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August 05, 2012


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Orin Kerr

The difficulty is that game rules are often somewhat arbitrary, so there can be a difference between the team that did "better" in some idealized sense and the "team with the higher score" as a technical matter. Once you accept that, then why aren't the rules on how to break ties themselves part of the scoring system? Put another way, if the rules of the game include guidance on how to decide scores when the initial scores are tied, why aren't the subsequently decided scores the "real" scores so that there isn't actually a tie?

Patrick S. O'Donnell

At the very least, we should recall the immortal words of George Brett: “If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing you grandmother with her teeth out.”

For those poor souls who don't know who Brett is:

Howard Wasserman

How far does this go? Would you have awarded co-World Cups to Japan and the U.S. from last summer's Women's World Cup rather than using penalty kicks as a tiebreaker? And is there some historical estoppel at work? Some sports (baseball, basketball) have always (or at least in their "modern" versions) avoided ties and always have had mechanisms (continued play) to break the tie. Is the objection just tiebreakers that don't go follow the typical rules of the game?

David Orentlicher

I think an answer to Orin lies in Howard's question--a big problem with tiebreakers is their tendency to measure different capacities than does the primary event. The gymnastic tiebreaker ends up comparing two athletes on the basis of three rather than four events, and they may not end up with the same three events being counted. Or playing a soccer match for 60 minutes draws on a much greater range of skills than does taking penalty kicks to settle a tie. So yes, I think Japan and the U.S. should have been crowned as co-champions in the World Cup (or they should have played another full match).

With other sports like golf or American football, the players are at least engaged in the same kind of competition for the tiebreaker. But there still is the difference between competing for a whole match and competing for a brief tiebreaker. Comparing two golfers in a sudden death or three-hole playoff is very different from comparing golfers over 72-holes of play. Similarly, comparing football teams for a sudden death playoff is very different from comparing the teams for 60 minutes.

I think extra innings or extra periods are less troublesome than other kinds of tiebreakers, but even then, I'm not sure why we're better off breaking the tie than recognizing that the competitors were equal.

Orin Kerr

David, thanks for the response. It seems that you have some sort of "similar capacities" test in mind, by which internal game rules are legitimate or illegitimate ways of distinguishing competitors based on whether they sufficiently resemble the rest of the game as a whole. I suppose this debate somewhat resembles the Casey Martin case at the U.S. Supreme Court -- PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001)

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Howard Wasserman

Some of this is perspective and definition. If we define the game period a certain way, we don't actually have a tie: A soccer game is 90 minutes + additional 15-minute period until one team has a lead; a baseball game is 9 innings + additional innings until one team has a lead. We no longer are creating a tie-breaker that utilizes different skills; breaking the tie is part of the game.

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David Orentlicher

Orin, thanks for the Martin cite. As you indicate, it frames the debate nicely. Howard, your examples illustrate how extra innings or periods are the fairest kinds of tiebreakers. Playing baseball for ten innings instead of nine or soccer for 105 minutes instead of 90 doesn't change the nature of the competition in the way that sudden death or penalty kick tiebreakers do. And tiebreakers between two teams are fairer than tiebreakers in many-person, individual competitions. While Mustafina and Raisman were allowed to drop their lowest score, other gymnasts who finished below them were not. Or when Stewart Cink and Tom Watson played 76 holes in the 2009 British Open, other players competed for only 72 holes.

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