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Sep 10, 2015

Business Ethics and Strategic Behavior: Playing by the Rules

At high levels of competition in sports, players sometimes commit “professional” fouls to gain an advantage. Might the same concept apply to business?

The first time I watched the FIFA World Cup Final was in 2010. While I played soccer as a child, I never took the sport seriously and I find watching it on television to be terribly dull. But what interested me that year was the story of Ghana’s national team—a team from a small African nation that was holding its own on the world’s biggest stage with the European and South American powerhouses of the sport.

Ghana advanced to the quarterfinal game of the tournament, and after playing Uruguay to a 1-1 draw during regular time, they had a chance to pull out what would have been a monumental upset. In the very last minute of extra time in the second overtime period, Uruguay’s goalkeeper misplayed a cross into the box, and, after a failed clearance attempt by Uruguay, a Ghana attacker headed a ball straight for the back of the net. With the goalie out of position and with no other option to prevent what would have been a game-ending goal, Uruguay striker Luis Suárez batted the ball out of the air with his hands. Although Suárez received a red card, was ejected from the game, and Ghana was given a penalty kick, they failed to convert and Uruguay went on to win the game in the shootout.

This moment was the most shocking and memorable from that 2010 tournament, in part because of the discussion that followed. Ghana’s supporters and many fans of the game, including myself at the time, saw Suárez as a cheater and believed that a grave injustice had occurred. 

Uruguay’s supporters and a large contingent of non-aligned fans saw it very differently, as would be expected. To them Suárez was a hero who sacrificed his own reputation for the slim chance that his team would win this game as a result of his action and advance to the next round, a next round game that he would not be able to play in himself because he received the red card. 

When asked about Suárez’s actions, Uruguay’s coach, Óscar Tabárez said labeling Suárez as a cheater was much too harsh. His claim was that everything that took place, including Suárez’s action, was done in a manner consistent with and governed by the rules of the game: There was an intentional handball in the penalty area, that player received a red card and was disqualified from the game, and the other team was awarded a penalty kick. Whatever would have happened had the penalized act not taken place is irrelevant.

While Suárez’s intentional handball happened on the world stage and directly affected the outcome of the game, players intentionally perform penalized acts for strategic or advantageous reasons in almost every competitive game. Football and basketball provide us with easy examples. In football, cornerbacks frequently pull down receivers when they get beat, taking pass interference penalties instead of giving up touchdowns. In basketball, defenders foul to prevent easy baskets, extend the game, or make it impossible for a team down by three points at the end to try for a tying shot. 

The easy solution is to lump all of this behavior together as a certain kind of “bad sportsmanship,” appealing to a principle such as: “A ‘good sportsman’ does not intentionally perform a penalized act during the game.” But this position seems unreasonable, especially to anyone who is an avid participant or fan of these kind of competitive games. Fouling in basketball, for example, is an accepted and expected strategy, and a team that doesn’t foul strategically at the end of the game is thought to be foolish. 

Without identifying the relevant principle at play, it is fairly easy to separate intentional fouls from other perhaps more egregious acts. Examples here include overt cheating, such as spying on the practice sessions of an opponent, pulling the fire alarm in their hotel the night before the game, and using illegal substances like corked bats; or thuggish behavior, either before or after the whistle, such as trying to intentionally injure an opponent, delivering a “cheap shot,” and other acts of unsanctioned physical violence. What separates these acts from intentional fouls is that this behavior is aimed at affecting the outcome of the game but is not governed by the rules of the game. 

But there are other more mild forms of unsportsmanlike behavior that can also be distinguished from intentional fouls. While we may be used to seeing this type of behavior in games, it is nevertheless blameworthy. For example, a player who fakes an injury in order to affect the action or pace of a moving game. These unsportsmanlike acts contain a component of dishonesty. While this behavior is governed by the rules in the sense that the rules dictate the response to an injured player, the player taking advantage of those rules is not injured. In contrast, intentional fouls involve no dishonesty.  

The problem comes when we run all of these types of behavior together under the banner of unfair play. Figuring out how to operate within the rules to give oneself a better chance of success is not being a poor sport. To the contrary, it is one characteristic of a successful player. The strategic use of intentional fouls, whether familiar strategy like in basketball or unfamiliar like with Suárez, is just one of many indirect gameplay strategies that a player can use to make victory more likely. 

So why is this important for someone interested in moral and political philosophy? Beyond the obvious applications to political discourse and interpersonal relations, I believe this discussion sheds light on important issues in the area of business ethics. I see business as a game, and here I don’t use the word “game” pejoratively. Rules govern business transactions and the people who are most successful are the ones who, while operating within appropriate ethical bounds, are able to best use established rules and norms to their advantage. 

In my next post, I’ll consider some of these issues in business ethics and the advantage an individual has when he views business as a game. I’ll argue that not viewing business relationships and employment in this way leads many people to make poor decisions under the guise of “doing the right thing,” decisions that make themselves significantly worse off over the long-run.