A New Token Economy in Professional Soccer


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

Many in the world of professional soccer feel that players are disrespecting the game with various displays of unsportsmanlike conduct, such as taking dives just to gain a penalty kick.

Italy’s Serie B league started a new initiative to increase “acts of virtue” during games, by issuing green cards as incentives for good sportsmanship.  NBC Sports noted “the thought is, apparently, that also offering a positive incentive, rather than only that of discipline, will entice players to treat the game with a greater level of respect.”

Interestingly, the green cards are not exchangeable for anything resembling immediate reinforcers. Rather “the player’s name will be noted and a list of the ‘most correct’ players will be compiled at the end of the season” according to NBC Sports.

People in the soccer world are skeptical that the program will do any good, and, frankly, any Board Certified Behavior Analyst could see at least two reasons why:

  1. The cards resemble something known as a “token economy” wherein a person can earn arbitrary objects to be exchanged later for preferred items — money is a prime example.  Though the cards are to be presented immediately contingent on the desired behavior, they cannot be exchanged for incentives until the end of the season.  The large delay between the earning of a card and the opportunity to exchange the card for something of value puts the utility of the program into question.
  2. Moreover, NBC Sports gave no indication that the “list” compiled at the end of the season was actually desirable to the players themselves. No preference assessment of any kind was given to the players to see what would motivate them to change their behavior.

To read more about the program, be sure to check out NBC Sports and let us know what you think about the system in the comments below.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

About the Author

President, bSci21 Media, LLC Editor, bSci21.org

2 Comments on "A New Token Economy in Professional Soccer"

  1. I believe you are correct in your analysis about the probable cause of failure of the program. But in point 1 I would add that even if it is delayed the event of trading green cards for something, like in the token economy, the social recognition of the player’s behavior may have some effect in increasing the effectivity of the intervention. The arbitrary consequence itself may not work in the long run, but it is a good starting point for it to be substituted by other consequences, like social value or some other positive consequence that wouldn’t be just a green card. Even if nothing substitutes it, it may still work in many situations, since yellow and red cards are arbitrary either, with the difference that they generate other consequences that are missing a match and, in some countries, financial penalties. Sorry if the english is not good – not my native language.

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