Diving. Professional fouls. Time wasting. These are extremely divisive things in the world of football. Why is it so? Shouldn’t we applaud players who manage to deceive referees? After all, isn’t this simply “winning at all costs” – a foundational idiom in today’s sporting environments? Aren’t “noble” players somehow perceived as weaker? You know, the ones who stop the match after committing a hand ball that no one noticed?



We’ve all been faced with this dilemma at one point or another. As a fan, have you celebrated a goal knowing your striker was offside? What about as a player. Have you refused to take a penalty when wrongly awarded one? How did you feel after your decision?

This conundrum is not a new one. It is as old as society itself. As a hunter-gatherer, do you hide the extra rabbits you speared, or do you share them with the hungry group? Do you force a weaker bloke out of his cave when it’s cold? Or do you take a less sheltered cave?

Many have grappled with these ideas over the millennia including the ever-influential Ancient Greeks.   Aristotle believed it was better to conduct your entire life as a virtuous slave than live as an unjust king.2 In other words, Aristotle would stop the game if he was offside, even if being through on goal could win the World Cup for Greece against the Persian Empire. He argued that in doing so, you are nourishing your own spirit, in the same way that you nourish your body by eating healthy food and exercising.

Aristotle would stop the game if he was offside, even if being through on goal could win the World Cup for Greece against the Persian Empire

It’s quite a compelling argument. As a demonstration, we can take the virtue: courage. Courage is useful here because a healthy dose evokes strong emotions in people. For example, it would be unthinkable – bordering on inhuman – to publicly admit you would watch a child drown rather than attempt to save her. Chances are you’ve daydreamed about being the hero in a similar scenario: the endorphin rush, the admiration of the onlookers, not to mention reading about yourself in the newspaper. Importantly, not only are the rewards immediate but the deed lasts in people’s memories. This increases your standing in the community, because people seek courageous friends.


The lasting good that comes from this type of self-sacrifice can then be extrapolated further to the other virtues such as generosity and honesty etc. When faced with a “moral dilemma”, we can say that the virtuous or noble choice is always good in itself. Furthermore, as no one ever makes a decision to make themselves less happy, we should be compelled to take the path of virtue at each junction.2 As the argument goes, regardless of relative wealth level, the life that reaps continual “rewards of the soul” is far superior to the alternative. Further still, the mind boggles at what a society populated exclusively with virtuous citizens might be able to achieve.

So why isn’t this the status quo? Why are there clumsy defenders hacking down graceful players contributing to the “beautiful game”? Why are referees devaluing matches by accepting bribes to sway their outcome? Well, as it turns out there’s been some pretty persuasive counter-arguments to acting “in the spirit of the game” that have taken a strong foothold in the very fabric of our society.

The ideas Charles Darwin conceived whilst penning The Origin of Species in the 1850s described the intensely competitive history of all life on earth. Today we know the phrase “survival of the fittest” well. Natural selection was in some ways the antithesis of morality. A selfish entity motivated purely by its own proliferation – exploiting any advantage ruthlessly to meet that goal.1

Today we know the phrase “survival of the fittest” well. Natural selection was in some ways the antithesis of morality

You might agree that phrases perpetuated in modern sports like “win at all costs” sit well with the principles of natural selection as described above. This is no accident.


Economists in the 20th Century drew inspiration from the competitive nature of evolution. It appeared that as far as natural selection was concerned, concepts such as trust and happiness were irrelevant to the success of the genes. They speculated as to whether there was a purely rational system devoid of emotion that could inform business decisions in order to get ahead.

A logical exercise called The Prisoner’s Dilemma arose from Game Theory in the 1950s. I will adapt it slightly for readers of PDP Magazine. Imagine you support a team called the Bobcats. You and another fan conspire to bribe a local referee to sway the final of a major tournament in favour of the Bobcats. The referee accepts your bribe and the Bobcats win in the final against local rivals, the Wizards, thanks to a bizarre penalty awarded in injury time. You celebrate the victory that night until festivities are interrupted when you are both arrested. It turns out the Wizards’ management have requested an investigation. The authorities feel they have some evidence of bribery, but for a full conviction they require a testimony. They give you some options:

Option A – You tell them that the other bloke was responsible for the bribery. If he says nothing, you pay nothing and he gets fined $4,000.

Option B – You both say nothing, and are fined $1,000 each.

Option C – You both turn on each other, and are fined $2,000 each. 

Think about this. The rational decision when calculating the penalty is option A. You’re sitting in your cell thinking about option B because perhaps you feel some sense of loyalty to your partner in crime. For option B to play out though, it relies now totally on the other person also saying nothing. That’s a big risk to take, considering he could be back at the bar celebrating with the other Bobcat fans in a jiffy, if he talks. Which then makes paying $4,000 your reward for being loyal – double the option C penalty. Because you can never be 100% sure of his loyalty to you, the only logical thing to do is talk. This is called defecting.



Armed with the logical solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, businesses could now dive, foul and time waste their way to huge profits. Not only were they financially rewarded for defecting on other companies, but also applauded by their peers and the academics for employing sound theory. It’s now suddenly not such a stretch to conceive of winning a match by cheating and worrying about the consequences later, than “play by the rules”. The thought process might be something like: Football is highly competitive and the stakes are high. It’s only logical that they’d cheat if they could. They probably are. We’d better up our bribe / start diving more / do whatever we can get away with.

