Yesterday, Anushree Nande published a very interesting and well-thought piece on Gunners Town regarding player simulation (diving) and poor on-field behavior, citing Gerard Pique’s recent meltdown as an exemplary incident. Like all good and thoughtful pieces, it made me think. I realized that I had some feelings about the piece and, having a background in sport sociology and an appreciation of sport history, I wanted to write a brief response piece. In it, I will highlight briefly some of my historical quibbles with the piece, but I also want to highlight what I agreed with, which was substantial.
The piece starts out with a brief dissemination regarding poor off-field behavior of various players, and the author wonders aloud if we’re in the middle of a trend of increasing off-field behavior. First of all, I think it’s a nigh impossible question to even answer, because the proliferation of invasive media, driven first by journalists and second by fans themselves (think social media and the unprecedented access it gives to fans), and I am reluctant to assign the higher visibility of poor player behavior to an actual increase in poor player behavior. It would take a more patient researcher than I to piece that together, but reading footballer memoirs shows us that much behavior that would be easily made public today never saw the light of day even a few decades ago.
In the end, that’s a question for another time, because the heart of the piece delves into on-field behavior (maybe as an analogue to the off-field stuff? I’m not entirely sure), and it is here where the article gets where it’s going. I don’t want to go point by point because it’s tedious (that method, not the article), but instead summarize the author’s point: that simulation and disrespectful behavior toward officials represents a significant threat to the game and absolutely needs some solution. On this point, we agree. I also want to point out that, in general, I agree with Nande’s solutions… retrospective punishments. I agree with this not because I think it’s the perfect solution, but it does seem to be the best one.
My issues with the piece, such that they are, are in the historical grounding of gamesmanship within the sport. Nande seems to have a bit of historical blindness where gamesmanship is concerned. My own thoughts on the matter, particularly simulation, is that it represents a different form of gamesmanship than earlier historical periods, but doesn’t represent anything new in terms of the goals it is supposed to accomplish. Nande’s point that players will act in ways they are allowed to act is key here. But I suppose my point is that’s always been the case, and this is old wine in a new bottle.
As early as 1948, British scholars were talking about gamesmanship (defined as the art of winning games without actually cheating) in all forms of sport. Interestingly, the author of that book, Stephen Potter, was inspired to write it by his experiences with amateur sport in the United States, so one has to wonder if perhaps gamesmanship in the US is a problem of similar magnitude, even if the form may be different. Anyone watching the NBA in the US, for example, would notice significant similarities to the football simulation and crowding of officials in hopes of influencing outcomes, albeit with substantially fewer people on the field of play.
At the same time, I take particular historical exception to Nande’s account of tennis. While it’s certainly true that in the most recent generation, we have seen a handful of top players who have, by and large, done the game right in terms of the on-court behavior, to color tennis as a sport pristine without even referencing John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors ignores a substantial part of the sport’s recent history (is 40 years recent? Maybe I’m just old). While our sensibilities have changed, I’m not sure anything Nick Kyrgios has said on a court is any worse than what the aforementioned 70s stars have said. In fact, McEnroe is still courting controversy with his recent statements regarding his ability (at 56) to beat Serena Williams.
Finally, I want to get into the “why” question. I feel like as long as Nande sees this form of gamesmanship in strictly contemporary terms, she will only find contemporary reasons for its emergence. But we’ve already seen that this is, in my opinion, an extension of a long-standing problem, so I wanted to look more broadly at causes than she does, though I readily acknowledge that. In particular, I want to look at stakes and player orientation.
As we all know, the stakes in world football have grown at an astounding pace over the last few decades. Television rights fees and sponsorship deals have exploded, as have player and manager salaries, etc. As the stakes continue to rise, it is a rational response by players and managers to instill a “win at all costs” mentality into clubs. Thus, we would expect a rise in gamesmanship-type behaviors, as well as an increase in out-and-out cheating, in particular in the form of performance-enhancing substances.
However, again, this is an a historical approach, as gamesmanship as well as cheating was prevalent in the eras before the capitalistic orgy that pervades professional football today. Granted, my experience is grounded in American sport, but stories abound, particularly in baseball lore, of players using an assortment of stimulants before games, of sign stealing from center field, and of pitchers using whatever substances were available to gain a competitive advantage. It seems that perhaps there is a place for money in this equation, but I would imagine that it resides more on the organizational side. The players seem motivated to win at all costs regardless, and have been for some time. It is this competitive nature, some would argue, that paved the way for their emergence as competitive athletes in the first place.
Instead, I want to look at player orientation. First, I think that Nande got it spot on when she argues that players will behave in whatever way they are allowed to behave. Her examples as to the differences between rugby, cricket, and football are illustrative, and we have our own American analogues. But I also want to introduce the idea that player orientation has perhaps shifted in subtle ways that have verifiable consequences for player behavior.
In particular, players seem to be (and correct me if I’m wrong) rewarded for standing out, and this produces an ego orientation within players. I figure this is at least partly a result of a celebrity culture plus the very tangible rewards of attaining significant sponsorship deals. It simply pays to stand out from the crowd. How does this relate to gamesmanship behaviors, such as diving and referee pressure? Funny you should ask. According to a 2013 study conducted by Pere Palou et al (Palou is a professor at the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain), when coaches use a task orientation (that is, a team orientation to simply get the job done) to motivate players, there is less support amongst those players for utilizing questionable or distasteful tactics to win games. For coaches who institute an ego orientation (emphasizing specific players and their need to stand out in order for teams to win) there was greater acceptance on those teams of employing the same tactics.
It seems, then, that we live in an era where gamesmanship flourishes (as it always has, if the historical record is to be believed). If there has been an increase in this sort of behavior, it is likely due to 1) a combination of an influx of money into the sport, which makes it easy for managers and clubs to turn a blind eye to such behaviors as long as they work and cost little, and 2) an orientation that encourages players to express their individual desires and success in addition to (or possibly in lieu of) team success.
Thus, it is highly unlikely that solutions will come from those quarters, and we must look to organizations like the FA to not only codify expectations of behavior (as they have), but also to prioritize enforcement. Such pressure for these tactics has most likely to come, in my opinion, from fans and the Referees’ Association.
Thanks to our guest today @seanfbrown who asked if he could guest with a rejoinder to Anu’s piece. Dave Seager
Sean is an American-based sport sociologist primarily interested in youth sport and sport fans. He first became fascinated by the Arsenal after reading references to the club in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in my early teens (a quarter century ago) but has only been following closely since 2007 or so. He currently teaches at the University of New Mexico, serves as an editor for two academic journals (Sport in Society and Soccer and Society), and contributes to both Read Arsenal and Cubs Insider (baseball).