Embracing the Arbitrary, part 1: why arbitrary rules make sports great.

Posted on August 14, 2010


At the end of the previous post I promised to explore some implications of the late Professor Suits’s extraordinary clarification of the concept of a game. (And then I disappeared into work and travel for more than a week.) The intuition is that a better understanding of what makes a sport a sport will help us to solve some classic debates about sports.

The “essence” of a game or a sport, again, is bound up in the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. The participants must embrace rules that prohibit efficient means in favor of inefficient means to achieving the goal of the game. In many cases, the most basic rules are, for all intents and purposes, arbitrary.

The first implication of this view that I want to draw attention to concerns the “ugly American” critique of soccer I raised here: the idea that soccer is inferior to the great American sports because its prohibitions on the use of arms and hands removed from the spectator’s view about half of the athletic feats a human can display. That critique, when it is not based on sheer American exceptionalism, can been seen as following from an initially appealing principle: namely, that “other things equal, Sport-1 is better than Sport-2 if the athletes in S-1 are able to use and display a greater range of human athletic abilities than in S-2.”

But the Suits definition of a game shows us why that principle cannot be true. [Click on the button below to read more…] Taking away some efficient athletic means of achieving a goal, and allowing only inefficient means, is precisely what makes the game. In sports we love, we don’t even think about the efficient means that are (literally) ruled out. I suspect that people who grow up with soccer have never thought for a moment how peculiar it is that they love an athletic endeavor that excludes a vast range of athletic moves. Just as American football fans don’t think it is odd that players (especially, say, offensive linemen) are not able to grab or trip players who don’t have the ball.

What the “ugly American” critique of soccer misses is that the seemingly arbitrary rule in question throws up wonderfully perverse incentives to innovate around the regulation. If players were able to use their hands (as they can in that other branch of football known as rugby, which began life as a rival set of rules to what became known as AsSOCiation football or “soccer”) humans would never have learned how to perform such magic with the legs and feet.

Although there is obviously a science to the techniques of training, starting out of the blocks, and sprinting, there is no denying that the 100m dash essentially involves a human skill that has been at play since the first time our ancestors tried to outrun a lion or catch up with a herd of deer. But the dazzling things a soccer player does with his or her legs were never seen on this planet before the invention of soccer. Things like the ability to kick an object at a small target at well over 100 kph; to pass the ball 40 yards across the pitch, with backspin, and to have it received by a teammate with the foot and brought under control within two feet of his or her body; to curl the ball over “the wall;” to chip it over an onrushing goalkeeper while in full flight; to bicycle-kick a cross…

You get the point. These athletic feats are breathtaking. All the more so if you have played enough soccer to appreciate how difficult they are. (It is hard to appreciate the most subtle and basic skills of a sport one has never played. This is always an obstacle for new spectators when marketers or networks try to introduce a sport popular elsewhere into a new market.)

So there is the first implication of Suits’s concept of a game: arbitrary rules can spur brilliant athletic innovation.

A second implication concerns how it helps us understand what exactly is wrong with cheating and gamesmanship. Stay tuned.