Bad Rules Encourage Bad Results

This post will be a little soccer-heavy, so bear with me. I’ll broaden the scope a little as we move along.

If you follow the sport at all, you’re probably aware of the problem of “diving”, the act of simulating a foul in order to fool the referee into awarding you a free kick or a penalty. There are times when players will dive so elaborately that you can’t imagine that it would fool anyone, but remember: There are only three officials, a referee and two linesmen, to keep track of the 22 players on the field. They make mistakes sometimes.

Here are some good examples.

Now, there is a rule against diving and a player who is adjudged to have tried to have fooled the referee can be given a yellow card for doing so. I don’t have the numbers handy, but it’s my understanding that diving has abated a little bit in leagues where this punishment exists, but obviously, diving still exists. The potential benefit outweighs the risk of being caught and/or the punishment.

Now, there are a couple of things about this situation that I find interesting. One thing you’ll note if you watch the video is that dives are most often not complete simulations. In most cases, there’s some contact there and the player is exaggerating it, but not creating the incident out of thin air. This suggests that there are cases where legitimate fouls will not be called unless the player embellishes the incident. We’ll come back to that.

The larger and more interesting aspect of this is the other side of the coin. Defenders foul many, many more times than attackers dive. Anyone who’s watched the sport for five minutes can tell you this. Shirt pulling is absolutely rampant on set pieces.

Here’s what I mean.

This happens on every play. I’ve seen images (which, of course, I can’t find now) of five players in a single photo having their shirts held by defenders. This, too, is cheating. The defenders are trying to con the refs and they’re every bit as blatant about it as the divers. What’s interesting is that this goes on even though the punishment for shirt-pulling in the penalty box is much greater than the penalty for diving. Shirt-pulling in the penalty box results in a penalty which is as close to a certain goal as you can get unless you’re playing England in a tournament. Why does this much-harsher penalty fail to deter the cheaters?

My suspicion is that the proscribed penalty is so harsh that the referee will only impose it in the most obvious of cases. A single penalty kick is often the deciding point of a match. If they were to call everything according to the laws of the game, there would be literally dozens of penalty kicks awarded every match. They don’t want to do that. So, the cheating continues because the punishment is too harsh.

So, can it be fixed?

Of course it can be fixed. I’ve heard the argument that there’s no point in trying to make new rules because the cheaters will always find a way to cheat and we don’t want to ruin the game because “it’s always been that way and you can’t change it.” That’s a profoundly stupid argument to make. The rules weren’t set in stone by some perfect soccer-God. They’ve been updated and re-interpreted countless times. If they’ve failed to prevent a particular kind of cheating, that isn’t a testament to the pointlessness of making rules, it just means that the rulemakers didn’t get it right and they need to try again.

As an American, I was raised to believe that fighting had always been a part of hockey and you couldn’t remove it without destroying the game. Then I saw a European national team take on the local minor league hockey team. It was really kind of funny. Every time there was any physical contact, the minor league player dropped his gloves and squared up to fight while the European player just kept skating.  This happened at least half a dozen times. It turns out you really could have legitimate hockey without the fighting. I won’t argue  which was “better”; I’m just saying that hockey-without-fighting is, in fact, possible despite the noise you’ll hear to the contrary.

Or look at hooking penalties in the NHL. Hooking is the hockey equivalent of shirt-pulling. Defenders use their sticks to haul back speedier attackers. This had been going on since before I was aware of hockey; it was an entrenched tradition. The league, however, decided that it was ruining the aesthetic value of the game and decided to get rid of it. So, they made enforcing the rules a priority and the referees went along with it. The teams quickly realized that, if they didn’t change how they played, they would lose. So they changed.

My point is: If there’s a will to change something, it can be changed. The system can be changed so that it rewards the result you want and punishes the behavior that you don’t want. The idea that “you could never do that here” as though “here” was some place frozen in amber where people and ideas and attitudes never change is, I think, very naive.

That’s true of real gun control laws, too. If Americans were to want them and had the will to fight for them….
And if the gun control laws that are currently in existence don’t work, that’s not an indication that gun control can never work. It just means the laws we have in place, no matter how well-intentioned they are, aren’t good enough.

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