Armed with the logical solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, businesses could now dive, foul and time waste their way to huge profits

It could be argued that Aristotle’s 2,000-year-old ethical arguments look outdated and a tad naïve compared to the very same logic observed by science in nature. It’s not difficult to see how 50 years of this very mentality, employed by powerful organisations and perpetuated by the media might trickle its way into the hearts and minds of society.

So is there a problem with all this? We should throw away those old chivalrous notions and start “snapping necks and cashing cheques”, right?

Let’s look at some examples within a sporting context to see if the Prisoner’s Dilemma holds up.

Lance Armstrong captivated the world of cycling for nearly a decade on the back of what was later described as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” 5 During that period, he enjoyed enormous success at the expense of those in the competition adhering to the agreed rules around performance enhancing substances and was lauded as one of the greatest athletes of all time. Aside from the obvious dangers to one’s own health, one reason I suspect that performance enhancing substances are outlawed is because it contradicts the unwritten “spirit of the game”. Tied in with the concept of a level playing-field, is the idea that people can relate to what it takes to be successful; hours of gruelling training on the road. It’s what makes the sport so watchable – that fierce battle with not only the other riders, but with themselves. A victory rings very hollow when it is attributed, even if only partially, to scientists working on pills in a lab.

As a fan, watching a competitive match in any sport which has an outcome pre-determined by, say, government officials, might have little or no value to you. Shunning the spirit of the game is evident at every level of Chinese Football. A recent investigation revealed how with widespread corruption, referees actually risked appearing foolish if they opted not to accept bribes on offer to sway matches. Players could buy themselves a spot on the national team. Gambling syndicates including the Triads leaned on coaches to alter team performance.4 Quite predictably, fans in China have turned away from the game. Chinese Central Television stopped airing league matches in 2008, presumably in response to weak demand. Tragically for those behind the corruption, they have, in a sense, cannibalised their own business. Fewer fans means less excitement around the matches, which means lower stakes, which means smaller pools of betting money to go around. At the same time, less exposure in the media inspires fewer children to become great players. Fewer great players means lower quality football. You get the picture.

Tragically for those behind the corruption, they have, in a sense, cannibalised their own business.

But how can this be? Didn’t the economists have this all sewn up? Well, for a start, the example used thus far of natural selection is incomplete. It turns out a strategy where you simply defect at every opportunity doesn’t work so well when operating within a society. Societies by and large actively increased survival rates of its members. It is extremely advantageous, for example, to share food from a hunt with a group member who is sick – assuming that individual returns the favour in the future. Humans have very complex societies, mainly made possible because of our relatively good memories – we remember whether the hunter shared his catch or not. Trust becomes important to this system, because when the hunter shares what he could keep, he’s trusting that the favour will be returned. Therefore, the most trusted individuals are the ones best looked after in times of need. In an interesting twist, it turns out that the most trusted members of society also happen to be the ones who employ the virtues as identified by Aristotle. So while in the short term, defecting might seem like a good strategy, it almost certainly isn’t in the long term.

Incidentally, the defecting strategy in the Prisoner’s Dilemma has been proven to be ineffective if you interact multiple times with the same individuals. In a glorious tournament hosted by Robert Axelrod, different strategies submitted by sociologists around the world were pitted against each other in a computer simulation. The defecting strategy adored by the economic elite was swiftly obliterated by more cooperative strategies, the most effective of which was called “tit for tat”. Tit for tat implies you simply do whatever the other guy did last time you met.

A point worth addressing is the ubiquitous idea that players from certain cultures are more likely to deceive the referee than others. Being from the West, I can say that we like to think that actions such as diving and feigning injury don’t fit within our behavioral paradigm. We also consider the laws of our countries as an instrument to help our society function efficiently, rather than to oppress us. The opposite is true, for example, in Brazil.6 If, from a macro perspective, the establishment is viewed as defecting on its own citizens, then it makes sense for those at a disadvantage to return the favour. This is tit for tat. In a footballing context, if the rules of the game are viewed in the same light as the laws of the land, then we can start to paint a picture as to why there can be much friction between players and fans from these different backgrounds. My view is that there is no reasonable argument that says oppressive laws are good, so therefore behaviours learned in response to this can’t be good in the long run.

Ideally, all forms of cheating in sport would drop away within a more egalitarian society.  I’d love to see football released from the shackles of “win at all costs”. In my view, this would really give it a chance to breathe and be the beautiful game it was meant to be.


  1. The Origins of Virtue Matt Riddley (1996)
  2. Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics Dover Thrift Edition (1998)
  3. In Man and Beast: Comparative Social Behavior
  4. D. Hamilton (1971)
  5. Why China Fails at Football. www.economist.com/node/2154176 (2011)
  6. U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Investigation USADA cyclinginvestigation.usada.org (2012)
  7. Contextualised Skill Acquisition: Investigating the Skill and Expertise of Brazilian Footballers Luiz Uehara (2015)
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