Category Archives: gaming the rules

Redshirting: Holding kids back from kindergarten is bad gamesmanship

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on academic redshirting, the practice of holding kindergarten age-eligible children back in order to allow extra time for socioemotional, intellectual, or physical growth. The segment also included an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, who articulated a similar phenomenon in the case of older hockey players in his book Outliers (Gladwell calls the phenomenon “accumulative advantage”). In the many adversarial institutions these parents want their children to excel in (little league sports, elementary academics, and the cafeteria social hierarchy), there is a significant advantage for students who are older. The 60 Minutes segment showed a lot of eager mothers who adamantly claim they were not breaking any rules, but just doing what was best for their children.

Within current confines, those parents are not breaking any official rules. But, there is a sense that eager parents are gaming the system. This sort of gamesmanship also signifies a paradigm shift in extracurricular activities. Little league sports are no longer just for fun—they are institutions that cultivate talent and personalities prone to success. Most interestingly, it also appears that the process of raising children has shifted from a once inherently rewarding practice to an adversarial institution where the benefits of winning are permanent.

War Ethics for Dumdums (Bullets)

Posted by Sarah:

Before sports or electoral politics, there was war.  It is the primordial adversarial institution and only recently has there been a concentrated effort to legally establish permitted weapons, methods, and targets.  Yet, with common sayings like, “all’s fair in love and war,” and “war is hell,” it’s clear that these efforts have had only modest impact on “civilizing” war by bringing deliberate ethical standards to its conduct.

Unlike other adversarial institutions, such as sports and business, there no powerful global regulatory authority to make states play by the rules.  Instead, adherence to the rules of war depends, for the most part, on positive reciprocity and mutual self-respect. Deposed dictators and war criminals on the run may get dragged into international courts now. But powerful states have always been free to choose to forgo the rules – e.g., in situations where the enemy is at a distinct military disadvantage or where abrogation confers the only or best opportunity to defeat a superior enemy.

The US and its NATO allies have routinely been accused of flouting the rules of war in recent engagements. But we can find great powers selectively ignoring, or “gaming,” the rules of war for as long as there have been attempts to formalize such rule.

Consider how the British ignored the St. Petersburg Declaration (1868), which outlawed exploding “dum dum” bullets, in the Battle of Omdurman (1898) during the Mahdist War (also called the Anglo-Sudan War) between the Mahdist Sudanese and Egyptian/British forces.  The effectiveness of the dum dum bullets allowed the British to kill over 11,000 Dervishes, compared to only 47 British casualties.  The British justified their actions by arguing that the St. Petersburg Declaration only applied to signatories, which did not include the Dervishes.

As one Greek officer during the Balkan Wars reasoned, “When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself.  It is the only thing they understand.” Such logic implies that that the “barbarians” will not adhere to the rules of law and thus, “civilized” societies must adopt barbaric practices as well — otherwise it would be like fighting with one hand tied behind their back.  When one side refuses to comply with international agreements limiting weapons or tactics, abiding by a standard that was designed to be bilateral puts a state at a distinct disadvantage.

It is clear, however, in this battle, the Dervishes could not have used dum dum bullets, regardless of whether they were signatories to the St. Petersburg Declaration.  With no threat of retaliation, the British took advantage of a legal loophole to obliterate the enemy with the most effective weaponry at the time.

When the object is decisive victory with the lowest cost, were the British actions at the Battle of Omdurman “cheating” or immoral – or were they ethically acceptable?  If both sides have not agreed to adhere to the rules, are all actions morally permissible? What mechanisms mediating international relations exist or might be created to augment incentives to comply with ethical norms in conducting war, particularly when conflict is asymmetric, involving inferior or irregular combatants?

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be exploring in future posts on this blog.

Obama on the basic framework for adversarial ethics: why international trade is like a pick-up basketball game

In his press conference following the recent APEC meetings in Honolulu, President Obama laid out a pretty basic normative framework for the adversarial institution of international trade. The question he was addressing involved the perception among American politicians and some Asian leaders that China was not exactly playing cricket.

And I think leaders in the region understand that as China grows, as its economic influence expands, that the expectation is, is that they will be a responsible leader in the world economy — which is what the United States has tried to do. I mean, we try to set up rules that are universal, that everybody can follow, and then we play by those rules. And then we compete fiercely. But we don’t try to game the system. That’s part of what leadership is about.

