Mutiny on the NFL:Bounty

Revelations surrounding “bounty programs” in the NFL, where players and coaches provide teammates with financial incentives to make game-changing plays or injure opposing players, have elicited broad public disgust; at least for the intent-to-harm part of the equation.

Killing people aside, I typically love performance-based incentives – anything that provides real-time sticks and carrots to help govern decisions and encourage performance. My company generally does a good job of rewarding performance, fortunately, but some days it would be a nice stimulus if my boss would drop by and say, “Hey, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you send me that report by 3pm!”

DJ Gallo writing for ESPN makes an amusing – though not altogether unreasonable – argument that performance-based compensation should be encouraged broadly throughout the league: “Instead of punishing the Saints and opening up a can of worms that might force the NFL to punish every team in the sport, the league should instead embrace bounties.” He then outlines how the lines between real football and fantasy football are getting hazier by the weekend and suggests allowing fans to get in on the action, too.

It’s not difficult to imagine how these bounty programs can give birth to corruption and distorting forces that change the way the game is played. Ultimately, you start to have capital flows making on-the-field decisions, like whether to pass or run or even fumble. It’s like having an infinite number of bosses, each of which exercises control in proportion to the size of her wallet.

It wouldn’t take long before the emergence of negative incentives, such as side betting against positive incentives or as under-the-table payoffs for dives. In short, if officially expanded beyond the locker room, the system would go haywire in no time. Performance-based incentives are only effective if either a) there’s only one agent providing incentives; or b) everyone providing incentives generally agrees on the strategy and objectives. In such a plutocracy, the “coach” would quickly become just another engaged spectator, or a marginal investor, and his players could effectively mutiny. Capt. Bligh would not be pleased.

Wait a minute. Is this really so horrible? Isn’t there another spectator sport that already works this way? A game where hidden influencers provide players financial incentives to behave in certain ways, including attacking opponents, and the players must make decisions to ensure the largest possible return on investment for their shareholders?

We’re willing to permit capital flows — from anywhere and nowhere — to influence government and its players’ behaviors. Why not allow open-game on, you know, games?