Thursday, December 23, 2010

Political Violence and Bad Behavior in Soccer: Is There A Connection?

As a great soccer year is coming to a close, I thought I'd start sharing some of the more interesting soccer-related scientific research I've come across. Among the most fascinating papers I've read in the past 12 months is a really creative study by three political economists (Miguel, Saiegh, and Satyanath) about the connection between civil conflict (political violence) in a player's home country "and his propensity to behave violently on the pitch, as measured by yellow and red cards the player received."

The paper's story is straightforward: Since professional footballers now hail from all over the world, many of them come from poorer countries with significant levels of civil strife and political instability, while others were raised in the rich, stable, democratic countries of the West. The authors want to know: Does this matter for how they behave when they play the game? The answer seems to be yes.

Based on data from the 2004–2005 and 2005–2006 seasons in five national leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) as well as the Champions League, Miguel et al. find that civil conflict in a player's home country and affects a player's propensity to behave violently on the soccer field, as measured by yellow and red cards. They arrive at this finding by assigning each player a value for the number of years a country suffered from civil war during the period of time players were presumably growing up in the country and calculating the number of yellow and red cards the player received during the season.

The statistics behind the results will surely bore you to tears if you're not a social scientist, but the effect is nicely captured by a couple of graphs in the paper. Below you can see that, as the number of years a country has experienced civil war goes up, so does the average number of yellow cards per player and season for someone from that country (the bubbles show you how many players are from each of the countries in the study). Take a look.

MIGUEL, E., SAIEGH, S. M. and SATYANATH, S. 2010. "Civil War Exposure and Violence." Economics & Politics (in press).
To quote from the paper:
"Figure 2 presents a scatterplot relating years of civil war for each country between 1980 and 2005 (on the horizontal axis) to the average number of yellow cards earned per player-season, both conditional on the control variables included in Table 2, regression 1; the area of the country circles is drawn proportional to the number of player-seasons of that nationality represented in the sample. The graphical relationship is visibly positively sloped. Colombia and Israel are the two sample countries that experienced civil war in every year since 1980, and their players are remarkably violent on the pitch. Inter Milan's Colombian defender Iván Ramiro Córdoba is a case in point: in 2004–2005 and 2005–2006, he collected a stunning 25 yellow cards."

The same pattern appears when the authors look only at players from the non-OECD countries (poorer, less democratic countries in general).

MIGUEL, E., SAIEGH, S. M. and SATYANATH, S. 2010. "Civil War Exposure and Violence." Economics & Politics (in press).

To make sure the proposed effect is "real", the authors examine a number of alternative explanations for this link - other characteristics of the countries or regions the players are from, and various characteristics of the players themselves.

Clearly, more civil war seems to beget more fouls. Or does it? How can we be sure? The finding is intriguing and could have all kinds of implications for players, coaches, and referees. But before we jump to the conclusion that players from Colombia or Turkey foul more because they grew up with the FARC or a Kurdish rebellion, we should ask a few questions.

First, there is the theory. What happens to individuals (players) when they are exposed civil war and how exactly does this affect behavior later in life - is this about a lowering of thresholds toward violence, experiencing violence first hand, seeing it on TV, or what?

The second big elephant in the room for me has to do with alternative explanations for the pattern we see. For one, equating yellow and red cards with violent behavior generally, or fouls specifically, is worrisome. At a minimum, we should take the notion that yellow and red cards are about fouls with a grain of salt (especially in some leagues, like Serie A). And what role do referees play in this? Assuming that referees are not immune to ethnic stereotypes, we can imagine that refs call systematically more fouls on players from certain regions or with certain visible characteristics. Wouldn't be the first time - there's significant evidence that refs in the NBA, for example, call more fouls on black players. 

So, maybe the correlation between civil war and soccer violence really is about more violent behavior by players from war-torn countries; or maybe it's a correlation that is driven by a different cause altogether. Either way, this is the kind of paper that makes you think differently about soccer and it tries to do so based on an interesting theory and with good data. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see what 2011 has in store on the soccer science front.

MIGUEL, E., SAIEGH, S. M. and SATYANATH, S. 2010. "Civil War Exposure and Violence." Economics & Politics (in press).