China has the opportunity to be that same type of leader. And as the world’s second-largest economy, I think that’s going to be important not just for this region, but for the world. But that requires them to take responsibility, to understand that their role is different now than it might have been 20 years ago or 30 years ago, where if they were breaking some rules, it didn’t really matter, it did not have a significant impact. You weren’t seeing huge trade imbalances that had consequences for the world financial system.

Now they’ve grown up, and so they’re going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way.

What he is describing, essentially, are the rules for a pick-up game of soccer or basketball among a bunch of people from the same neighborhood. You agree to a set of reasonable rules (given there are no real referees), you expect everyone to follow the rules, each person still plays hard to win within those rules, and the whole game is threatened if one or more players are consistently trying to get away with blatant cheating or fouling. Obama says, “that’s part of what leadership is about,” and here he is really talking about sportsmanship.

Obama is chastising China for gaming the rules (e.g., by not devaluing its currency), though it is not clear they ever agreed to that particular rule. This press conference also unveiled some details about a new “Trans-Pacific Partnership” that might lead to a free-trade zone. But it appears that China is not welcome in this partnership until it agrees to abide by a fair set of rules.

It’s interesting that Obama also references an exception to full compliance that is often accepted by participants in a pick-up soccer or basketball game: that you may give a younger kid a little more latitude (say, to receive a pass off-side in soccer, or to travel or double-dribble in basketball). It can be fun to watch the kid trying to play “with men” above his talent level. But it nevertheless gets pretty annoying if the kid grows up to be one of the strongest players and still expects special rules or exceptions for himself alone.

Adversarial ethics under the stars: competitive time-wasting in K-Ville

This is the inaugural post by Leonard Ng’eno and Michael McCreary.

Hours before this year’s basketball showdown in Cameron Indoor Stadium between consummate rivals Duke and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the chancellor of UNC—Holden Thorp—took an early swing at the Blue Devils by tweeting, “Our students are talking about the future and asking smart questions instead of wasting time sitting in a tent.”[1]

The Krzyzewskiville tradition involving hundreds of Duke undergraduates camping out for weeks in advance to get their single-square-foot claim on courtside real estate for one of the most highly anticipated events in all of sports has become iconic of both the institution and fandom at large.  Duke fans, or Cameron Crazies, are known for their intensity and are proud to serve as the “Sixth Man” on Duke’s squad, providing an added advantage for the home team which is soundly reflected in the record books.  As Duke undergraduates, we were obviously offended by Thorp’s cheap shot at our tradition, our team, and our friends, but after the initial sting began to fade we started to wonder: Was Thorp right?  Is spending a month in a tent in order to see a premier basketball game a waste of time?

We’ll let K-Ville residents speak for themselves as to whether or not their month outdoors was worth their while this year; the specific questions we wish to address are these: What is the function of K-Ville?  What are its shortcomings?  And is there a preferable alternative?

The necessitation of K-Ville comes from the foundational economic principles of supply and demand, where supply represents the limited number of seats available and demand represents the number of undergraduate students vying for those seats.  This excess demand creates the need for some filtration process to achieve equilibrium.  In effect, tenting at K-Ville serves as a kind of “price adjustment” mechanism, increasing the cost (not monetary, but physical) of attendance and as a consequence lowering the demand.

K-Ville, and lining up in general, functions from a deliberately adversarial point of view where many students are competing against one another for a limited number of seats.  The principal shortcoming of K-Ville is that very few students—including the ones who participate—enjoy sleeping out in the cold while concurrently paying for a nice, heated room: grades suffer, relationships are strained, and comfort is sacrificed.  Yet, it is K-Ville residents themselves who dictate their own fate.  Living in a tent is not, strictly speaking, a requirement of attending the game.  Admittance relies on a “first-come first-served” policy, and K-Ville residents are merely admitted because they are the first in line.

In this way, we can see how lining up poses a serious collective action problem; one which, according to Professor Joseph Heath, “can easily degenerate into a race to the bottom, in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.” While lining up early may be in one’s own self-interest in order to guarantee a spot, the inherently competitive move prompts others to line up earlier as well and can eventuate into months of waiting for hundreds of students.  On the other hand, if the amalgam of attendees turned up just an hour before the game, the result would be the same as if they had lined up in the same order months ago.

