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Article ID : 174
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Published Date: 2012/5/4 12:32:33
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This review identifies seven areas of weakness in the current regime intended to prevent, catch and punish players competing in matches when they shouldn't. If - or more likely when - ineligible players are involved it is unfair to all the other participants and damages the reputation and attractiveness of the competition.

Review of rules 4.1 (eligibility) and 4.2 (registration) in the London Volleyball League.

The purpose of this review is to identify weaknesses in our player eligibility and registration regime. It was prompted by a series of events related to the Executive Committee that had the appearance of deliberate cheating - a team presenting a player using a false name - and although it had been reported to the Divisional Administrators (DAs) at the time no penalty was issued. It appeared the procedures are not inadequate to enable proper enforcement. This review only looks at what goes on, later steps will include deciding what regime of eligibility and registration we want and working out the systems and procedures that can deliver it.

In writing this review I concentrated on the rules and the procedures around them. It is there I feel the main weaknesses lay. The DAs spend much time and effort coping with player registrations and I applaud their efforts without which things would be a lot worse.

[Readers are invited to comment, with the aim of improving this review, so we all understand the present situation clearly. Please hold back from offering 'solutions' at this stage, that comes later.]

What is actually happening

The rules say that a player can only play in a league match if they present their (validated) registration card or their newly completed registration card at the match. I'm my experience there are many matches where cards are not presented. In most 'missing card' cases I'm sure there is no intent to use an ineligible player - but not all (see appendix 1).

The purpose of presenting registration cards at matches is to ensure only eligible players are put on the score sheet.

The card's role here is to:

  1. Act as proof of identity of the player
  2. Confirm the league has associated the player with a particular team for the current season
  3. Confirm the player has agreed for their registration being associated with this team.

The league then relies on the match officials to check each card:

  1. For valid endorsement by the divisional administrator (DA)
  2. Belongs to a player present - usually by its photo
  3. Matches a name entered on the score sheet

There is much that can, and frequently does, go wrong here but in most cases it's unlikely to involve deliberate cheating. More likely misunderstandings, simple mistakes or forgetfulness. Also, at the start of most matches, there is a prevailing sense of goodwill among participants which works against doing the sort of detail checks on individuals required to expose ineligible players.

To catch ineligible players we need to understand the weaknesses in the present arrangements. These include:

Weakness 1 - Limited time at matches

To prevent an ineligible player from playing the officials must do checks during the warm-up. This is usually no more than 30 minutes and can be as short as 20 minutes. Officials have several other duties during this period and doing detailed identity checks on up to 24 individual players using the current cards is very probably not feasible.

Weakness 2 - Registration card design

These are treated as proof of eligibility. Weaknesses in design include:

2.1 Multiple designs

There is no single 'official' design of card. When a new design has been introduced the old style cards haven't been cancelled . This means that many different styles of card are endorsed each year making it difficult for anyone to spot a fake card. Here are just two.

RegCard 2 styles

2.2 Easy tampering

The cards are not inherently tamper-evident. Some, notably in Mens D2 have a lamination over the photo, but most cards could easily have names, teams and photos changed without detection. Some even have multiple photos layered on the same card, like this ..

RegCard which photo

2.3 Easy endorsement forging

The annual endorsement process involves the DA adding their 'mark' to the card. The space for this is quite small and often a squiggle of initials from a ball point pen is used although I have seen a stamp on some cards. A team who had several cards properly endorsed with a pen would have little difficulty in adding fake endorsements to other cards. Match officials wouldn't pick these up. A fake endorsement might get spotted by the DA if they checked the players list from the score sheet with their own records or the player database. However, in the case of deliberate cheating the team would simply claim the DA's records were wrong, that the team had sent in the card and it had been returned properly endorsed. Proving this one way or the other would be difficult.

2.4 No guidance on cards

If officials are to treat registration cards as 'tickets to play' in a match then they need to know what constitutes the minimum set of information for it to be valid. Our cards do not say this. So when the photo is missing, offered as a lose item or held on with a paper clip (I've seen all these!) the official doesn't know whether to reject the card or not. Similarly when the address, phone number, email, player's signature or the DA's endorsement is missing like this ..

Which club?

Which team?

