Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Red Card is not a Teaching Tool

MLS doesn't hide the fact it takes administrative cues from her father - the NFL. One of which is adding points of emphasis for officiating early in the season.

The methodology is simple and is common in many industries across the board. The way it works is thus - hit them hard, early and often with corrective action to get desired behavior. You may even see this where you work. Call-offs a problem? Put an emphasis on progressive counselling and write ups. Too much goofing off? Put an end to it by addressing it as it happens.

The theory is that after the early intense focus for a period of time, followed by a cool off period, you get people (players) behaving the way you want. A few years ago in MLS it was fouls (grappling) on corner kicks. If Crew fans remember back, think of Michael Parkhurst going down in the box in the first round against DC, thus earning a penalty. It was a wily veteran move that helped earn Columbus the three points.

Does it work? Has it made things better?

There's no evidence that this approach works in either the NFL or in MLS. In fact, it appears to be counterproductive.

In the specific case of grappling on corners in MLS, the emphasis ended up contributing in a record year for penalties. Oh, and also we see no difference now in grabbing in the box vs before there was any focus on it. In the NFL it appears that this sort of corrective management has caused a sort of rules crisis (a la the "what is a catch and what isn't" and tackling form / unnecessary roughness).

You can see from the image at the top of this post that red cards are being used as a punishment tool for whatever MLS is trying to clean up / correct in regards to player behavior. Eight red cards in the last nine games played. It's nuts.

Going back to the broader, real-world, implementation of this tool you see what sports leagues are doing wrong. Anyone in a management role could tell you this stuff.

Here are five things they are doing wrong...

1. Sports leagues are run by "sports people" (better to just say that first). Meaning: These folks start early in the industry and bounce around their whole career. Pick up a subscription to the Sports Business Journal to see examples. The folks making the calls are lifers with little outside experience. 
2. In MLS the crime does not fit the punishment. A red card completely changes the outcome of a match. It far and away outweighs something like a 15-yard penalty in the NFL (in keeping with the comparison). It's almost like MLS sees a red card as a yellow penalty flag. Interestingly enough, the NFL is looking at adding a type of red card in regards to personal fouls (ejecting a player after two). Again, though, a red puts you down a man where in the NFL you would just sub another player in. 
3. MLS, seemingly, doesn't consider the effect of the increased focus. Like in the grappling in the box leading to more penalties. Or, perhaps the most obvious, swinging the result of the entire match by merely trying to emphasis something. 
4. No follow-up. The most obvious. Once you remove the focus you have to check in on the results and maintain a level of focus, just not as intense. The fruit this tree grows is poisonous. No follow-up means players get confused as to the rules and the inconsistent implementation of them. This leads to frustration and more bad behavior!
5. Lastly. Careful documentation of the points of emphasis. It is impossible to prove MLS is not doing this but one can deduce that it is not happening because there isn't any noticeable change in player behavior. A general observation, yes, but the only change fans see is more reds early in the year and inconsistent whistles late season.

So, what is a better way to approach this for MLS? First off - stop using a catastrophic tool to get your point across (like, not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, or terminating that employee next time they miss work). Second - communicate clearly what you want before AND after. Even going as far as a post-mortem. Did it work? Even if it didn't, tell you fans and employees. Mistakes are an important part of the improvement process. Airing them out helps prevent them from happening again.

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