[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 14, 2007 at 11:18am] Trackbacks
Football Most Foul.

At law schools throughout the country, late spring is the season when professors put away lecture notes and turn from coaching their students to refereeing them. As we pick through stacks of exam answers, we serve as arbiters of all the wisdom that can be legibly scribbled into a bluebook in a few furious hours. Each student's grade rests to a certain extent on the decisions we make. But the outcome depends more than anything else on how the student performs. Surely?

To avoid that awkward question for a moment and to be honest, the final I'm most looking forward to these days is not the securities regulation one my students took two days ago but rather the Champions League match between Liverpool & AC Milan next Wednesday. Can we assume that contest will also depend most on how the players perform? Or is it fairer to predict that the referee will play the most prominent role?

Anyone who watched even a few minutes of last summer's World Cup probably has a firm opinion on that question. Casual spectators of the tournament may not have been lucky enough to spot one of the 2.3 goals per game. But they stood a good chance of seeing a referee hand out one of the 346 yellow cards (at a rate of 5.4 per match). And what they could not have missed were the chronic and mortifying instances of world-class athletes writhing about the grass as if possessed.

This clip includes some demonstrations of the behaviour and perhaps suggests its origin:

(Hat tip: Eric Zorn)

In Football Most Foul , I attempt to discern the cause of the deterioration of World Cup soccer into this deplorable state. My conclusion, which I'll explore further in coming posts, is that the rewards and punishments that referees have in their arsenal are too crude and too capable of determining the outcome of the game. The power of referees to work a game's bouleversement with one blow of the whistle — either by sending off a star player or awarding a penalty — places officials at the center of the game.

Players then have a strong incentive to attempt to influence referees, often by bearing false witness to the facts with dives and operatic petitions. This phenomenon appears to be exacerbated at the quadrennial World Cup, where teams play relatively few games for enormous stakes and where caution and calculation often trump free-flowing football. (In domestic leagues and even the Champions League, which involve many more matches, we still see wonderful games like Manchester United's 7-1 demolition of Roma last month.)

My proposals for addressing the situation, which I will also discuss further in future posts, focus primarily on ways of diluting and refining referees' power. For a start, more goals in the game would decrease the relative impact of referees' decisions. And if yellow cards are not sufficient deterrents while red cards effectively defang a team (in the World Cup, only one country scored after receiving a red card and that goal was, naturally, from a penalty), perhaps we need additional punishments of a severity somewhere between the two. Similarly, if penalties have a disproportionate impact on games and, indeed, may determine the outcome (as they did in six World Cup matches), perhaps we need a more finely tuned remedy.

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.

Because soccer is one of those happy topics on which many people will have an opinion, I suspect our comments will soon feature debates about whether Cruyff's Dutch teams of the 70s could beat Zidane's French ones at their zenith. In my next post, I'll propose an agenda for the week to organize our discussion. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this question: what team is being parodied in the clip above?

[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 14, 2007 at 8:34pm] Trackbacks
The Universal Game:

One of the joys of soccer is its universality, both geographically and temporally. Throughout most of the world, players abide by the same rules, and aficionados savor the same trove of historic moments. This pair of connections allows fans from all over the world to recognize footballing genius when they see it and, like well-tutored lawyers, to situate such brilliance in its rightful historical genealogy.

So, for instance, when the 19-year-old Argentine Lionel Messi scored for Barcelona in a Spanish cup match against Getafe last month, spectators everywhere immediately appreciated both the goal's majesty and its startling similarity to the one Maradona scored for Argentina against England in the World Cup 21 years ago. (England fans will also clarify that we're talking about the legitimate Maradona goal as opposed to his "Hand of God" goal "scored" earlier in the same match.)

(A number of clips juxtaposing the two goals exist on YouTube, but I couldn't resist choosing the version with the original play-by-play call from Maradona's goal, which I translate to include such sentiments as "genius, genius, genius," "I want to cry," and "Holy God, long live football!")

This pair of classic goals also demonstrates another aspect of soccer's broad appeal: players from a wide range of statures can excel. Messi and Maradona are both around 5'7". Peter Crouch is 6'7". Thierry Henry is as thin as a baguette. Wayne Rooney is built like a couch.

