Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rational Fouls? Yes, Professional Soccer Players Mostly Cheat Rationally

Fans usually watch soccer games with a great deal of excitement and passion. The players look excited too, even passionate. But remember, they are professional soccer players, hired and paid well to perform at top levels. Your local team may not be all that good (it depends on where you live), but the games broadcast on television involve top league sides that can hire elite players from anywhere in the world. Has it occurred to you that they may actually be more calculating than passionate when playing the game?

They are, at least most of the time. In a forthcoming paper in Organization Studies, Nils Rudi, Anup Walvekar, and I studied how soccer players foul each other. In other words, we studied how a soccer player decides to slide down, kick down, elbow, or pull an opposing-team player so that the referee calls a foul.

Fouls are an interesting topic, for a few reasons. First, fouls are against the rules of the game, but can benefit their team. They are a good comparison with other things employees can do that are illegal or immoral but benefits their firm in the short term, such as misleading or defrauding customers. Second, fouls are risky for the player. The referee is watching, and a violent foul not only gives a free kick, but also a yellow card to the fouling player. That can be very expensive for a player who gets a per-game bonus payment, as many of them do. Finally, fouls often look like acts of passion, as when a defending player slides into the attacker to knock him down.

So how do soccer players decide when to foul? Mostly they are rational. We were able to calculate the cost of fouling as change in likelihood that the team of the fouled player will score as a result of the foul. Intuitively, this is easy – fouls lead to free kicks, which can give goals. (Mathematically it is more complicated, but it is completely doable.) We were able to show that players choose are more likely to foul more the better it is for the team to do so. Not exactly surprising, except that the effect was quite strong. Many of you know enough about the off-the-field antics of some soccer players to doubt that they are fully rational, but on the field, they are complete professionals and experts in what they do.

But there are two exceptions, and both are interesting. First, there is the organizational goal of winning the game. Players and teams hate to lose a lead, and they foul less rationally when they are defending a lead. Second, there is the individual goal of looking good. Players hate to lose the ball, and they foul less rationally when they have just lost the ball to the opposing team. In fact, they completely lose their rationality if they are near the player who stripped them of the ball.

We know this because we can measure not only whether organizational and individual goals affect the likelihood of fouling, but also whether it affects how much the cost of fouling is taken into consideration. Defending a lead and becoming hot-headed after losing the ball both make the player think less of the cost of fouling. So, we know that in one type of organization with a highly expert team, decisions are made rationally except for when it really matters to the decision maker.