Referees and conflicts of interest

An interesting story (at least by the standards of this blog) from this past week concerns whether a referee in England’s  Premier League has created a conflict of interest by signing up with an agency to help him get paid for giving speeches and for other off-field affairs. As described in the Daily Mail,  the potential conflict arises from the fact that agency also represents several Premier League players.

Apparently, the ref – Mark Clattenburg – violated Professional Game Match Official Rules by not getting prior permission for entering into a relationship of this sort. But is it a COI?

A conventional analysis starts with looking at what the referee/agency relationship actually entails.  Presumably (although the article does not  say this) the agency owes him a duty to perform certain services and he owes it a duty to pay for these services. That is, he does not have a duty to perform services for it.

Of course, if part of the way he was paying the agency for its services was by promoting the interests of its other clients, including the Premier League players they represent, then that would be a COI.  But imputing such a duty to a relationship of this sort seems like a real stretch.  After all, the same analysis would apply to the players the agency represents – assuming two or more are from different Premier League teams – which I think would make little sense.  Put otherwise, it is hard to imagine either a ref or a player throwing a match to curry favor with  an agent who they are already paying.  (Or, to look at a structurally similar COI situation: if a law firm or an investment bank represents two  clients with adverse interests the firm/bank may have a conflict – but the clients don’t.)

So, from a conventional analysis I don’t see this as the stuff of a conflict.  But, there are other considerations when it comes to COIs and referees.

One of these is what might be called a “needs analysis.”  That is, certain types of activities require a higher standard when it comes to COIs to protect the efficacy of those activities.  Serving as a judge or on a jury are examples of this; for both, a COI analysis includes looking at potential biases – which, generally speaking, one wouldn’t do in the commercial world, where typically “interests” must be tangible to be deemed conflicting.  (Another example is serving in a procurement function, which – as described in this recent post – may necessitate  a “Caesar’s wife” approach to COIs.)

Referees are, of course, like judges and juries.  And so for the good of the game, it may make sense to apply a higher standard for them, although I’m not sure exactly how one would articulate it.

The other consideration is that – unlike judges and juries – referees often must make truly split-second decisions.  From a psychological perspective, these harried circumstances may mean some heightened degree of ethical vulnerability – and that in turn may indicate peril in a referee’s having a connection to a player in a game that he is officiating.   (For more on the surprisingly potent role of biases that lurk below the surface and undercut our ethical performance see these prior posts on “behavioral ethics.“)

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