Wednesday, August 02, 2006

World Cup Runneth Over

Warning: This post contains sports-related content. If you are among the sports allergic, or are otherwise averse to the discussion of sporting events, referees, fair play, or the use of terms like "instant replay" and "officiating errors," then stop reading as soon as possible for your own safety. The Meow cannot be responsible for any damage to your psyche resulting from your proceeding into the sports zone. You heard me--I said stop. Okay, but the consequences of reading any further are officially on your own head. Let's play ball.

Most of you who made it past the big bold lettering at the top of this post are probably aware that soccer's premiere event recently transpired in all its glory. The World Cup is quite the pageant, as my husband and I discovered, much to our enjoyment. Neither of us got much "football" exposure growing up, and we've only really been introduced to the sport in the last couple of years. Thus, this was our first encounter with the big show. We watched a good deal of the Cup, though, and enjoyed it a lot. There were several things we could have used an interpreter for, but in general we just enjoyed the play, seeing very talented people perform at the top of their sport. I love sports, anyway, but seeing the best of the best in head to head competition always sends me to my happy place. With a cherry on top.

There were a couple of things which marred the experience for us, though. We both found that sportsmanship was nowhere close to the level that we desired, or expected from elite athletes. We were shocked (very naively, I'm sure) to see players intentionally hurting each other, jabbing and kicking when they thought they could get away with it, and when they thought it would intimidate their opponent, or playing verbal head games to throw the other guy off. More surprising to us still were the number of dives we saw the best of the best taking in order to gain tactical advantage. Players who weren't even touched went down like someone had thrown bricks at them, all to stop, by trickery, an advancing opponent who had beaten them on skill. Come on guys, for Pete's sake!! These athletes are the best in the world. You'd think that they would have too much respect for themselves and the other teams to pull some of the shenanigans that were blatant to even our untrained eyes. A lot of the reffing didn't help either. Some matches seemed completely decided by bad calls--not the way you want to see sports at the level of the World Cup decided.

Needless to say, we weren't the only people disappointed by the negative aspects of the tournament. We heard friends and pundits alike complain vociferously at the bad actors and bad calls. So, is there a solution? Maybe so. I just read an interesting article by Raymond Sauer at TCS Daily, and he addresses the issues at hand from the perspective of economics, and makes some claims that economics can help provide the answers. He's standing on pretty firm ground as far as I can tell.

The first thing Sauer analyses is referee bias, especially favoring the home team, and specifically using the example of soccer. He explains the indications that such bias really does exist, and really can impact the outcome of matches. He then goes on to show how financial incentive tied to post-game referee review has been shown to clean things up from the reffing perspective. If referees are paid based on how well they called the game, confirmed by reviewing the footage after the games are called, apparently that makes the refs all the more likely to call the game accurately in the first place. Interesting, eh? And simple, to boot. Sauer says this same review can apply to players, after the game, with appropriate penalties for taking a dive, or fouls that weren't caught during the game:

Players respond to incentives as well. Controversy flared during the World Cup over players simulating fouls to gain strategic advantage by players. This is not a new issue, but there may be a straightforward solution. Prior to the World Cup, my colleague Brian Goff argued that FIFA should allow post-match video review to punish such offenses after the game is played. The logic in Goff's proposal stems from one of the original papers in Sports Economics, "Crime on the Court," by Robert McCormick and Robert Tollison.

McCormick and Tollison studied an experiment by the Atlantic Coast Conference ACC) in the 1978 season, when they added a third referee to call college basketball games. The added referee implies that a greater percentage of the fouls that take place will be detected, but the number of fouls called actually decreased. Why? Because with the third ref, players knew that their transgressions were more likely to be observed. Increasing the probability of detection (given the appropriate punishment) will decrease the amount of undesired behavior in a sport, as is surely the case with simulated fouls in soccer. The third referee is now a regular feature of NCAA and NBA basketball precisely for this reason. When it comes to referees, incentives matter.

Some people might think it is taking things too far when players, and refs, can be punished for fouls that weren't discovered until after the game is finished. I'm not so sure I agree. Okay, I don't think little league should be subject to video review, but a huge deal like the World Cup? I don't know--I'm sure liking the idea of something that would give the players more incentive to behave themselves. I was discussing with one friend a couple of weeks ago what the options were for changing the behavior on the field. She commented that she wanted to see the players in the future put their focus on the game instead of pushing the buttons of their opponents, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. I remember wondering at the time what could clean the game up. Sauer's ideas have some potential in that direction, if you ask me.

Soccer actually already has a system that's better than most. When a player gets thrown out of the game with a red card, he doesn't just get thrown out of this one, but the next one as well. There's incentive there that carries some weight if wielded properly. So what would be wrong with letting players know that their actions would be subject to scrutiny even after the whistle's blown? There would obviously have to be a time limit to the review involved; you can't have matches hanging over a player's, or ref's head forever, but a limited time of potential consequences might go a long way toward changing behavior. The review shouldn't retroactively change the outcome of games, but changing compensation, or a player's status for the next match? Fair game if you ask me.