Lessons from the World Cup

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

It’s remarkable how often we hear business leaders voicing ideological opposition to regulation, asserting that the solutions to our many eye-watering sustainability challenges can only be delivered through the power of the market.  The picture that is being painted is one in which regulation and markets are mutually exclusive.  It’s one or the other – either you believe in markets, or you believe in regulation.  In this picture, human beings are most commonly described as consumers – a term which suggests a passivity of existence, no more than a collection of wants (and, sometimes, needs) to be serviced by business.

And it’s a picture that doesn’t make sense.

During the knock-out stages of the 2010 World Cup, I found my thoughts wandering to this false dichotomy of regulation versus the market.  As I often find, football offers analogies that help to bring life’s quandaries into sharp relief.

For instance, can we imagine football existing without regulatory oversight?  The “product” is presented to us on a competitive landscape – a level playing field, if you will.  It is “consumed” by hundreds of millions of armchair viewers (I will come to the match-going public shortly).  It is “regulated” at the macro level by the world’s governing body, FIFA, which provides a detailed set of rules that is adopted globally.  These regulations are stewarded at the micro level by the referee and his assistants.

Is it conceivable – let alone desirable – that the competitors be left alone to self-regulate?  After all, they’re the ones that know the product best: they know what it takes to deliver results, whether that means scoring goals or preventing the competition from scoring.  The regulators are sometimes seen as detached, even aloof.  They seem to exist in a world of their own.  Very rarely are they former players; do they even understand the game?  Wouldn’t it be better if they just got out of the way and left the competitors to just get on with it?

In a word, no.

Admittedly, referees and governing bodies make mistakes, occasionally farcical ones.  (FIFA, in particular, is notoriously bureaucratic and resistant to transparency.)  But only rarely do they wilfully cheat.  By and large, they have the best interests of fair competition at heart.  Commentators and pundits often remark that the best referees are the ones you don’t notice.  They allow the game to flow, without fussy interventions and delusions of grandeur.  However, though the best regulators may go unseen, they are always present, ensuring adherence to the rules, stepping in where necessary to punish transgressions.

The competitors, on the other hand, have proven time and again to be unable to self-regulate.  Among their number are many who would bend the rules – even blatantly cheat – to gain a competitive advantage.  Did the German goalkeeper really not see that the ball had crossed the line before he returned the ball to open play with comedic urgency?  Could the Dutch midfielder’s attempt at open-heart surgery on his Spanish counterpart have been an accident?  Was the Uruguayan striker the innocent victim of a lightning quick ball-to-hand incident in the last minute of extra-time?  Check out the photo and decide for yourself.

So we turn to the tens of thousands of paying spectators.  In the main, they are not mere consumers.  Rather, they are active participants, influencing the events unfolding before them, constantly scrutinising the behaviour of competitors and regulators alike.  They are civil society, and they are voters.  That they part with money for the privilege of attendance does not detract from the important role they assume in keeping the whole spectacle honest (though, occasionally, they also cross the boundary that separates acceptable from admonishable behaviour).  Most importantly, they express outrage when injustices are rewarded.  And, in response, regulators consider rule changes to avoid future injustices and their corrosive impact on the integrity of the game: goal line technology, retrospective disciplinary action against those who feign injury, the award of a penalty goal when an outfield player punches the ball from beneath the crossbar, etc.

What football makes clear is that without this uneasy coexistence of players, referees, and spectators – of businesses, regulators, and an active civil society – there is, in fact, no product, no consumption, no market.

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