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What Suarez Tells Us About Culture

The recent controversy surrounding Luis Suarez in the World Cup match between Italy and Uruguay is only the latest example of the latitude we tend to give our sports heroes.

Athletes hold a unique position in our society. They command a great deal of our attention, funds, and the occasional blind eye. As a result, athletes often get away with behavior that, in a more mundane run-of-the-mill industry, would get one severely disciplined, probably even fired. In the case of Suarez, this sort of anti-social behavior is far from anomalous. In fact, Eyder Peralta suggests that it’s fairly status quo.

So what power do athletes hold over us that would cause us to stay our hand and let them continue on their way with little more than a gentle chiding? As it turns out, they exercise a great deal of power, and in several ways:

Reward Power: The ability to give something of value.

Athletes provide us with entertainment, competition, a community of fans, national pride, and a whole host of equally-compelling emotions we find highly desirable.

Coercive Power: The ability to take something of value away.

Athletes can play for other teams—perhaps even our rivals—if they don’t get what they perceive they are worth in terms of compensation, play time, latitude, etc.

Expert Power: The ability to provide valued, in-demand expertise.

We require excellence from our athletes. Every move, play, and mistake they make is meticulously scrutinized by experts and laymen alike. Those that can pass muster with such a demanding audience are rewarded.

Referent Power: Granted by virtue of a person’s position in society.

Athletes hold a unique role in society. Perhaps this is because all of us, to some degree or another, are, or once were, athletes. As kids we played baseball, basketball, soccer, rode bikes, ran in the streets, and swam at the neighborhood pool. As adults, many of us still do. As a result, there’s a more intimate connection between us and our athletic heroes. We want to associate ourselves with them so we wear their numbers, ask for their autographs, buy the products they hawk, and put them on our fantasy teams.

With all of this in mind, it’s little wonder that FIFA took a pause before anything terribly drastic with regards to Suarez. Thankfully, FIFA made the right call, and so they should have. Not even athletes are immune. Cases such as those surrounding Richie Incognito, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and countless others have shown that while fans will put up with a lot, our patience is not inexhaustible.

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