Why did the NRL get tough on footy fights?

Here's one for all the fans of football and behavioural economics: Guardian Australia is featuring a piece I've written looking at why professional sports have become less violent in recent decades. This is an excerpt from my new book 'The Economics of Just About Everything':

How the cost of injured players ensured fewer fights, The Guardian, 10 September

In the 54th minute of the second game of the 2013 Rugby League State of Origin series, a fight broke out. Annoyed at Paul Gallen’s slowness to get off Jonathan Thurston, Queenslander Brent Tate pushed him away. New South Wales player Trent Merrin punched Tate, Queenslander Justin Hodges hit Merrin from behind, and New South Welshman Greg Bird joined in. What was surprising about the event wasn’t that a fight broke out, but that it was relatively mild. Of the four players sent off, two claimed not to have thrown a punch.  

For League fans with long memories, the contrast with the old days was stark. In 1983, New South Welshman Les Boyd smashed his elbow into the jaw of Darryl Brohman, who was playing his first game for Queensland. Brohman fell to the ground and went into convulsions. In 1984, the second State of Origin game erupted into a free-for-all fight within seconds of the game’s opening (smoke from the opening fireworks was still drifting across the field). In the second game of the 1988 season, an all-in brawl at Lang Park led to the referee sending off Queensland captain Wally Lewis. In 1991, Queenslander Mark Geyer started a fight in both the first half and the second half of the match.

What caused the League to ‘get tough’ on fights, declaring in 2013 that any player who punched an opponent would go to the sin bin for 10 minutes, regardless of the circumstances?

The answer is that, as the economic cost to the NRL of fighting has gone up, Rugby League officials have seen to it that the supply of fights goes down. As teams have invested more in their players, the cost of an injured or suspended player has steadily risen.

The likely risk of lawsuits by retired players has increased–with the American National Football League recently agreeing to pay US$765m to 4,500 former players for concussion-related injuries, similar lawsuits in Australia are all but certain. And the rise of AFL in New South Wales and Queensland creates a competitive threat to Rugby League: if parents don’t like what they see on their screens, they’re likely to turn the channel to another football code. The result: fewer fights.

German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher jumps at French player Patrick Battiston during a semifinal. Battiston lost a tooth during this foul and suffered a concussion.Photograph: dpa/Corbis

A young man playing Rugby League today is, in a sense, lucky— because he’s significantly less likely to be punched on the field than in the 1980s.

In the economics of cricket, luck matters too. An analysis of cricketers’ performances compared two kinds of debuts: those whose first test match was a home game, and those who had their first test match overseas. To the individual batsman, this is effectively random: anyone who gets a chance to play test cricket takes it immediately. Yet the challenge they face is quite different. For example, an Indian batsman will anticipate the cracks that often emerge on Indian pitches in the latter stages of a test match but might be utterly unprepared for Australia’s bouncier wickets. On debut, a batsman who is playing at home scores one-third more runs – and the difference is persistent. If he is retained in the team, a home debut batsman has a career batting average one-fifth larger than a batsman who debuts overseas. Bradman, by the way, debuted in Australia.

Economics also sheds light on the great question of referee bias. Alas, several studies have shown that the “one-eyed ref” is no fictional character. In cricket, Australian umpires are more likely to give a foreign player out lbw than an Australian player. In AFL, referees award more free kicks to teams from their home state. In international Super 14 Rugby Union, teams are more likely to win when the referee is of the same nation. In each of these cases, what seems to drive the bias is the size of the crowd. As the crowd dwindles, so does the “home bias” of the referee. With a large crowd, the referee becomes more biased. One study that looked at video referees found that they were considerably less biased if they watched with the sound turned off.

With its mix of competition and teamwork, high-stakes and high visibility, the sporting field turns out to be a valuable laboratory for testing many of the most interesting theories in economics: Which workers are the most productive? How does your first job affect your career? Do managers compare their employees in fair ways? Which firms make best use of their resources? How competitive is an industry?

Sports economics helps shed light on these and many other crucial economic questions. As baseball great Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot just by watching”.

The Economics of Just About Everything is published by Allen & Unwin (2014)

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.