Perverse incentives

While watching the World Cup, and pondering the phenomenon of ‘diving’, I came to the realisation that soccer, among other sports*, has contradictory imperatives embedded in its rules.

Theoretically, soccer is a non-contact sport. However it involves a contest for possession of one object of small size. This invites contact, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the rules punish contact unless it can be construed as a legal fiction of non-contact. You can go for the ball, not the player. If you happen to contact the player in the process of going for the ball, that’s OK. But the nature of the contest means such contact is the norm rather than the exception. So the natural actions involved in playing the game – competing for possession of the ball – are contraventions of the rules for playing the game. What it creates is an incentive for the opposing player to demonstrate that you went for him/her rather than the ball, otherwise known as diving. It’s widely acknowledged as the bane of the sport, but given the fundamental set-up, it appears unavoidable.

Contrast this with AFL, a highly artificial game (unlike soccer that has been more ‘organic’ in its development), the rules for which have been constructed with great care, and therefore do not suffer this particular contradiction. In AFL, there is no pretence that you can gain control of the ball without making contact with the opposition. Certain kinds of contact are forbidden, but they do not constitute the typical contact necessary for the playing of the game. Thus opportunities for diving are very few.

* Netball springs to mind, with its constant litany of penalties for “Contact!”

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10 Responses to Perverse incentives

  1. Kat Howlett says:

    Nice analysis! If only there was a solution. I really, really want to like soccer.. but it is so hard!

  2. Steve Edney says:

    Waterpolo, which I play, has a entirely different attitude to this. The nature of the medium makes it very difficult to know what is going on below the surface. As a result This becomes part of the game. Everyone one “cheats” – grabs, holds and pushes below the water level, the point is to make it not clear that you *are* doing this. Similarly people “dive” for fouls if they think they will get them. Its more or less completely accepted that this is going on and part of the fun of the sport.

    Anyway Soccer needs to decide which way it wants to go. Does it want diving to be part of the sport – there is a definite skill in successfully faking it and this seems to be the current tacit FIFA position. Alternatively if they want to stamp it out in which case they should review games after the fact and issue red cards on video replays perhaps each team could submit two incidents for review each game. This would clean it up pretty quickly at the elite level and then the cultural change would filter down. No point for asipring players getting good at something you can’t use at top level.

  3. john walker says:

    might be of interest :

    The computational linguist argues that the world is not made of discrete objects nor represented by binary logic – time to embrace our fuzzy reality

  4. Jarrah says:

    Unfortunately, John, it’s paywalled and I no longer subscribe to New Scientist.

  5. john walker says:

    Yes I stopped for a while; too many articles about cosmology that read like religion.
    ( And too much Richard Dawkins, I would love to lock him in a ego/sound proof box along with Fielding and Jensen, et al: tolerance has its limits)

    I would expect it would be still be in the library .
    Its about the importance of precisely vague: recursive definitions and the like.

  6. JC says:

    The first paragraph is awful. Can’t you try to at least tone down the pompous language and stick to easy to understand difficult points you want to make. You had to later explain the rubbish you first tried to convey.

    Just a suggestion

  7. Jarrah says:

    I do believe you are correct, good sir, in identifying one of my foibles – I do indeed occasionally employ overly unctuous language in my oeuvre. My failing is being generous with my logophilia and parsimonious with editing time. In the latter we are figurative brothers, albeit approaching elusive perfection from opposite ends of the spectrum.

  8. JC says:

    But a good analysis all the same.

  9. john walker says:

    Sir, your words are worthy of Robbie Coltrane’s portrait of Dr Johnson in series 3 of Blackadder.

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