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. And America has produced very thoughtful writing on the game by such literati as Dave Eggers and Franklin Foer. Even America's favourite economist Steven Levitt has studied the game.

In light of this well-established uniformity across time and space, we need to be careful about attempting to change the rules. But we needn't be paralyzed, particularly when a sport so beloved is suffering. So here is an agenda for a discussion of related topics over the coming days:

Tomorrow, I intend to identify a few specific proposals for improving both the way in which the game is officiated and the rules by which it is played. Naturally, the ensuing discussion will be extremely contentious, as I expect reformers to focus inordinately on rules that address ways in which their favorite teams were most recently betrayed, while purists will deny the need for any such discussion with objections such as "we simply need to enforce the existing rules" and "some rules are new so we just need to give them time to work." In sum, I'm looking forward to the classic legislative sausage factory.

On Wednesday, I thought we could turn to a broader, cultural discussion of why certain countries and regions play the game --- and perhaps game the play --- in certain styles. Here, I anticipate gross nationalistic caricatures that impugn large groups of people. Nevertheless, I hope the topic will still manage to be a fruitful one as well as a way to ask the larger question whether soccer would benefit from a greater degree of federalism than it enjoys under the current monotheism of FIFA.

On Thursday, I hope to expand the discussion of rulemaking and adjudication from soccer to additional areas, such as corporate law and securities regulation.

Finally, on Friday, we might wrap up with an exploration of further topics to explore within the beautiful game itself, such as the classic handball debate: I-Didn't-Mean-To v. I-Didn't-Get-An-Advantage.

[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 15, 2007 at 1:26pm] Trackbacks
Soccer Reform & Reforms:

Our political candidates might have us believe that nothing spruces up the country like a fresh coat of regulation, but rulemaking is of course far from a simple aesthetic matter of enacting "common sense" solutions. Even in the relatively rare cases where a problem is manifest and almost universally condemned, descrying its solution and then fixing it with new rules can be extremely difficult. And attempting to tinker with an already complex system, in particular, can easily exacerbate any original shortcomings.

Executive compensation readily comes to mind as one example. Although a few people think CEO pay is too low, I think it's fair to say that plenty of Americans are put out by the more obscene packages. Yet almost every one of the repeated attempts to regulate compensation has backfired: the taxing of golden parachutes in the early '80s popularized what had been a relatively rare perquisite; the cap on deductions for pay over $1 million quickly turned into a floor; and increased disclosure has allowed CEOs and boards to see what others are getting and to ratchet compensation even higher.

Soccer has its own delicate web of regulation, pieced together to patch over the evil ingenuity of players. For example, the current rule forbidding goalkeepers to pick up backpasses from teammates evolved to cope with chronic time-wasting. And the offside rule was intended to bar strikers from perching and poaching in the opposing goalmouth.

So should we adopt a Burkean approach to the matter and presume that our existing system is the ideal product of a century of footballing wisdom? I will allow that caution is warranted but won't insist on quite so conservative an approach as my esteemed compatriot -- I see the aforementioned rules as fairly good examples of how new rules can improve soccer.

And we are not dealing here with a revered constitution of football; the rules change regularly: the offside rule has been liberalized twice in recent years to switch the interpretation of "even is off" to "even is on" (i.e., an attacker level with the last defender is now onside as opposed to offside) and to allow for harmless error (i.e., players in an "offside" position may not be penalized if they don't interfere with play).

My motivation for proposing changes rests on my primary complaint that, in World Cup soccer especially, referees play too prominent a role. Because of the quality of the competition and the dread of losing on such an important stage, teams often play not to lose, so games are difficult to win through skill alone. Players are well aware that a referee can hugely alter a game by decimating one team with a red card or by awarding a penalty, so naturally (if regrettably) players attempt to fool the referee through chicanery.

My proposals therefore attempt to deal with two separate parts of this dynamic: first, the referee's ability to discern the facts accurately; second, the rewards and punishments that the players are so desperately attempting to cajole from their minders.

First, fact-finding. FIFA could readily increase the ratio of officials to playing surface, by adding more referees, just as many other sports have (e.g., basketball, football, and baseball, which increases the number of its umpires for playoff games). FIFA could incorporate greater use of post-game video review, at least to rule players in or out of subsequent games in a tournament. Finally, in-game video review could allow officials, before play continues

(a) to rule out goals like Maradona's:

and (b) to award red cards to players like Schumacher.

