Who knows why Luis Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini at the FIFA World Cup 2014. Perhaps it’s a compliment to great Italian defending? Or something to do with the increasing demands of the modern game? Whatever the answer may be, none of us truly believe that this sort of thing is acceptable. But precisely what are the rules that regulate this sort of conduct?

Most of us were told not to bite when we were very young - so that we know. But what about other forms of misconduct?  Where does one find the rules, what do they say, and how are they applied? Too often, even those responsible for implementing misconduct rules end up explaining steps taken on the basis of “the spirit of the game”. “This is football” is a common answer to attempts to gain clarity as to precisely what the rules say, and mean. If is often the case that the very tribunals tasked with interpreting and applying misconduct rules believe that this answer justifies almost any approach they feel is appropriate in the circumstances.

Luis Suarez may be able to sit out a suspension of a few months without too much difficulty, but many others could not. Even a short suspension threatens a career. A suspended footballer cannot meet his obligations to his employer and so earn his remuneration, and a host of other interests can also be affected. A club may have planned a season around a particular team and be thrown into disarray if a player is suspended. A sponsor or commercial partner may have developed an advertising campaign featuring someone who is now precluded from playing a part. Most footballers, certainly in South Africa, are breadwinners with families who rely on their earnings to survive. In these circumstances it should be of no doubt that where serious sanctions are a possibility, misconduct rules must be clear, be applied properly, and with due regard for the rights of those who are affected.

A difficulty is that misconduct rules emanate from all sorts of (often confusing and contradictory) statutes, regulations and circulars, and these are from different, interlinked associations. The Federation of International Football Association’s disciplinary code contains certain provisions which are said to have a binding effect internationally. Quite often these are not specifically set out in the rules of local associations in which most participants in the game have direct reference. There are also rules that serve as guiding principles and these can influence hearings despite not being incorporated in local rules. If you are a South African professional footballer you may be bound by the codes of FIFA, the Confederation of African Football, the South African Football Association, and the National Soccer League. There is conflict and confusion in many areas, and these rules change from time to time with little input or understanding, and sometimes without any notice, to clubs and footballers. There are also other regulatory provisions, such as the anti-doping provisions set out in the anti-doping code of the South African Institute for Drug- Free Sport. Predictably these must also be read with the World Anti-Doping Code, which also changes regularly.

Just understanding which rules to read is difficult. Understanding and applying them to a particular case with confidence can be close to impossible.

In the past year, two South African footballers, Mahbuti Khenyeza of Black Aces, and Josta Dladla of Kaizer Chiefs, faced misconduct proceedings that could have ended their careers. Khenyeza admitted to guilt for spitting. He was a first offender and did not know of a provision in the FIFA disciplinary code that arguably demanded a minimum suspension of a year for such an offence.

Dladla tested positive for a banned substance. It was common cause that he did not intend to dope. He purchased creatine from a dedicated supplement store (creatine is not a banned substance) and the brand he was given contained Methyl hexamine which is a prohibited substance. In anti-doping matters, liability is strict and so he was guilty. If he could not show exceptional circumstances, he faced a ban of two years.

In both cases, lengthy proceedings ended favourably in the sense that the final arbiters held they had discretion to consider the circumstances and shorter, more appropriate suspensions were handed down. But it could have gone the other way in both cases. If it had, two excellent careers would have ended as a result of a lack of understanding concerning rules that posed a serious risk.

Much more needs to be done to ensure that the rules are clear. The Court of Arbitration for Sport made the point, as far back as 1995, that “Athletes and officials should not be confronted with a thicket of mutually qualifying or even contradictory rules that can be understood only on the basis of the de facto practice over the course of many years of a small group of insiders.”

In South Africa, sporting rules and the conduct of rule appliers (such as officials and committees) must also comply with the principles enshrined in our Constitution. So, there is guidance as to what associations and officials must do.

But that is not enough. The former Irish international Tony Cascarino has said that “in his 19 years as a player he was never once handed a rule book by a club, never took part in a training session that explains some regulations and was never a party to a meeting about the laws.”

Andrew Ward in Soccer Media and the Lore and Laws of the Beautiful Game had the following to say:-

“There is very little formal teaching of the laws of football, and virtually no wide spread dissemination of the meaning of the laws. Some referees argue that alternative set of football rules are being presented by personalities in the media (pundits, managers, journalists, commentators and players).”

The misconduct rules must clear, but they must also be read. If reading them reveals confusion and conflict, this must be addressed with the rule adopters. When there are cases of importance, the rules that apply and the way in which they are interpreted should be explained – hopefully also by the sporting media. That is the only way to move beyond generalizations and learn. If levels of understanding regarding misconduct rules do not improve there are going to be cases of athletes being suspended where that should never happen. Greater understanding of the anti-doping rules is a particular, pressing and immediate concern.