Which club?RegCard no team

No endorsement

No address

RegCard not endorsedRegCard no address

No ID information at all

Two clubs

RegCard no ID infoRegCard 2 clubs no address

No player signature

RegCard no plyr sig

2.5 Worn out and damaged cards

A registration card is intended to be used at matches for at least a season. Indeed the graphic design suggests it could be used for five seasons. However we allow players, teams and clubs to create the 'cards' themselves and they usually do this on ordinary paper which hasn't the durable qualities needed to survive the sort of treatment it gets. Cards are often presented with stains or damage from repeated folding or simply worn out to the point where the names and endorsements are illegible. There is no guidance on the card about how much damage is allowed before an official should reject it. Cheating teams can easily exploit this.

Weakness 3 - Record keeping

When players are registered with the league and associated with a team the league keeps a record. We only do this to support the eligibility and registration rules but there are several flaws, including:

3.1 No copies of cards

Several DAs have told me they don't make copies of the cards when they endorse them. This shouldn't be surprising as there is no reason why the volunteer DAs should have the facility to make copies at home and there is no guidance telling them to get it down or how to reclaim the expense. Without copies available the sort of investigation attempted in appendix 1 cannot be done.

3.2 Multiple registrars

All our divisions are in the same competition, and the eligibility rule is intended to restrict players to a single team. However, each DA only processes registrations for their own division and is very unlikely to spot a player becoming associated with two teams if the names were spelt slightly differently, or first and last names were reversed. (We do have DAs doing more than one division but it is the exception rather than the rule.)

3.3 Player database

This was introduced some years ago with the aim of preventing duplicate registration numbers. It is used by the DAs to register new players, and associate new and existing players with a team each season. The fact it contains multiple registrations for some players, anomalous records where first and last names seem to be the reverse of other records, or records where the names are very similar but spelt slight differently is not evidence of large scale cheating, more likely difficulties in data entry. However as the competition's only source of registration data it is of very poor quality.

Weakness 4 - Eligibility rule has exceptions

The basic idea is that a player can only play for one team. However, we allow exceptions which makes checking player eligibility in a particular match more difficult, prone to misunderstanding and mistakes. These are:

4.1 Playing up

If a club has teams several divisions then a player associated with a 'low division' team is allowed to play in 'high' division teams a certain number of times.

4.1.1 At the match

When players 'play up' the match officials are presented with cards that are not endorsed for the team they are playing for. The card has no guidance about this nor a place where it can be recorded. Consequently nobody can tell at the match whether the player should play or not.

4.1.2 Keeping count

Our current rule limits, for non-junior players, the number of times a player can 'play up'. We rely on the clubs to keep count and prevent a player exceeding the allowed number. The DAs can monitor the occurrences from the score sheets but I'm not sure there is a procedure in place to do this effectively. For instance a club with a premier division team that also has teams in division 1 and division 2 might have a player associated with the lowest team that plays up in the other teams. Our rule says they can only 'play up' three times in total. However the premier division DA and division 1 DA would need to report 'playing up' incidents to each other to monitor this. I've not heard this happens. (I'm happy to be told otherwise!)

4.2 Junior players

Clubs are allowed to use junior players in 'higher' teams an unlimited number of times. Cards have a place to indicate 'junior' but don't provide guidance to officials about eligibility.

Weakness 5 - Registration at the match

New registrations can be made on match day, where his/her card is sent to the DA together with the score sheet after the match. This would seem so convenient to teams I don't know why they don't always register in this way. Fortunately they don't because there are several problems with this:

5.1 Guidance

Match officials generally understand the purpose registration cards at matches. However there is no reason to expect them to know what information and documentation any particular competition requires when registering a player. Officials are not agents of the competition registrar. This puts them in a poor position to deal with registrations at the match - they don't know what is acceptable and what is not. There is no guidance on the card about checking a player's identity, whether the photo must be firmly stuck to the card or can be lose or even missing, whether the official is required to counter sign the card and/or photo. In fact the text of our rule about registering at matches gives no guidance to teams, players or officials about the procedure either.

5.2 Switching

The DAs cannot be sure the card inspected by the officials is the same card that later arrives for endorsement. A cheating team could easily switch it.

5.2 Third party handling

Cards are sent with the score sheet to the DA by the winning team. This means a winning team is required to handle new registrations of the losing team after the officials have inspected it but before it reaches the DA. It cannot be right to have critical documents handled by a third party like this. If a losing team claims they provided a new card at a match but it hasn't been returned by the DA, the DA is in a poor position to know who is at fault. A cheating team could exploit this.

