In Monday’s New York Times economist Richard Thaler uses Frank Lampard’s ridiculously ruled out goal in the World Cup as a jumping off point to draw parallels between the challenges facing football referees and financial regulators. In “Level Playing Fields, in Soccer and Finance”, He proposes several solutions to the problems of football:
1. Adding referees – more eyes onfield means less errors
2. Adding technology – technology enhances the power of referees
3. Increase scoring – higher scores reduce the impact of poor decisions from officials
4. Redefine ‘offside’ – correct offsides calls are difficult and should be restructured to make the officials’ job easier
5. Rethink penalties [cards/fouls] – the two strike model should abandoned in favor of a more nuanced system
6. Reduce faking – diving should be more closely monitored and punished accordingly
The article reads like a limp attempt to glue financial regulation commentary together with a more popular topic. While Mr. Thaler is a brilliant economist*, it is doubtful that he watches much football. The key difference between financial markets and football is that one should be reducing volatility and the other encouraging it. While the past two years may have confused some about which should be doing which, I remain convinced that football should be the one causing heart palpitations.
Like many other critics Thaler misses much of the point in the football officiating debate. It is not a dearth of innovative solutions that hampers change, but the question of how to balance the medicine with the fluidity of the game. The resources and technology exist to equip the next World Cup with six referees, backup video review, goal line technology, almost everything imaginable to make the pitch a 100% error free zone. But FIFA has rightly asked what many ignore, would that make football more exciting? Imagine a match with as many breaks as basketball to award fouls, or several of the video review sessions of the NFL tucked into a half. It sounds horrendous, but at least it will make time for a commercial break.
We should ask ourselves, as supporters must we be ensured that we are watching a sterilized video game before we can enjoy a match? Is a glitch in the system so abhorrent to our modern entitled natures that we must neuter the entire game to achieve some hollow perfection? We need to step back and take a more mature view of sport; errors are inevitable and while they are to be discouraged they play a part in the game. Removing chance from the equation comes at the cost of money that will eventually be paid by the supporters, and more importantly, excitement.
*I highly recommend Thaler’s paper “The Winner’s Curse” to everyone as well as the full book which also contains it. The book, in particular, is written for a general audience and explains his theory of why irrationality still exists in markets, a discussion that is highly, highly, highly relevant to football.