In game theory there is a classic game known as the prisoner’s dilemma where two people are faced with the choice of cooperating or defecting. The classic form of the game is a one-round game where both parties cooperating is the best outcome but both parties defecting is the most likely solution because of the benefits of defecting when the other person cooperates. There is, however, a form of the game that is not one-round but multi-round, where a strategy known as tit-for-tat often leads to a pattern of cooperation when it is known that defection will be punished but that mutual cooperation is possible. And if game theory took advantage of athletes and their behavior, it would be possible to come up with an athlete’s dilemma that was pretty similar in its essentials to the prisoner’s dilemma.
An example of this took place about a week ago, when the Steelers played the Bengals. One of the Steelers players, a wide receiver who shall not be named, decided before the game to antagonize the Bengals by doing a dance on their midfield logo. This is not a wise course of action for at least one reason, and that reason is that such behavior fires up the opponent and makes them play harder because of the disrespect that you have showed them. Naturally, and rather unsurprisingly, the Bengals were able to pull out a victory despite having a far worse season overall. Would the game have turned out differently if the other team hadn’t have been fired up enough? Maybe, it’s hard to tell in these matters. Sometimes a team will show up to play regardless of how their season is going, while others need extra motivation. One thing that you do not want to do is give the other team some motivation, though.
This is all the more true because teams develop a history based on their encounters. I found this out much to my chagrin when I made a comment once to a fan of the Seattle Seahawks who was still salty about what had happened in a Super Bowl more than a decade before then when, thanks at least in part to some bad officiating, his team lost to the Steelers 21-10, making it some time before they would have their first (and to date only) Super Bowl title. Apparently, though, winning a Super Bowl title does not make one less salty about ones that were lost, and rather than hold it against the refs, some Seattle fans continue to hold the loss against the Steelers, who only benefitted from the poor officiating, which in fairness would only have made the game closer rather than give Seattle the victory outright. Still, because of the way that NFL teams play each other on a consistent basis, with divisional foes playing each other twice a year, and other teams no less than once every few years, teams develop a history with other teams, and so acts that antagonize another team will become part of a history of resentment and hostility over time.
All of this suggests that athletes have a dilemma. Many athletes like to stand out and make a mark and do something that is daring and provocative that sets them apart from other players. However, there are many ways where this can go wrong. Provocative acts frequently backfire in that they fire up another team that might be somewhat disheartened over a bad season by giving them extra motivation to play hard and ferociously. The fact that teams often have a history that can be exacerbated when one plays often and fiercely tends to limit the ability that people have of making a mark in a way that does not have potentially negative repercussions for one’s own health and reputation and the success of one’s team. It is far better for people to focus on playing better and winning than on giving others motivation to play harder, but it is tough to ask people to be wise sometimes.