Even venerable old English sports like rugby (which is a free-flowing game) and cricket use this tool.

Players may be deterred from cheating if they believe they will be more readily caught. On the other hand, adding more referees would not obviously achieve the larger goal of reducing the role of referees in soccer.

On that topic, let's turn now to sentencing guidelines. FIFA could fine-tune its existing yellow and red card punishments by instituting a sin-bin to send players off for set periods, as in hockey or rugby. The existing rules against "simulation" (diving) and requiring "injured" players to leave the field could be enforced more rigorously. Referees might be forced to choose whether a given fouler or faker in a tackle deserves a card.

As for a system of more sensitive rewards (which are just more punishments against the offending team), penalties could be awarded only after a certain number of cards have been handed out (as with basketball's free-throw regime) or, of course, the spot could be moved further away from the goal. Given the amount of collectible data on penalties, FIFA should be able to use fairly simple empirical and statistical analyses to determine the distance that would achieve any given scoring rate they desire. With both of these suggestions, however, my fear is that the net effect would be to reduce the overall scoring in the game.

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.

I don't think we'll eliminate the last-minute penalty (see, e.g., Italy v. Australia) but there might be less sense of outrage and frustration if the score of the game at the time were 5-5 than if it were 0-0.

[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 16, 2007 at 11:02am] Trackbacks
Kulturkampf on the Soccer Pitch:

On Monday, our challenge was to figure out what soccer team the Guardian clip was skewering with its depiction of players being coached to dive, writhe, and plead for medical help. Of course, the exercise is something of a Rorschach test, since there are no identifying insignias anywhere and none of the players looks familiar. So, what are we to make of the prominence in the comments of confident nominations for Italy, Portugal, and Mediterranean nations generally?

Gross generalizations or hard-won reputations? Certainly, Northern European nations like to tell a story in which they alone uphold chivalric honor on the field against the encroachment of continental duplicity and sneakiness. This observation fits in nicely with broader cultural tales of Anglo-Saxon fair play, organizational abilities, and willingness to queue up versus Mediterranean penchants for eating dinner late, arguing about a 35-hour work week, and willingness to wear Speedos in public.

In practice (i.e., in pubs from Manchester to Munich), the argument is typically deployed with references to Mediterranean siestas, friends whose pockets were picked in [Rome, Marseille, the Algarve], and that time some guy cut the line at [the Coliseum, the Louvre, a Lisbon shrimp shack]. All of which results in this kind of behavior at the World Cup:

Of course, this isn't the only version of the story. Italian, French, and Portuguese fans are quick to point out the boorish style of English soccer, which long consisted of mindless punts towards galoots up in the box, savage tackles, and nary a whit of style or skill. Roy Keane may not go down lightly in a challenge or be willing to roll around in front of his mates, the argument goes, but he'll happily snap your shin in half.

(See also, Rooney, Wayne, and groin stamp.)

There is a certain amount of truth to both sides of this debate, as footage of English and Italian league matches from twenty years ago will bear out. Yet there has also been a good deal of intermixture in the game since then. The English Premiership today includes many more foreign players than years past, as well as huge amounts of skill and, of course, a fresh surplus of diving. The Mediterranean leagues also include many more foreigners today, a more attacking game than the catenaccio affairs of decades ago, and some serious aggression of its own. For instance:

Only the Italian league seems unwilling to welcome as diverse an array of players and styles -- and so long as the Italians keep winning World Cup and Champions League trophies, they may be unlikely to feel any need to change.

If it is true that some nations are more tolerant of diving, what accounts for that attitude? And is diving a less competitive retreat from a willingness to contend using athletic ability alone or is it, instead, a more competitive willingness to engage in total warfare where every possible advantage is used?

A variation of this discussion of social norms also extends to questions about which of these kinds of societies produce better kinds of players (defenders, goalkeepers, attackers) and officials. Here again, gross caricatures dominate pub and taverna chat about how good goalies can come only from nations with a strong ethic of defending the realm, or how only a laissez-faire society with flair can produce gifted strikers.

