Drugs, Red Cards and Incentives

Convershaken Staff
February 12, 2016

Governments have been waging war on drugs for decades, often targeting the supply of illicit pills and powders. Red cards are designed to stop foul play in football by removing the offending player from the field. Neither work; they are both examples of punishments creating the wrong incentives.

Cracking Down

Punishing suppliers rather than drug users is the more palatable option for many politicians. Drug dealers aren’t exactly beloved members of society and the huge sums of money that can be made in the trade have turned prolific dealers into international villains. In contrast, users are often addicted and vulnerable, meaning punishments may be ineffective or cause more harm than good.

As a result, governments tend to target suppliers. The theory is that if there aren’t any drugs on the market, no one can buy them. The problem is that the incentives don't add up. A government crackdown might prompt or force some suppliers to quit the business. But the demand for drugs doesn’t change, likely pushing up prices. Drug users are often willing to pay through the nose to get their fix, meaning consumption shouldn't fall significantly. Instead, higher prices might draw more drug dealers into the market: those bold enough to risk higher fines and shrewd enough to avoid detection. As we saw in the Prohibition era, restricting supply may create fertile ground for organised crime.

Seeing Red

Football suffers from a similar incentive problem that encourages bad behaviour. Sending a player off the field existed before its symbolic representation, the red card, was invented. It’s a punishment for players who misbehave. It’s also a burden for the rest of the team, who are now outnumbered. And it’s a worrying sight for fans. 

Research has shown that teams who are shown red cards are significantly less likely to score, while their opposition become slightly more likely to find the back of the net. Outnumbered teams go on the defensive, or ‘park the bus’. That’s bad news for spectators.

Red cards do not create the right incentives for good behaviour. For a start, getting a red card in the last minute of the game is hardly a punishment, whereas getting a red card in the first minute will put one team at a disadvantage for the entire game. That’s the case even when the actual crime is the same. A savage tackle in the first minute is just as dangerous as the same tackle in the last minute, but the massive difference in the severity of the sanction creates a large disparity in incentives.

Red cards are also punishments that don’t fit the crime. A player can be sent off for illegally preventing a clear goal-scoring opportunity. That means tripping up a player just as he’s about to score. But the right punishment here would be to award a goal AND punish the player. This is fair for the team which had their certain goal taken away by illegal play. And the punishment to the player would only need to be small - just enough to discourage them from committing a foul. It wouldn’t need to ruin the game like a red card.

Why haven’t these issues been addressed? Just as goal-line technology was introduced following some awful decisions at the last World Cup, perhaps all that’s needed is one cataclysmic event to shock the world into action. But the amazing thing is that’s already happened.

The World Cup was held on the African continent for the first time in 2010. South Africa - the hosts - were knocked out at the group stage, just losing out on a place in the last 16. Home support switched to the only other African team left in the tournament: Ghana. After beating the USA in the round of 16, Ghana became only the third team on the continent to ever reach the quarter finals. 

They were the underdogs in their next fixture against Uruguay. But their grit and determination meant that after 90 minutes, the score was level. The game went into extra time; another half hour passed with neither team able to score a winner. In the dying seconds of the match, Dominic Adiyiah headed the ball towards goal but Luis Suarez, standing on the goal line, illegally stuck out his hand to deny Ghana the victory.


Suarez is no stranger to controversy. Many will recall his history of biting other players more vividly than this infraction. But to me this was much more outrageous. Not because of the conduct: it was perfectly rational for him to prevent the goal, even knowing that a penalty – a kick at goal from 12 yards away - would follow. But the rules of the game meant that Ghana were not given a goal in recompense. Instead, Suarez was sent off for the final 10 seconds of the game and Ghana flubbed their penalty. Uruguay went on to win the game through a penalty shoot-out.

It will likely require several high-profile incidents of this nature before football fans realise the rules need to be changed and the game’s authorities take action. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we see red cards banned from the pitch.