NFL stands for National Football League, and the football in question is of the American sort. British TV has been showing American football games for the last three decades or so, games which I sometimes watch, either as they happen (during the small and not-so-small hours of the morning), or (which never seems nearly such fun) from a recording I have made the night before, the following evening, or even later than that.
There are quite a few American football fans on this side of the Atlantic, as a result of this TV coverage, and also because Europe has contained quite a few Americans during the last few decades, doing this and that, and also playing and spreading enthusiasm for their version of football. Not so long ago there was even an American Football European League. They couldn’t make it stick, but it has all helped to spread the word.
Last weekend, many of the more devoted of these fans descended on London, to attend a Fan Rally in Trafalgar Square last Saturday, and then on the Sunday to watch the Chicago Bears play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Wembley Stadium, no less. Part of the point of this posting is to provide me with an excuse to link to these fan shirt photos which I took last Saturday in Trafalgar Square. Further snaps of this event that I took, which show what the event looked like as a whole, here.
The better to excuse this blatant ego-linkage, what I really wanted next was a Samizdata-friendly hook on which to hang an NFL-related posting, and right on cue, the NFL has recently been obliging. For the NFL is, right now, offering the world a truly exquisite example of that all too familiar circumstance, the unintended consequence that results from a perverse incentive. You didn’t intend to incentivise this or that bad thing. But, perversely, you did. Unintended consequences and perverse incentives feature here at Samizdata quite a lot, on acount of them being a characteristic perpetration of politicians, a tribe notorious the world over for their eagerness to be seen to be doing something about whatever is the crisis of the moment, but for being far less concerned about how the various measures they impose, so hastily and so thoughtlessly, work out in practise, and especially how they work in the longer run rather than just immediately. Throwing laws, regulations and above all money at whatever politicians decide is a problem, rather than the politicians just letting people solve the problem or problems in question as best they can, being characteristic politician (and voter) reflexes of our era. You have only to consider the recent turmoil in the banking business.
Or consider welfare spending. Earlier this week, BBC2 TV featured one of those investigation-with-argument “documentary” shows, in which British political reporter and interviewer John Humphrys was lamenting how the British Welfare State, founded to help a few people temporarily down on their luck who needed tiding over, has degenerated over the decades into a vastly expensive machine for encouraging – in fact downright purchasing – mass unemployment, destroying the inclination to work amongst a truly enormous swathe of Britain’s population. This perverse outcome, said Humphrys, was absolutely not what was intended by the people who started the British Welfare State in its modern form, just after World War 2. But it is what has happened.
So anyway, back to the NFL. The NFL doesn’t have promotion and relegation, from or to a lower league, in the manner of England’s soccer Premier League. What it has is a fixed set of franchises, and the ups and downs of American life register on these franchises when one of them gets moved from one American city to another.
The NFL also tries to make the contests between the different teams reasonably even, by jigging the rules in favour of weaker teams,so that weaker teams can bounce back up from failure. And as soon as I put that, you can already feel those unintended consequences resulting from perverse incentives creeping towards you, can’t you?
What the NFL is trying to avoid is a circumstance of the sort that prevails in the English soccer Premier League, where a small handful of teams (for the last decade or so it’s been Manchester United, Liverpool, Aresenal and Chelsea) have tended to dominate, year after year. True, if super-rich owners buy up a hitherto lesser club, the dominant handful can alter somewhat. Arsenal and Liverpool (particularly Liverpool) now appear to be slipping, and Tottenham and Manchester City (particularly Manchester City) are on the up-and-up. But, the NFL does have a point. It is rather boring the way the same old English soccer teams always seem to be up at the top of the League come the end of the season, scrapping with each other for the title. A lowly team sometimes makes a brilliant start to the season, but with seeming inevitability it falls back to mid-table or worse by the time the title is being decided.
One of the ways that the NFL tries to even things up between the strong teams and the weaker teams is to have a “salary cap”, which places an upper limit on the total wage bill for each team, assuming I understand that rule approximately right. That way, super-rich owners willing to turn their large fortunes into small fortunes by buying sporting success, can’t.
Another NFL contrivance is to give weaker teams the first pick from amongst the new players, come the start of the following season. This “draft” doesn’t sound good to a European soccer fan, because it sounds like these drafted players get no say about which city they are going to ply their trade. And, if I understand things right, that is indeed the case, at least to start with, yes? But, I believe I’m correct in thinking that players can be traded, and that in fact a player can have a decisive influence over where he ends up playing for the bulk of his career, assuming he manages to achieve a career. This whiff of highly paid serfdom aside, the draft system works okay and achieves the outcome it is intended to achieve, a competitive and unpredictable NFL each year.
All goes well enough, if the new players coming up from the schools and colleges are all much of a muchness in terms of quality, to the point where it is a matter of opinion who is the best, and definitely a matter of individual preference which sort of player (quarterback, running back, offensive line, etc.) each team needs to fill its biggest biggest gaps. Everyone then gets their share of the new talent.
