ESPN's Jon Champion should have used his head when labeling Luis Suárez 'a cheat', but it's a description that could be applied to most footballers
Labouring under the misapprehension the airplane on which he and his friends are travelling is about to crash in the finale of Seinfeld, George feels the need to unburden his soul and admit he cheated to win the famous bet between the four main characters concerning who could hold out the longest and remain "master of their domain".
"I cheated in the contest!" he shouts at Jerry.
"Why?" asks his friend.
"Because I'm a cheater!" comes the reply.
It's an amusing exchange that sprang to mind when Jon Champion labelled what he believed to be a deliberate handball by Luis Suárez "the work of a cheat" in the immediate aftermath of the Uruguayan's controversial goal against Mansfield Town on Sunday afternoon, an assessment for which his employers subsequently felt the need to issue a statement having "spoken to" the commentator about it in an apparently lengthy post-match debrief. It seemed a harsh public slap-down of a man whose welcome presence behind the microphone at Whaddon Road for Everton's win over Cheltenham on Monday night suggests his future employment with the network is under no threat, despite calls from some hysterical message-board mouth-foamers for he and Chris Waddle, his co-commentator at Field Mill on Sunday, to lose their jobs.
By announcing that Champion's comments had "caused offence" but pointedly stopping short of apologising for them, ESPN's decision to publicly address the matter has generated plenty of public debate. On one side are those bemused by the network's apparent need to draw further attention to an seemingly harmless heat of the moment observation by a commentator on an incident in a football match. On the other are those who feel ESPN were correct to acknowledge a potentially slanderous opinion the supposedly impartial commentator should have kept to himself.
According to the dictionary, a "cheat" is somebody "who violates the rules deliberately", presumably in order to gain an edge. Going by this definition it is a label that applies to any footballer who has ever tugged an opponent's shirt, let alone deliberately handled the ball in the build-up to a goal. While there is no shortage of doubt over whether or not Suárez actually did anything wrong against Mansfield Town, a rap sheet that includes violations such as biting an opponent and palming a goal-bound shot off his own line in the dying moments of a World Cup quarter-final mean that, like almost every footballer who has ever crossed the white line, he is not averse to breaking the laws of the game deliberately in order to gain an edge for himself or his team. In short, Suárez can accurately be described as a cheat, even if he was entirely blameless for the specific incident for which Champion judged and admonished him on Sunday afternoon. A murderer will always be a murderer, even if he hasn't killed anyone today.
On the flip side, it was telling that Suárez was the only footballer whose character was traduced by ESPN's man in the gantry on Sunday, throughout an entertaining FA Cup tie that was far from dirty but, like all football matches, inevitably punctuated with fouls. By singling Suárez out for criticism, it could be argued that Champion was tacitly implying the Liverpool striker was more of a cheat than any other player involved and coming from a supposedly unbiased commentator, such an assessment seems unfair.
Of course we can only speculate on what Champion might have said in the event of any player other than Suárez being caught in the eye of this particular handball storm, but the Uruguayan is undeniably Marmite and the commentator's tone suggested that, like many at Field Mill, he had arrived with preconceived notions about the player's moral fortitude, or lack of same. As for whether or not his remark was slanderous, a discussion with the Guardian legal department revealed that, in the preposterously unlikely event of Suárez suing ESPN or Champion, the player wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning his case.
What has been lost amid all the palaver over Suárez's goal, Champion's comments and ESPN's subsequent reaction to them, is that this was just a football match, not a judicial review. Liverpool were apparently aggrieved by the commentator's opinion, but had no plans to take the matter any further, so it seems puzzling that the network felt the need to make Mount Everest out of a little molehill that wouldn't have looked out of place on the bobbly Mansfield Town sward.
Asked by the Guardian how many, if any, complaints they'd received to prompt yesterday's statement, ESPN politely declined to provide an answer. They were similarly tight-lipped upon being asked if their apparent contrition was perhaps fuelled by an apparent need to placate those who occupy the intersection of the Venn diagram comprised of Liverpool Fans and People Who Pay Monthly Subscriptions To ESPN.