The primary problem in dodging this race to the bottom, however, is that there is no way to know who would commit to lining up first without going through the process genuinely (i.e. with every intent to sleep there for the entire duration).  It could be conceived that one year K-Ville residents decided to form a pact, after completely intending to stay there the whole time, that said they would each get in line in their set order an hour before the game and avoid camping out.  However, problems with this solution would be that there would be no way to prevent others from lining up during that time or to ensure that signatories of the pact would not break their oath.  Furthermore, such an agreement would, to some extent, undermine the legitimacy of the next year’s line, as some might line up with an expectation to make another pact while some might not line up at all, thinking that they could just outwit the people who make the pact this time around.  In essence, there doesn’t seem to be any way to artificially generate and ensure the results of the natural queuing process.

To tackle this problem, we need to reduce the demand for seats by setting up a fair competition that does not lead to a race to the bottom.  In arriving at our proposed solution, we took as a premise that a fair competition is one that favors those who want to go to the game the most (i.e. those who are willing to pay the highest price).  This premise is not only founded upon common marketplace ideas, but also seems to be the source of legitimacy for the existing queuing system.  Thus our method was to find some competitive system that would allow the most devoted students to demonstrate their fanaticism by paying a more productive and fun cost than standing in a line.  By definition, costs are rarely productive or fun (you aren’t going to reduce demand by giving people free candy), and so it took some thinking to come up with something, but in the end we were pleased with our solution.

We propose setting up a competition based on attendance of other Duke Athletics events.  Those who have attended the most Duke games, of any sport, would get priority for the seating to men’s basketball games, including the marquee matchup with UNC.  The university already has a system in place that rewards students for attending sporting events, called The Inferno.  We suggest that The Inferno be expanded to not only give points to students for attending games, but also to reward students with game seats when demand is expected to exceed supply. Thus by basing admittance to the Duke-UNC game on a student’s attendance at other Duke games, we avoid the race to the bottom result that forces students to camp out for longer and longer periods each season in order to attend one game.


[1] Thorp has since taken down the tweet and apologized.

Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it

Should women lacrosse players be required to wear helmets? Should people be allowed to text and drive?

We learn a lot about the dynamics of regulation in deliberately adversarial institutions by looking at the social-science laboratories known as sports. The guardians of heavily regulated competitions in sports and life are presented with an irresistible solution whenever systematic “issues” arise within their contests: tweak the rules.

The guardians of a sport or, say, an industry, get to “play god” with it. But as any fan of science fiction knows all-too-well, those playing god, or accused of playing god, tend to lack god’s omniscience. They have a hard time foreseeing the dynamic consequences of their rule-tweaking. This is especially true when putative solutions involve simple technological fixes. Game-players excel by using strategic rationality, so rule-changes will change behavior, but not always in the direction the regulators intend.

Across the sporting world, the past year has been the Year of the Concussion. The Onion recently satirized the trend with its article on “Puppy Bowl Marred by Tragic Spinal Injury.”

The injury, which occurred only minutes before the Kitty Halftime Show, followed a routine midfield burst of play. Slow-motion footage from the sideline and water-dish cameras show Alvin romping flat out down the sidelines before taking a risky crossing route to come at the football from an angle, at which point two larger puppies, Amy, a golden retriever, and Big Red, a 13-week-old shepherd mix, laid a massive hit on Alvin, who responded with a shrill yelp that was suddenly and ominously cut off.

Dark stuff.

But if competitors can use strategic rationality, so can regulators. A fascinating case study is going on right now in NCAA women’s lacrosse. Unlike their male counterparts (who play a vicious, gladiatorial game), the women play with speed, finesse, and without helmets. And sure enough, they get concussions. A lot of concussions.

Simple solution: make them wear helmets. Or not. As the New York Times reports in a provocative article entitled A Case Against Helmets in Lacrosse, many inside the sport believe that introducing helmets would simply lead to more violent or reckless play — and thus to more head injuries, not fewer.

“It’s hard to absolutely prove, but what we’ve seen is that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected, especially when it comes to the head and helmets,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, Princeton’s director of athletic medicine services and chairwoman of the U.S. Lacrosse safety committee. “They tend to put their bodies and heads in danger that they wouldn’t without the protection. And they aren’t as protected as they might think.”

Of course, this does not show that every regulatory impulse is misguided. Automobile makers resisted installing seat belts for years, and did not work on designing more effective seat belts until relatively late in the game. Eventually, they were forced by regulators in the 1960s and 70s to make seat belts mandatory. But even then many dissenters continued to argue that belts would cause more harm than good: that it would be better to be “thrown clear” of the crash, than trapped inside it. (Yes, thrown clear at, say, 60 mph…into on-coming traffic.) Studies would eventually prove the effectiveness of good seat belts, and by the 1980s their use was becoming mandatory in most jurisdictions. It is doubtful that seat belts led to drivers becoming more reckless because they now felt safer and less prone to injury — though that has surely happened in hockey and American football.

