Blemishes on the beautiful game, part 1: Luddite officiating and the ethics of diving

Posted on July 6, 2010

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It’s been a terrific World Cup so far. We all have to keep our fingers crossed for the semi-finals and the finals being as intriguing as the quarters, because our individual and collective memories of the overall quality of any given World Cup lean heavily on the quality of those contests. The nil-nil draw and penalty shoot-out victory for Brazil over Italy in 1994 obliterated our memory of the tremendous tournament to that point. And who remembers — or cares — what happened before France’s stunner over Brazil in the final match four years later?

As we await these matches I turn to the most widely discussed meta-debates throughout this tournament: the quality (or lack thereof) of the officiating for top-flight soccer; and the alleged problem of diving and bad sportsmanship more generally.

I recently wrote 5 separate posts inspired by a controversy about officiating in baseball (starting here), in part because the passion evoked by that controversy tells us so much about how we think and feel about baseball. These two topics are similarly evocative; indeed even in some of the same ways.

1. I am struck by how the two debates have tended to be carried on more or less in isolation of one another. This is a mistake. We only talk about the officiating when there’s a bad call. Diving, however, is kind of in the background all the time, though no doubt more so when certain teams are on the pitch. It is very far in the background, and accepted as a slightly unfortunate fact of life, for many in soccer cultures; but a major annoyance for others, especially North Americans who may have watched the Stanley Cup playoffs in the preceding month and been reminded of just how much physical abuse a determined athlete can accept (where a player can take a puck in the mouth, lose several teeth, and keep playing hard until the whistle). English broadcasters and columnists seem to have an extra-special contempt for diving which they see as an unmanly vandalization of “their” game and maybe even a symptom of the very downfall of civilization as we once knew it.

So we tend to have separate beefs about officiating and diving. But in fact, making and enforcing the rules, on the one hand, and respecting or gaming the rules, on the other, are (to complicate the metaphor) two sides of the same coin. In the design and reform of any institution — like a sport or, say, a banking system — the amount of explicit detail in the rules, the level of sanctions for breaking rules, and the resources and technology used to monitor compliance, are all directly proportional to the ways the designers expect the more general rules and conventions to be violated or gamed.

For example, in the institution called “pick-up football” that I used to play every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning in London (where I was a grad student), we had relatively few rules. We knew the basic rules of soccer (offside, corner kicks, etc), and we had a nice convention for selecting teams (two captains of similar skill-level picking sequentially, with players later swapping teams if one team turned out to be clearly better), and we understood that the point was to have fun and not to hurt anybody with a dangerous tackle. We didn’t need a referee in this institution. There were very few disputes. The sport of Ultimate Frisbee is able to maintain this basic spirit — including the lack of on-field officials — even at its international championships (see a provocative op-ed by my friend Christine Bader on what business leaders can learn from Ultimate).

But top-flight professional soccer is a whole nother kettle of fish. The basic problem is that the strategies for monitoring and sanctioning violations of the rule have come unstuck from the competitive realities of sportsmanship and gamesmanship among the teams and players. This is not meant to be primarily a knock on the players themselves. Institutions evolve and adapt, and within any institution there is a cat-and-mouse game going on between the regulators and the regulated. Pro athletes have selfish reasons to succeed for sure; but also expectations from their teams and fans — and in the case of the World Cup, their compatriots — to do whatever they can to help their teams win. In many cases, this legitimately requires playing as close to the line of illegality as possible. For example, by going hard for 50-50 balls even though a slight miscalculation could lead to a foul. And it also leads to violating rules or gaming conventions when it appears one can get away with it; especially if these kinds of violations are commonplace.

As I will suggest in a moment, a lot of practices get lumped together under the rubric of “diving,” but in general, they look a lot like this kind of behavior. And we see it in almost every corner of rule-governed life: from padding expense accounts, or driving 14 mph over the speed limit, to convincing poor families to take on a mortgage they won’t be able to afford.

Now typically, when violations of the letter or spirit of rules becomes rampant in an institution, this provokes a response by regulators to redefine or tighten rules, and to increase monitoring or punishments for violations. And this is where the system in professional soccer — especially at the level of FIFA — seems to have broken down. The fans can see a disgraceful dive, or a ball temporarily behind the goal line, from 8 angles in high-def slow motion. But the ref is 20 metres away, running with a high pulse and throbbing eyes, trying to see that while also keeping an eye on at least a dozen other things going on. The game is significantly faster than it was even 20 years ago, the marking is tighter than ever, and tweaks in the offsides rule have stretched the play further across the field.

And yet here we are still relying on a single aging referee to follow most of the game, helped only by his two assistants whose primary task is to call offsides (and one, if not both, of whom are usually even further from the play than the ref on the pitch).

In effect, we still have an officiating system (that is a system for monitoring and enforcing code violations) that suited a sport that was significantly slower, and relied heavily on the honor, sportsmanship, ethics, self-regulation — call it what you will — of the amateur players in the game. It is like trying to run a 21st-century pharmaceutical industry relying on the professionalism of 19th-century chemists and pharmacists. The answer in such situations is not generally to harangue the players to self-regulate while leaving the incentive structures and cultural norms that lead players to game the system in place. We don’t expect to avoid another subprime meltdown by wagging fingers at Wall Street and the mortgage industry: we change the rules and the way we monitor and punish them.

But like baseball, soccer has always taken an extremely conservative approach to institutional reform, preferring instead to recite mantras of “fair play” rather than change the nature of its officiating. There is much to commend in this approach. And there is no arguing with its success. In particular, it has preserved a universal sport that can be played by kids anywhere in the world, no matter how dire their local conditions.

But on the biggest international stage, the tension between the professionalism of the game and the amateurishness of the officiating (with all due respect to many terrific, but over-taxed, refs) is exasperating. In the following posts I will explore the specific issue of diving and gamesmanship, and touch on other controversies that lead to disputed goals or unfair punishments. How big a problem are these things, and what, if anything, should FIFA do about it?

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