I suspect that these topics tie into much deeper cultural attitudes and norms that lie far beyond the scope of these few paragraphs. But, for what it's worth, many observers have pointed out that diving and faking injuries are phenomena almost wholly absent from the women's game.

While Monday's comments connected with a well-established debate about cultural observations in European soccer, Tuesday's collection revealed another, decidedly American cultural debate. That is, the effeteness of this whole game of soccer. This attitude belies a very interesting difference between America, where soccer is not a blue-collar sport, and most of the rest of the world, where it most certainly is.

In America, some commentators would have us believe that soccer is weak because players don't use their hands and there's no manly contact such as there is in football. In Europe, others would retort that American football is just rugby for people who need padding, and baseball is cricket for people who can't catch a ball with their bare hands. Without delving into the merits of these positions, if there are any, what is interesting is the apparently universal need to establish the manliness of one's native sport.

Perhaps this simply has to do with standard nativism and the common tendency to dismiss other stuff as effeminate, Communist, fascist, or whatever else happens to be the epithet du jour. But in England, the saying is that soccer is a game for gentlemen played by thugs, while rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen. So perhaps there's room for "evolution" in American attitudes as well.

[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 17, 2007 at 12:10pm] Trackbacks
Football Federalism:

If we believe that soccer could stand some improvement with a few changes here and there to the laws of the game, how would we go about testing new proposals? The ingenious system of federalism in the United States allows us, within certain limits, to wander into any willing laboratory to experiment with new regulations without heaving the whole system into chaos. The big challenge with sports, of course, is that unlike, say, parking meter policy, the playing and viewing public has a greater desire for uniformity. If we are to have a grand finale to determine the world champion at anything, presumably the world needs to play by the same rules.

On the other hand, different systems of baseball in the National and American Leagues haven't ruled out the World Series. Basketball and hockey also live with different sets of rules for international play and the North American leagues. So, it seems, a certain degree of variation in the rules can be tolerated.

Would it be a good idea to encourage various leagues to test-drive new rules and, if so, could we do it? FIFA comprises several regional football federations (UEFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, &c.), which in turn comprise all the national football associations, so we certainly have plenty of potential laboratories. But would it be a good idea?

Professor Michael Madison of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law points out that heterogeneity has its costs, citing the old North American Soccer League (1968-1984), which experimented unsuccessfully with several ways of increasing the number of goals in the game. Evidently, the American players brought up in such a system suffered at the international level for their lack of experience with the "real" rules. I agree that a country like America, which did not have a sterling football pedigree at the time, might not be the best place to create a soccer secessionist movement.

But perhaps Professor Madison's example suggests that footballing federalism should move down a level, to the lower leagues within countries. If a nation as a whole does not want to be handicapped in international competition, perhaps the experimentation should occur in places like England's League One and Two (which were the Third and Fourth Divisions before the authorities began subscribing to the accreditation inflation that afflicts resumes everywhere and the cup sizes at Starbucks). Or perhaps certain secondary tournaments (Olympics, Under-21 World Cup, &c.) could experiment with the new rules, which would subject each competing nation to the same level of inexperience and confine the scope of the experiment.

So if we have the desire and locales, could we do it? One additional limitation that soccer faces more than the North American sports is its comparative lack of statistics. Free-flowing games are inherently more difficult to measure and quantify. The joy, such as it is, of baseball, football, and (increasingly) basketball games being divided into individual plays of just a few seconds in length is that statisticians and advertisers can deploy their full talents. Soccer simply doesn't lend itself to the kind of dissection that would allow observers to measure the full effects of any experiment with the rules. Perhaps with the technological increases that some teams are beginning to use to track the specific movements of the ball and their players, the sport will develop a large statistical library in the future.

Comparisons between sports and other subjects can go only so far, of course, but it is interesting to consider how creeping centralization (antifederalism?) in corporate law is viewed in many quarters as an impoverishing, not an improving, development. With each passing corporate infelicity (Enron, et al., mutual funds, option backdating, &c.), new laws and rules regularly come down from our federal legislators and regulators. And one effect -- at least with respect to mutual funds -- is that the players (mutual fund advisers) appear to be playing more and more to the referee (the SEC) than to the audience (retail investors) by churning out ever more complex and lengthy prospectuses that no individual investor could reasonably read and comprehend.