Still, consequences of regulating are often unforeseen and perverse. Not least when the “players” do not observe the spirit of the new rules. There is clear evidence that texting while driving is extremely dangerous. More dangerous than illegal levels of alcohol in the driver’s blood. So many jurisdictions have banned texting while driving. Sensible? Sure. Has it reduced accidents? No: in an effort to escape detection, people are now texting in their laps rather than up over the wheel (where they can hope to see traffic in their peripheral vision), and texting-related accidents are on the rise.

Jump quickly over the gap

Following from the aesthetic analysis of business cartoons in the previous post, here’s another old chestnut on the same theme.

(This comic is reposted without permission and will be removed upon request.)

Adversarial Ethics and the Sports Fan: How Crazy is too Crazie?

We can all agree that athlete’ s behavior falls under the purview of a deliberately adversarial code of ethics. In a basketball game, a player who fouls another as she’s shooting isn’ t considered immoral, rather she is violating a rule of the game. Further, we hold athletes and coaches to a code of “sportsmanship” that extends both on and off the court. They shouldn’t cheat even when they can get away with it; they shouldn’ tfake injuries to draw a foul or penalty on the other team, and they shouldn’t ingestperformance-enhancing drugs while training.

But, what about the fans? Is a team cheating if its fans behave in ways that give the team a strong home-court advantage? Very few of us will ever rise to the level of collegiate or professional athletes, but that doesn’ t stop millions of people from being heavily invested in the outcome of sporting events. Fans are often the worst perpetrators of both pre and post-game “ trash talk” and have been known to direct demeaning and even vulgar chants at opponents. Does adversarial ethics engage with this type of fan behavior? Or is does this kind of behavior simply fall under codes for what it is to be a decent person in general?

Consider the “Cameron Crazies”, Duke University’s die-hard, bleeding-bluemen’s basketball fan base. ESPN writes that the “Crazies have earned a reputation as the rowdiest, wittiest, best-organized college basketball fans in the land.” Known for camping out for the notorious Duke-UNC game in Kryzewskiville for up to two months,the Crazies are notorious for their rambunctious behavior in games.

A few years ago,ESPN’s “Page 2” series wrote an article on “Cameron’ s Craziest” moments. Some of the more controversial moments included:

  • After disagreeing with referee Dick Paparo’s call the Crazies chanted: “You suck, Dick!” (The comma wasn’t as evident in the verbal chorus.) It’s worth nothing, however, that Coach K was not a fan of this chant and demanded the Crazies, “ keep it classy.”
  • When a Maryland player was rumored to have sexually assaulted another student, the Crazies mockingly chanted: “HEY, HERM, DID YOU SEND HER FLOWERS?”
  • Although not listed in the ESPN article, I myself, as an admitted Cameron Crazy, have witnessed a few borderline offensive cheers. While playing an opponent where one of the team members was accused of sexual assault this year, some in the crowd chanted “NO MEANS NO!”

Often, chants are aimed to intimidate or  psych out”opponents, taking aim at their personal lives. Some chants even include profanity, although recently Coach K has encouraged Crazies to “be more creative” than that in his pre-game talks. So the question is, where do we “draw the line” between appropriate cheering and offensive, even unethical, fan tactics?

Certainly there are clear examples: when the Crazies cheer enthusiastically after a dunk or 3-pointer for instance, or when fans shout “Defense!” Such cheers that are simply in support of the fan’s team seem clearly within the appropriate range of fan tactics. Things become murky, however, when fans like the Crazies draw in personal attacks on players. It’s worth noting, as well, that these are not professional athletes, but rather 18-22 year old “student athletes.”

Is it right to mock these players for their personal lives, is it right to make light of subjects as sensitive as sexual assault in a sports atmosphere? And perhaps most importantly from the perspective of adversarial ethics, is it fair for the Blue Devils to gain an advantage on the court because of some of these dubious fantactics?

I certainly don’t have the answer to these questions, and I must admit that while in the mob mentality of the Cameron Crazies the answers clearly seem to be YES! Although I believe that much of our thinking about the adversarial ethics should extend to fans, I believe there is a strong case, particularly in college sports, for drawing a distinction between fun, competitive cheering and derogatory or mocking jaunts aimed directly at the personal lives of opponents.

[For a follow-up post, taking the historic Duke-UNC game of 9 Februrary 2011 into account, click here.]