes Joshua Gordon of SCI.

Barriers to Help

“Whether it is Suarez’ defenders or his attackers, both serve as potential barriers to understanding why he is struggling with impulse control and how best can he be helped,” continued Gordon.

“The problem is that it’s difficult for club doctors and professionals footballers to come forward with mental health issues because they’d get slaughtered as weak. We have lots of situations with athletes who deny they are struggling with stress-related illness when they’d easily come forward with the diagnosis of a physical problem,” concludes Collymore in his article.

Gordon summarized, “It’s easy to blame Suarez and he certainly should be accountable for his actions. But to stop there and not examine some of the systemic barriers to truly receiving help for such issues won’t change anything.”