A Short History of Biting in Sports

The stadium scene.
June 24 2014 2:18 PM

The Tooth Hurts

A short history of biting in sports.

Liverpool's Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez (R) clashes with Chelsea's Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic (L).
Liverpool's Luis Suarez (right) clashes with Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic on April 21, 2013.

Photo by Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images

On the April 22, 2013, edition of the Hang Up and Listen podcast, Stefan Fatsis discussed Liverpool striker Luis Suarez’s penchant for biting and the painful history of tooth-on-flesh violence in sports. On Tuesday, in a World Cup match against Italy, Suarez bit again. The transcript of Fatsis’ original story is below, and you can listen by clicking on the audio player beneath this paragraph.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

On Sunday, in the 66th minute of a match in England’s Premier League, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez bit the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.

In extra time, Suarez scored to tie the game 2-2. Suarez was immediately fined by Liverpool and is widely expected to be suspended by the league, all of which prompted the brilliant headline, in the Guardian, “Eats, Shoots, Leaves?”—a play on the amphibological joke about a panda, a gun, and a bar. (Update, April 24, 2013: On Wednesday, two days after the podcast was recorded, Suarez was suspended for 10 games by England’s Football Association.)

Suarez’s mastication was his second. In 2010, while playing for the Dutch club Ajax, he bit the neck of PSV Eindhoven midfielder Otman Bakkal. Suarez also has done other stupid stuff—uttering racist comments, deliberately using his arm to block balls—but I’m here to discuss the long history of biting in sports. 

Now vile and disgusting things occur often in the course of certain sporting events—ask an NFL player what happens at the bottom of the pile when players are going after a fumble and he’s sure to mention the grabbing and squeezing of testicles. But biting is one of the few truly verboten acts in sports. My measure for that is the ancient Greek Olympic martial sport pankration, of course. In pankration, you could do anything—punch, kick, strangle, twist limbs, you name it—anything that is except for two things: gouge eyes and bite. 

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That ethos persists today. Break another player’s leg with a dirty foul, concuss him with an elbow to the head—hey, it’s just part of the game. But leave bite marks on his arm and you’re looking at a huge fine, a long suspension, and media outrage including predictably cannibalistic headlines—the Sun’s “Gnash of the Day” was pretty good, though I would have gone with “Man of the Gnash.”

Of course, every discussion of biting in sports begins with Mike Tyson biting off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s left ear in 1997. But let’s move on quickly to other noteworthy bites in sports history. The judo officials at the 2012 Olympics in London apparently weren’t aware of the pankration rule. No less than a Greek judoka, Ioulietta Boukouvala, alleged that her Cuban opponent bit her: "Responsible for judging are the officials and the technical team of the Games. They must decide if she should have been penalized or disqualified from the match because she bit me." She wasn’t disqualified. Boukouvala lost.

Couple of recent bites in hockey. In 2010, Philadelphia enforcer Daniel Carcillo accused Boston’s Marc Savard of biting his finger during a scrum in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. "Last time I have been bit was in grade school. It's not a good feeling. ... Guys don't bite. Men don't bite," Carcillo said. (Did he mean that women do bite, like the judoka?)

Savard had a biting record—he was suspended one game for biting the glove of Darcy Tucker of Toronto in 2003. He countered, though, that Carcillo had stuck his finger in Savard’s mouth. "I think he tried to pull my teeth out," Savard said. "If that's biting, I don't know what to say." A year later, Vancouver forward Alex Burrows bit Boston forward Patrice Bergeron in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He said the bite was unintentional. He was not suspended.

The most famous basketball bite and headline were committed in 1983 when Atlanta’s Tree Rollins took a deep bite into a finger belonging to Boston’s Danny Ainge. Let’s listen to Brent Musberger describe what happened:

Your contact sports of course are full of biting. The most famous in the NFL involved then-St. Louis Cardinals lineman Conrad Dobler. In 1977, Dobler appeared on the cover of Sports Ilustrated under the headline “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player.” Dobler allegedly routinely violated both of the ancient Greek rules. The SI story quoted one opponent saying of Dobler, "What you need when you play against Dobler is a string of garlic buds around your neck and a wooden stake.”

Dobler lived off that reputation for years, but he told Esquire in 2000 that that he only bit one player, Doug Sutherland of Minnesota. “He put his fingers through my face mask, and I don't think they were there to stroke my mustache,” Dobler said. “So I bite one finger in my life, and I don't even chew on it. The legend grew from there. It's almost like I'm worse than Jeffrey Dahmer.” Dobler, it should be noted, has suffered terribly in recent years from NFL injuries and depression. He’s a plaintiff in the concussion-related lawsuits against the league.

Now rugby, of course, has had its fair share of bites. In 1945 in Australia, in a precursor to Tyson-Holyfield, Bill McRitchie had part of his right ear bitten off in a scrum and spent 22 weeks in the hospital undergoing skin grafts. In a 15-13 vote, the accused biter was cleared by the league’s general committee of all charges. By 1976, Australia had gotten its biting penalties under control. Tom Raudonikis admitted to biting John Gibbs on the nose; he was fined $200. In South Africa in 1994, Johan le Roux bit New Zealand’s Sean Fitzpatrick on the ear. "For an 18-month suspension,” LeRoux said, “I feel I probably should have torn it off."

Our final bite is the most perplexing of all. In a celebratory dogpile after a dramatic goal in a 2001 Spanish League match, Sevilla striker Francisco Gallardo tenderly bit teammate Jose Antonio Reyes … in the scrotum. I think tender is the right word there, affectionate maybe. Look at the YouTube video and judge for yourselves.

Gallardo was fined and suspended by the Royal Spanish Football Federation for violating "sporting dignity and decorum." They did not use the word taste.

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