Health

Bite club: Luis Suarez's bite is an icky aggressive instinct

June 26, 2014 at 10:27 AM ET

Image: Italy's Giorgio Chiellini shows his shoulder, claiming he was bitten by Uruguay's Luis Suarez
TONY GENTILE / Reuters
Italy's Giorgio Chiellini shows his shoulder, claiming he was bitten by Uruguay's Luis Suarez.

Any soccer player who squares up against Luis Suarez knows he'll face a fearsome forward. He’s the Uruguay forward with a taste for human flesh. In the final minutes of the World Cup game against Italy Suarez allegedly bit into defender Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. On Thursday Suarez was banned from all soccer for four months, meaning he's done for the rest of the World Cup tournament.

Why would one of the sport’s most talented and celebrated players resort to behavior more typical of toddlers?

While the ref did not notice it and it does not show up on video, Suarez has been suspended twice for gnawing on an opponent. Almost immediately Twitter lit up with jokes over the now infamous chomp. (Snickers declared itself "more satisfying than Italian.")

“It’s not a conscious process and he is trying to release emotion," says Aimee Kimball, a mental training consultant who works with athletes and coaches. "There were 10 minutes left in the game and being one of the best players, he was under the pressure to score. It seems like when he gets really emotional that [is] his way of releasing.”

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USA swept up in World Cup fever

Soccer may not technically be a contact sport like American football, but players experience a lot of adrenaline and can react aggressively. In 2006, France’s Zinedine Zidane head-butted Italy’s Marco Materazzi and in 1994, Italy’s Mauro Tassotti broke a Spanish player’s nose with his elbow.

“When there is physical jostling, that’s when [aggression] comes out,” Kimball says.

Professional American football players, for example, have a built-in release. When the stress, adrenaline, testosterone, and emotion become too much, they simply hit each other; it’s OK. Soccer doesn’t provide the physical release in quite the same way and some players struggle to contain it.

“They were pushing each other back and forth. [Suarez] was probably in enough control of his emotions that he knew he couldn’t push [Chiellini] and he had no way to get out,” Kimball says. “[Suarez] knew he couldn’t use his hands and his first reaction would be to bite him.”

In fact, Kimball believes that instinct is the reason that anyone bites in sports or a fight, like when Mike Tyson chomped off Evander Holyfield’s ear in the 1997 boxing match. This proved that even though humans only exert 120 pounds of pressure in a bite, a fraction of the 2,500 pounds a crocodile exerts, a human bite can easily tear cartilage.

“I think if you look at animals in general, dogs bite each other because that is how they fight."

“I think if you look at animals in general, dogs bite each other because that is how they fight … it is an instinct that animals have ... Any time you are fighting with someone, whether punching them or elbowing them on a soccer field, the instinct would come out.”

Baseball isn't immune to the bite club, either. In May Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Miguel Olivo bit off part of teammate Alex Guerrero's ear during a game fight.

Beyond the sheer bad sportsmanship of biting an opponent, there's a strong "ick" factor.

About 10 to 15 percent of human bites cause infection, due to the 100 microorganisms per milliliter from about 200 different species. Bites can spread diseases such as herpes, syphilis, and in rare cases HIV.

Bites are also a perfect way to spread tetanus, says Nasia Safdar infectious disease specialist at the University Hospital of Wisconsin, Madison. Doctors recommend a Tetanus shot or booster, if not up to date. Some bites require stitches and antibiotics, while others just require a thorough cleaning.

A National Institutes of Health study in 2007 found that human bites were the third most common type of mammal bite treated in emergency rooms. Most of the victims were male, a whopping 86 percent of cases involved drinking, and 20 percent caused infection.

But what turns a sober soccer player into a vampire? Suarez himself hasn't shed much insight.

“Obviously, it’s not the most attractive image that I can have for myself," he told The New York Times after an earlier incident. "But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to do things right. I really, really do.”

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