Weakness 6 - Banned players

Monitoring the competition for ineligible players relies on DAs checking score sheets and officials checking cards at matches. The weaknesses above already make this a tricky process but in the case of banned players it is particularly difficult.

Banned players should not be playing in matches. However I'm not aware of any procedure designed to ensure this happens. If the ban arises from receiving an expulsion penalty (red card) during a match we rely on the player, his team and its club to know of the automatic ban rule and hold the player out of their next match. Indeed, if the player was in a winning team and they delay posting the score sheet for up to the allowable seven days, they could easily play in further matches during that time where nobody else is aware of the ban.

The situation is more complex when the expulsion penalty is given while 'playing up' as the ban relates to the next match of the team they are associated with (the lower team). It seems unlikely that many players understand this rule so, even if willing to be held out of a match, they may hold themselves out of the wrong match. To monitor this properly the 'higher' DA would have to tell the 'lower' DA of the ban so they can check incoming score sheets - but even then it may be too late. On the other hand those who understand the rule properly and wish to cheat can manipulate the flow of information to make it difficult to identify the banned player before a match or continue playing the banned player in the hope that the DAs fail to communicate with each other or take a long time to do so.

Weakness 7 - Penalties

7.1 Team penalty

Penalties need to be 'appropriate for the offence', act as a deterrent and punish - only - the guilty. In the first instance we are often in a poor position to determine the real 'offence' - mislaid card or deliberate cheating - and so risk handing out an inappropriate penalty. Then, while we stick with point deductions as penalties we need to accept that these can lack the desired deterrent or punishment effect as well as hurt the innocent. Different teams will value league points differently, and league points can have different values at different times in a season. Also it is not difficult to imagine a situation where our current penalty regime actually hurts an innocent team. There is more detail in appendix 2.

When a penalty doesn't deter or punish it is not a penalty at all. Penalties need to be seen as credible by all participants all the time. If not we should expect some teams consider breaking them. See appendix 3.

Penalties that can hurt the innocent are just plain wrong.

7.2 Player penalty

Our penalties are given to teams by way of fines and deducting league points. Although they will be times a player has inadvertently played in a match when they were ineligible there will be others when the player has knowingly been party to deliberate cheating, yet there is no specified punishment for the player.

7.3 Wrong penalty

If we assume teams select their players with the aim of winning the match then when they choose to use an ineligible player it is done with the intent of gaining three points and restricting the opposition to one point. If indeed they win the match and are also found with an ineligible player then simply deducting a point or two from the cheating team doesn't seem fair on the losing team. Surely it should be treated as a defaulted match in favour of the innocent team, and then apply a point deduction to the cheating team. Of course the issue here centres on 'intent'. Was the ineligible player really an unregistered player, a player impersonating another or simply an unidentified (but properly registered) player who's mislaid their card. While we have the weaknesses mentioned earlier we are in a poor position to assess these factors properly and teams that lose matches against dubious players are left wondering if the competition has been fair.

Appendix 1 - Cheating is here

The events that triggered this review were in an earlier season during two matches where I was the second official. The first match took place in early May and a team turned up with six players but only five registration cards. The officials were told the missing card had been mislaid. The captain gave the scorer the player's name which was entered on the score sheet and then signed the team list as normal. The player was asked for some confirming identification but claimed they had none with them.

During the warm up it was noticed the player was called by a different name to the one given for the score sheet (both first and last names were on the score sheet). That was hardly 'good evidence' of anything wrong but during a time-out a spectator near the score table was asked if they knew the person named on the score sheet and they said they did. I pointed to the team and said, 'So that's player number 4 then?'. The spectator looked a little 'sheepish', replied ambiguously and quickly walked off.

I was now suspicious that something was not right. At the end of the match I took a picture of the team from which I cropped out the 'suspect' player. This picture was sent to the DA along with the reason for suspecting something wrong and suggested they might check the name and picture against their records.

The DA replied that the name was that of a player correctly registered with that team, but they couldn't find the copy of the card to check the picture. This DA had been making copies of cards during the annual endorsement process but this particular card was missing from their records. Nothing further happened.

Early the following season I was officiating at another match involving two other teams. After the match I spent some time in conversation with one of the players, and on my way home I realized this player was the same person who had the dubious identity before. At home I checked the picture I still had from the previous season and confirmed it was the same person. However they were now using another name, presumably their correct name as they had a properly endorsed registration card at the match.

