Category Archives: Institutions

Unintended Consequences, Pt. 2: College Football Edition

Back during the Olympics, I wrote about badminton players intentionally playing to lose. Despite the absurdity of the situation, the Olympians were merely following one of political science’s most important laws:

Law: People will strategize according to the institutional features put in front of them.

We can now add college football players to the list of people who follow the rule. Over the off-season, the NCAA created a rule which forces a player whose helmet comes off during a play (incidental or otherwise) to sit out the following play. To the surprise of no one, defenders are now taking advantage of it. Here is the new game plan, in three simple steps:

  1. Get the opposing quarterback into a large pile.
  2. Take off his helmet.
  3. Profit.

The rule seems inherently bizarre. It’s understandable to force a player to sit out a play if his helmet explodes off of his head on a major hit; concussions are a major issue in football. But if the helmet just slides off (maliciously or otherwise) away from the action, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to force such a player out of the game temporarily.

Olympic Rules Shenanigans: Dolphin Kick Edition

Fresh off the silliness of the badminton play-to-lose scandal comes this lovely piece on dolphin kicks. Last weekend, South African Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 100m breaststroke.

However, Australia’s Olympic committee is putting up a fuss, as video footage of van der Burgh clearly shows him executing three dolphin kicks after diving into the water. (An Australian swimmer finished in second.) Breaststroke competitions allow only one.

And van der Burgh does not give a damn. From the link:

If you’re not doing it, you’re falling behind. It’s not obviously–shall we say–the moral thing to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it.

You see, FINA (the governing body of swimming) does not use cameras underwater to check for illegal dolphin kicks. Moreover, Australia cannot formally appeal van der Burgh’s finish, as there is no formal appeal process.

Of course, an appeal probably wouldn’t do much good, considering the Australian swimmer did the exact same thing.

As with the badminton scandal, the real moral of the story is about institutional design. If you build a bad institution, it will lead to more bad things. Here, you should not create rules that you do not plan to enforce. The players who wish to abide by those rules face a stark choice: play “fair” or let the “unfair” win. So even those wishing to play fair break the rules, and we end up in a situation as though the rule does not exist.

Strangely, the dolphin kick rule could be enforced. FINA used underwater technology at the swimming World Cup in 2010. Everyone knew that dolphin kicks were prohibited and breaking the rules would not go unnoticed, so no one broke them.

Derp! Badminton Could Learn from Political Science (Or, Winning By Losing)

Political science doesn’t have many “laws” the way physics does. But here’s one of them:

Law: People will strategize according to the institutional features put in front of them.

Here’s a corollary that I think should follow from that:

Corollary: If one creates stupid institutional rules, one loses the right to object to people taking advantage of them.

Apparently the Olympic organizing group of badminton could learn from this law and its corollary. Yesterday, you see, eight players intentionally played to lose. Full story here.

The gist of it is this: Early in the day, the #2 team in the world lost their last group game, sending them to the bottom of the teams qualified for the quarterfinals. Later on, teams that were already qualified for the quarterfinals played to lose, concerned that a win would propel them to a high seed that force them to play the #2 team sooner in the elimination bracket. Oops.

Badminton officials were shocked–shocked!–that the players would resort to such a cunningly intelligent strategy. Furthermore, the officials complained that the players had violated a rule that protects against athletes “not using one’s best efforts to win a match”–as though one could reasonably discern what qualifies as “best effort” versus “a little bit less than best effort, but still enough effort to convince everyone that we actually care even though we don’t.”

Here are a couple of solutions for the Olympic badminton committee. First, you could schedule all of the final games group play simultaneously, to make it harder for teams to know to throw matches from the start. (Soccer pulls a similar trick in the Euro and World Cup, albeit for slightly different purposes.) Or you could have a single elimination tournament from the start.

Just don’t be surprised when players try to win…by losing.

Update: The players have been disqualified. Next time, I suggest feigning an injury.

The USA Today story also reports that the Japanese women’s soccer team intentionally sought to draw yesterday, as to avoid playing the United States in the quarterfinals.