But, what if one individual new player is truly outstanding, way ahead of all the rest? What if, in other words, this outstanding individual is so outstanding that there will be a huge reward for whichever team finishes bottom of the league this year? Then what?
Well, we will soon see, because next season’s draft now looks like posing exactly this question to the NFL teams towards the bottom end of the race this season. Andrew Luck is a once-in-a-generation quarterback talent, of the sort that every team in the NFL is now itching to get its hands on, regardless of how good its current quarterback might be.
To give you an idea (bear with me please, Americans) of just how important a good quarterback can be to an NFL team, one of the very best of this breed now operating is a certain Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. With Manning at the helm, the Indianapolis Colts are a huge force. But, Manning is now out injured, and the Colts, having pretty much built their entire team and their entire way of playing around Manning and his particular ways of doing things, are now an embarrassing shadow of their usual selves. To the point where they might well finish bottom. And get their hands on Andrew Luck.
All of which was explained by expat NFL expert in Britain Mike Carlson, early last Tuesday morning British time, when Channel 4 TV showed the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. The Colts lost this game 62-7, which is a truly horrible margin.
Would the Colts really want Luck, given that they already have Manning? Well, maybe, yes. First, Luck really is that good, or so everyone says. Second, Manning is not as young as he was, and can only last a few more years. What if his recent injury is the start of a pattern? That can often happen with the more elderly sort of sportsmen, in all sorts of sports. A decade of injury free accomplishment is, time and again, followed by a half decade of frustration, during which injury after injury strikes our former hero down, before eventually he gives in and gives up. What if something like that now happens to Peyton Manning?
Second, even if Manning stays fit, the Colts might still want to pick Luck. I admit, however, that I am confused about this. Mike Carlson was saying last Tuesday morning that the Colts might still draft Luck, but then immediately trade him and use the proceeds to beef up the rest of their team. Others seem to be saying that, given that they have Manning, they wouldn’t pick Luck, with no mention of immediately trading Luck. No doubt American commenters can help me out on that.
Meanwhile, for other teams there is no such dilemma. Well, not so much for the teams, more for some of the fans. Here is a report of how Miami Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano feels about all this Suck for Luck talk:
Fasano, in an interview with WFAN in New York, ripped Dolphins fans who are rooting for the team to lose and nab Andrew Luck, calling them “sick.”
“It’s sick actually,” Fasano said, via SportsRadioInterviews.com. “I can’t even fathom those thoughts of those people that conjure up that stuff. They have never played sports and pretty much aren’t really our loyal fans. I can’t really put any weight into that and I know the players don’t listen to it. It’s a shame, but people are going to talk and we just have to block that out.”
Fasano’s right – real fans don’t root for a team to lose just in the hopes of getting a particular player in the draft. The upside of a terrible season might be a good pick, but hoping the team fails to produce week after week isn’t being a fan.
Well, maybe not, but it all leaves a rather nasty stink around the place, doesn’t it? Even the slightest suggestion that a team might, shall we say, not be busting its guts quite as gut-bustingly as normal, on account of the ignominy of yet another defeat being counterbalanced by that little stroke of Luck (sorry) that beckons come next season, is … not what you want. An incentive which even hints are turning American footballers into deliberate losers, like so many British welfare addicts, is about as perverse as an incentive can get.
I freely admit that, as catastrophes go, the perverse incentive unleashed upon NFL football teams and their fans by Andrew Luck doesn’t register very high on the catastrophe scale, and certainly not compared to something like the British Welfare State. But, this Luck story does have the virtue of illustrating the general principle, of how rules that look good when you decide on them but then turn around and bite you, very nicely, to a very wide potential audience. The Luck story gives libertarians like me, always on the look-out for perverse incentives and the harm they can do, something else to talk about.
Interestingly, and relatedly, there is now talk of the English Premier League switching from a promotion-relegation model to a franchise model, like the NFL. After all, where’s the sense in town after English town building a huge new stadium in the hope of future glory, but then sinking back into the lower leagues, leaving the stadium empty for every game? Old School Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp is about as pleased by that suggestion as Mr Fasano is by the idea of NFL teams throwing games to get the best draft pick player next year. But this story illustrates another significant real world principle with reverberations well beyond sport, in the form of the principle that people owning stuff actually counts, or should count. If foreigners, including in particular Americans who also own NFL teams, own England’s Premier League clubs, and if they all want a franchise system rather than a promotion and relegation system, then guess what. They are likely to get their way. “Ownership” doesn’t just mean being separated from a billion quid to pay for new players. It also means control.
In other sporting news, England and India have been playing cricket matches against each other, again. In England, over the summer, England won every game against India. But in India, the tables have been entirely turned, with India winning the recently concluded one day series with a 5-0 whitewash. It would appear that home advantage, when it comes to England India games, is everything.
Maybe the answer, for at least some of the future games between these two countries, is to seek out neutral territory. How about them playing their games in, say, New York. Or Chicago. Or Tampa Bay. It would even things out, and it would spread the word about cricket in a place not now very familiar with it. There could be cricket fan rallies in the centre of town, on the day before the games. Just a thought.