Now, to conclude with today's visual entertainment, I include below a friendly rebuttal to Professor Madison on the quality of the NASL via one of the best goals scored anywhere (and I'm not just saying that because George Best is an Irishman):

[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 18, 2007 at 10:56am] Trackbacks
Sporting Sclerosis:

Any discussion of sport and law that grasps for comprehensiveness should consider what the two fields have to teach one another. The premise of such a consideration is, of course, that the two fields are separate, a claim that appears to grow ever more dubious. Rarely if ever will a season of professional sports pass by without the appearance of criminal allegations, contractual disputes, accusations of assault, claims of self-defense, defense of teammates, &c.

Witness this week's debate of rules versus standards in the Suns-Spurs series, in which David Stern vigorously defended the suspension of two of Phoenix's more important players for leaving their bench during an altercation. After parsing what an altercation was (do handbags count?), considering what the bench area is (they took just a few steps), and debating what leaving entails (one player claimed he was just heading to the scorer's table to check in), the league disqualified Stoudemire and Diaw from the subsequent game, which Phoenix duly lost.

Stern abdicated responsibility for the judgment, claiming that the rule is clear. Of course, as Bill Simmons has pointed out, this position ignores the league's responsibility for the rule in the first place. And while rules are always easier to administer than standards, one feels compelled to ask Mr. Stern whether the league and its employees receive generous compensation precisely because they are expected to make the difficult decisions. Perhaps there's a lesson here that soccer may not prosper from more rules and should instead leave a decent amount of discretion in the hands of its officials.

If the path of the law has anything to teach sports, it might be to turn around. Sports appear to be following legal fields such as corporate law and securities regulation along an unswerving route towards ever-greater regulation. Sarbanes-Oxley and new investment company rules have recently added significant layers of regulation to the management of public corporations and mutual funds. Similarly, American sports have just added new rules on such critical issues as what players can wear off the court. Things certainly appear to have gone too far when the FIFA's rules manual now includes this helpful interpretive guide:

Perhaps we need to institute a pay-as-you-go requirement, which would permit new rules in sports only when a corresponding number of existing ones have been retired.

I wonder, though, whether this is another area of cultural divergence. In sports such as soccer and rugby, in which the game is intended to be free-flowing with relatively few mandated stoppages, the addition of rules is antithetical to the style of the sport. In baseball and football, however, aficionados often take great delight in knowing the most arcane rules of interpretation. Since those games stop every few seconds anyway, their overall aesthetic is not significantly altered by adding new rules — the mastery of which only serves to enhance the sense of expertise its fans feel.

Perhaps, perhaps not. It just reminds me of a uniquely American trait to scientificalize things where possible. E.g., in the British Isles, someone who has a headache will typically ask for a "tablet"; in the United States, patients will consider the merits of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, &c.

What, then, lies ahead for the study of sports and the law? One of the biggest questions that arises whenever a new proposal emerges is "what will this do?" So perhaps the future of academic inquiry in this area will involve the increasing use of econometric and statistical analyses, such as the much-discussed study of NBA referees' own-race biases by Justin Wolfers.

For my own part, I'd enjoy looking into the handball rule. Players everywhere seem to believe that the offense has two, independent elements: a subjective scienter requirement plus an objective notion of benefit. Whenever the ball actually hits players' hands, then, they invariably claim either that they did not intend to do it, or that they did not actually get any advantage from it, depending on which account the facts seem most likely to support. Just like the good lawyers and politicians they are, handballers strive mightily to massage away the bad facts.

[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 20, 2007 at 10:44am] Trackbacks

Before I tender my farewell, let me say how tremendously impressed I have been at the depth of knowledge and passion for soccer that I've found amongst the eminently eclectic readership of the Volokh Conspiracy. Now I must return to the study of mutual funds that supports these football musings.

I can't resist a few final petits fours, so here is a parting amusement:

Many thanks to Eugene Volokh and his co-Conspirators for their very gracious invitation and willingness to endure a week in the soccer terraces. I look forward to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when we can revive these debates or, even better, witness a tournament so successful that we don't need to. Until then, I'll be cheering on Liverpool in their Champions League final this coming Wednesday.