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Football, er, Soccer, and Governance

William Birdthistle, at Chicago-Kent, will be guest blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy in the wake of his Green Bag paper, Football Most Foul.  The abstract:

The 2006 FIFA World Cup was a disappointing display of soccer, comprised primarily of forgettable athletic contests that turned most critically on the administration of justice. Referees, more than athletes, emerged as the central protagonists in each game by providing the most dramatic plot twist – either by handing out red cards, which they did at a record pace, or awarding penalty kicks, which provided the winning goal in almost ten percent of the tournament’s games. For much of the viewing public, the footballers’ performances were even more deplorable, as players constantly flopped to the ground at minor or nonexistent contact and thrashed about in apparent agony.Of course, the power of the referees and the acting of the players are closely intertwined, as any system of human order that bestows sweeping authority on its magistrates invites perjury. This article explores the cynical state of World Cup soccer and examines a number of proposals to reduce the game-changing power of referees and the melodramatic chicanery it inspires. If the array of referees’ punishments and rewards can be adjusted, we might be able to increase players’ incentives to play a more beautiful game in future World Cup tournaments.

The governance characteristics of sport are fascinating stuff.  When I taught Property years ago, I spent a class session talking about the informal norms that govern football (soccer) — in particular, the expectation that a team will deliberately put a ball out of play when it observes that an opponent is incapacitated through injury, followed by the expectation that the victim’s team will return the ball when play resumes.

Professor Birdthistle’s paper, though, may miss a couple of important marks.  More below the jump.

First, I’m skeptical of the paper’s premise that the 2006 World Cup was particularly ugly.  The paper starts with a critique of the Netherlands/Portugal match from last summer’s World Cup.  That was a vile match to be sure, and the worst of the tournament.  It was marred early on by the referee’s losing control of the play.  But it was hardly representative of the tournament as a whole, which was generally highly watchable — as were the 2002 and 1998 editions.  If you want stiff, ugly play, recall the 1994 tournament or worse, the forced march of 1990.

Second, I’m skeptical of the paper’s conceptual framework, that a sporting event is primarily adjudicative.  In a number of small ways the metaphor both fits and fails, but in the larger sense I’d set it aside, at least for football (soccer), and suggest that any match isn’t adjudicative.  It’s expressive.  Description and analysis of football has forever been filled with metaphor both aesthetic and ethical.  It’s not an accident that the Brazilians refer to it as “the beautiful game.”  The referee’s function is not merely to assure that the game is played “fairly.”  As the son of a referee, I know that the referee’s task includes optimizing the quality of play (how long is the ball in play vs. out of play, for example), assuring that conflicts are resolved efficiently, and generally being as personally unobtrusive as possible.  The Russian referee who ran the middle in Netherlands v. Portugal erred from the outset not because the ruleset that governs football wasn’t flexible enough to allow him, as a “judicial” officer, to account properly for the cynicism of the players.  In fact, the rules of football — which are really “the laws of the game,” rather than rules — hand the referee, and the referee’s assistants, an enormous amount of discretion.  No, that referee erred because he set himself up as judge in the first place, treating any challenge to his authority as worthy of a citation — or worse — for contempt.

The result of the changed lens is that I’m not persuaded that the governance characteristics of soccer suggest either than reform is needed or that the specific reforms that the paper suggests are wise.  If the criteria are aesthetic and ethical (and one might argue that they should not be, but as wiser scholars than I have argued, aesthetics are frequently inevitable), I’m not worried about the result.  On the other hand, more discussion about the contents of the aesthetic and ethical characteristics of sport — i.e., more transparency — might be a good idea.

I won’t belabor the point in this post, but perhaps there will be opportunities in the future.  I’m looking forward to Professor Birdthistle’s blogging.

[Spotted via Conglomerate]

UPDATE (5/14 at 5:15 pm EDT):  I’ll update this post with links to the VC football/soccer posts.

Here’s the first one.  (“In the coming days, I look forward to exploring this relationship between legislation and adjudication as well as the question whether too much law can ruin a game.”)

And the second.  (“So can this footballing universalism overcome American exceptionalism? I think so. Although professional soccer here will long struggle against the four dominant sports leagues, all those hordes of soccer moms must be chauffering around a massive young generation of soccer children.”)

Here’s the third.  (“Again, my overarching belief is that more goals, not fewer, will do the most to make each individual decision by the referee less pivotal. I acknowledge that fractional or multivalue scoring is probably too significant a change to the game (as would be altering the size of the goal), but scoring could be increased through relatively innocuous means, such as by loosening the offside rules even further.”)

A fourth (“Football federalism”).

2 thoughts on “Football, er, Soccer, and Governance”

  1. I wonder if the quality of the game is being sacrificed for the sake of self-discipline & order. I note that Brazil’s World Cup team lacked the passion and wild abandon that it usually practices. (I remember they played with those two characteristics in the 1998 & 2002 editions. Also, if Romario had played in the final in Paris in ’98, the results could have been different.)

  2. I think William’s posts and his article are motivated to a large extent by a desire to weed out a problem with adjudication in soccer: namely, the incentives that lead players to simulate injury and the difficulty of separating simulation from genuine fouls. I don’t think there’s a soccer observer who disagrees that diving is a real problem in the sport, though different cultures seem to assess the problem differently (Latins tolerate it with a shrug, while Anglophones seem to think it’s only slightly less evil than Nazi pedophilia).

    And this issue aside, it seems to me that soccer doesn’t have an essential nature (adjudicative v. expressive), but that it makes more sense to describe these as two aesthetic themes that recur in the game. Adjudication in soccer tends to constrain expression, as it prevents teams from playing as freely as they might in the absence of concerns about fouls. Of course, a purely expressive game would be chaotic, so some outer limit of adjudication is necessary to provide constraints within which players can express themselves. How you want balance these two traits depends on what you think of the game. If you found the 2006 WC wonderfully expressive, you’d have no problem with its adjudicative structure. If you feel that the play was overly cautious and restrained (which I tend to think), then you’re likely to think we could do with less adjudication. How to implement the latter change is, of course, a tricky question I don’t have a ready answer to. (Though getting rid of the offsides rule seems a good start.)

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