Armed with this new information I asked the DA (not the same as before) for a copy of the player's card. The reply came back that no cards were copied. The process being used just involved signing and returning.

It was going to be a challenge to prove what had taken place but one remaining route was still open. With my original picture showing the player in their numbered shirt at the first match and a copy of that match's score sheet, in conjunction with a copy of the second match's score sheet should be enough for the DAs to begin an investigation. However when I requested copies of both score sheets neither was forthcoming.

At this point, without good supporting evidence, the matter was dropped.

Appendix 2 - Not all penalties penalize

Our rules don't specify a particular penalty for breaking the player eligibility or registration rules. Although the DAs have the authority to impose fines, deduct league points and even eject teams from the league, my understanding is that the most common punishment for breaking these rules is a warning. Deducting one or more league points only happens for repeat offences. On the face of it this sounds fair.

A common situation is the missing card. A team may realize it is missing only when they get to a match and it would seem harsh to deduct points for that. However it should be replaced before the next match and if the team goes to another match with a card short then a penalty seems fair. However what about a team that actually manages its cards well all season - no warnings - and then uses an ineligible player in a promotion or relegation deciding match by the simple ruse of claiming a lost card. Most people would say this is deliberate cheating and the punishment might start at deducting points but might go further. Our current regime cannot tell these two situations apart.

For teams that have passed the warning stage and now face losing points the question of fairness is still uncertain. The fairness we are looking for is not equality of the 'penalty' but equality of the 'value of the penalty' to the guilty party. This is important not only for punishing fairly but to ensure the penalty has the same deterrent value to all the teams, and at all times.

Here is another scenario: Towards the end of the season team A plays its last match needing two points to win promotion. Its opposition, team B, is mid table. We're passed the deadline for new registrations but, with next season in mind, Team B 'tries out' a new player and they win the match. Afterwards, the ineligible player is spotted by the DA who promptly gives them a warning or deducts a point. However team A only collects one point and misses promotion. How can it be fair that a team that breaks a rule that so obviously affects their performance - like ineligible players - is allowed to damage another team.

League points have different values to different teams:

  • Our prison teams know they will never be promoted or relegated from the bottom division, neither would they be able to collect a winner's trophy. I don't believe their desire to accumulate league points over a season is very great. I'm sure they play each match to win but aren't too bothered about their points tally.
  • Some teams in our premier divisions see winning the league as their aim. I believe they plan their season with this in mind and treasure each and every point gained.
  • Some teams are content to remain in the middle division. Indeed we have often had requests from middle division winners to stay down. As long as they were clear from being relegated the deterrent value of a point deduction may be worthless.
  • Teams entered by NVL clubs to provide competitive games to their '2nd six players' may not play their season with winning our league as their aim. If it turns out that way it's a bonus but they won't be using their strongest players in all our matches if it puts their NVL results at risk.
  • Teams made up of juniors may treat matches in our league as preparation for other competitions. This season one of our teams actually persuaded their opposition to allow an illegal number of players 'just to give them some practice'. They didn't mind losing the match, so obviously didn't value the league points.
  • Clubs with more than one team in the league may have differing objectives for each team. In particular they may have a 'player development' objective for a lower team and they will value league points only up to the amount needed to remain in the desired division.

League points have different values at different times:

  • Towards the end of a season the teams with the possibility of winning their division, or being relegated, will value league points more highly than other teams and at other times.

Appendix 3 - Risk/reward ratio of cheating

Deterrents work by forcing the potential cheat to weigh up the probability of being caught and the penalty on one hand, and the value of the reward and the probability of gaining it on the other. For example:

A team is facing its last match of the season. It only needs one point to win promotion (probability is 100%, reward is promotion) but the team has only five players available which would cause them to default the match and receive no points. For cheating to make sense they must value the reward (promotion) higher than the probability of getting caught along with the penalty. This might seem a bit theoretical but it comes down to this: When the penalty doesn't hurt and the probability of getting caught is low then cheating can make sense to more people. In regimes of low penalties and slack policing there is also a secondary affect where non-cheats lose confidence that the other participants are playing fairly and either leave for another competition or begin cheating themselves. In our situation the penalty is not always seen as much of a punishment and we are not very effective at spotting the cheat.

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