Stupid Rules and Incentives?

Scottish referees are causing controversy currently with their plans to strike this weekend over the abuse they are suffering North of the Border, and on Wednesday one particular Scottish referee was party to another controversy, this time in a European tie between Ajax (of Amsterdam) and Real Madrid.  Cruising to a 4-0 victory, Real had two players sent off in the last few minutes in somewhat comedy fashion.

It turns out these two players, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, were a yellow card from suspension.  Real, with a win last night, qualified with a game to spare for the knock-out stages of the Champions League – the premier European football competition.  Thus instead of risking that these players get another yellow in their next competitive match in the competition which would lead to their suspension for the next match, coach Jose Mourinho appears to have instructed both players to get sent off because a sending off leads to a one-game suspension and the slate wiped clean.  So the two players miss the meaningless final match against Auxerre and are free to play in the all-important knock-out stages.

This is the kind of managerial genius Mourinho is famed for from his times in charge of Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan.  Of course though, UEFA aren’t so happy about it, and are mooting the possibility of taking some action.  This would of course be a sad mistake – but UEFA are very good at making such mistakes.  The Guardian has written that UEFA would be better placed to ignore the incident.  As they say: It’s a ridiculous loophole created by UEFA’s own disciplinary system, and it’s hardly the worst example of poor sportsmanship ever witnessed in football or elsewhere.

It neatly epitomises the sometimes perverse incentives that institutional structures set in place and so the response, if any, should not be to create more rules on top of the existing seemingly ill-conceived rules.  The Guardian has some suggestions, such as making dead rubbers meaningless for cards, or doubling cards up if they are spotted to be deliberately induced.  These though seem to work within the existing flawed system.  Why not make the disciplinary system progressive in the sense that the slate isn’t wiped clean if a player gets a red card – why reward bad behaviour in such a way?

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