Dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog is news. And man bites man is a national scandal. As soon as the Sky cameras caught the Liverpool footballer Luis Suarez sinking his teeth into the arm of a Chelsea opponent, you could be certain that the reaction among football people, the media, and the public at large would not be considered, measured and proportionate. Not a bit of it.
The pundits at the match talked about the incident in the sort of grave tones reserved for personal tragedies, and instantly the nation's hysteria index was off the scale. Make an example of him. Ban him for a season. Throw him out of the game. The clamour in the kangaroo court of public opinion was deafening. I was only surprised that David Cameron didn't feel the need to weigh in with an unreserved condemnation of Suarez. Oh, hang on, he has...How ludicrous.
In citing this episode as further evidence that we have become a nation of hysterics, it is as well to examine what actually happened on the pitch at Anfield last Sunday. Suarez, a man who has some previous in this respect and is not a wholly loveable character, bit - in anger - Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic on the arm. That's it. He didn't break the skin. No blood was spilled. The match wasn't stopped, and although Ivanovich complained to the referee, he was no more incensed than if he believed a corner had been erroneously awarded.
Suarez wasn't punished at the time, but, against a background of demands for the most severe of sanctions, football's governing body, the Football Association, banned him for 10 matches. To put this in context, Roy Keane was banned for three matches when, in a premeditated attack, he effectively ended the career of an opponent with a tackle that, had it been perpetrated on the street, could have resulted in a GBH charge. John Terry was given a four-match suspension for racial abuse. But Suarez, a dastardly Uruguayan, came up against an FA - that most English of institutions - whose resolve had been stiffened by thousands of column inches calling for tough action.
I can see that there is a qualitative difference when it comes to biting, which, unlike a brutal tackle, is way outside the game's normal rules of engagement. Nevertheless, the Liverpool club, who mistakenly stood by Suarez last season when he, too, was guilty of racial abuse, are right in this instance to feel outraged by the FA's punishment (Suarez, for the uninititated, is the club's best player, and is on the shortlist for the Player of the Year award).
A former FA compliance officer, Graham Bean, gave the game away when he said: "There is a degree of window dressing [over the 10-match ban] - the FA trying to send a message." But what message might that be? Zero tolerance for biting, something that happens on a football field extremely rarely? Or a message to Suarez himself? We don't like your sort in our game. Either way, it is difficult to avoid the impression that theirs is a response manufactured in a climate of hyperbole and extremism, when everyone is searching for a new Public Enemy No. 1.