Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

Soccer Ball Ethics

Amidst all the excitement over the start of the FIFA World Cup, one of the oddest bits of excitement has surrounded the innovative ball being used in the tournament, namely Adidas’ new “Jabulani.” Although the ball was designed to have superior aerodynamic properties, critics have attacked the ball for the particular way it flies though the air. Here, for example, cites Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar as saying “It’s terrible, horrible. It’s like one of those balls you buy in the supermarket.”

Two things are interesting about this controversy.

One has to do with fairness. The controversy over the Jabulani — the ball that all teams will play with during the tournament — reminds us that the “level playing-field” metaphor so often appealed to in business is a sporting metaphor. It’s a reference to the fact that we think it desirable, generally, to make sure that no team has an unfair advantage. We want a level playing-field because if we play on a hill, one team is seriously disadvantaged by having to attempt to advance the ball up-hill, which requires considerably more effort. The point generalizes to any factors (including changes in the game) that give one side an unfair (dis)advantage. A change in the game is one thing, but a change that creates a differential advantage is quite another. And with regard to the Jabulani, even some critics have admitted that the fact that this change affects everyone equally mitigates the criticism. As English goalkeeper David James put it, “It’s horrible, but it’s horrible for everyone.”

But it’s worth noting the limits of this level-playingfield argument. While it’s true that all teams are subject to the same change, it’s not true that everyone is affected equally. First, it seems to be goalkeepers that are complaining most, suggesting that there’s a differential impact on them compared to other players — and that matters, at very least in terms of the ego of goalkeepers vs the egos of those scoring the goals. (In fact some suspect that this is an intentional outcome of the change in the ball: it will result in more goals, and hence more excitement, hence making it a better TV sport for North American viewers in particular.) Second, it’s not clear that all teams will be affected equally. Particular ball characteristics are liable to suit some teams’ strengths and strategies better than others. So why the “field” may be “level” at a superficial level, we may need to look deeper if we’re really interested in deciding whether this particular change is, in fact, a fair one.

The second interesting thing about the controversy has been the response from Adidas, the company that designed the ball. The response from Adidas has mainly focused on the science, and on pointing out that change is always difficult at first. But Adidas also had a more interesting defence, namely accusing (some) critics of conflict of interest. (See this definition of ‘conflict of interest’.) In particular, the claim is that most of the critics are subject to a possible financial bias. According to this story,

[Adidas spokesman Brueggen] pointed out that if you look closely at the players and goalies making these accusations you’ll notice one common thread among them: the all have contracts with Adidas’ competitors.

Now certainly not all critics have been affiliated with Adidas’ competitors. The soccer-gear website ‘Soccer Cleats 101,’ for example, reviewed the Jabulani back in January, and expressed some of the same concerns. Still, it’s an interesting accusation. And as always with such accusations, interesting questions arise. First, can Adidas’ claim be backed up empirically? If we actually count up the critics and look at what companies they’re sponsored by, will we see the pattern that Adidas claims? If Adidas hasn’t done such a tally (but is simply working from a rough impression) is it fair to make the accusation? Is the suspicion enough? And if we do confirm such a pattern of bias, what’s the specific explanation for it? Is it a matter of players consciously promoting the interests of companies they’re affiliated with, or is it more likely to be a more subtle, subconscious bias? And, finally — setting aside the fact that professional sport is, itself, a big business — what lessons can we learn from this sports story, and apply to the world of business more generally?

(p.s. Those of you with an interest in ethical dimensions of sports should be sure to check out Wayne Norman’s blog, This Sporting Life.)

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