When Jim O’Sullivan published Men in Black in 2002, I would bet that the most-read chapter was the one on Jimmy Cooney. When the book was published it was only four years since Cooney had taken charge of the most famous game, in a year of infamous games, at the close of an era of revolutionary change in hurling. Interest in Jimmy Cooney might have been stirred by a game between Clare and Offaly but one cannot read that chapter without getting a greater appreciation of the man and the way events can spiral out of control.
The game is best remembered for the timing error by Cooney at the end of the game. Unfortunately, others in various roles did not give Cooney the opportunity to rectify the error. This was a systems failure. However, I want to focus on another decision made by Jimmy Cooney during that faithful day.
A colleague of mine has a saying that “no good deed goes unpunished”. He could have a point. On that day in 1998, Jimmy Cooney had to make a decision regarding a sanction on Michael Duignan. Here is a recording of the strike. Cooney describes the incident in Men in Black and his reasoning/rationalisation.
“My first instinct when I saw it was, ‘send him off.’ But, as I came over to him – and this is the truth – I looked at the score and said, oh God, there are nine points between them and if I do this I’m only making trouble for myself. It will be gone out of Offaly’s reach at so early a stage and they’ll only get negative in their hurling. That was the way I ‘read’ it and I decided to leave him on. But, it was probably a wrong decision. It was. He should have gone! I saw the incident clearly. If David Forde had stayed down I would have had no hesitation in putting him off, but David jumped up and ran off.”
Cooney’s decision was taken in, what he perceived as, the greater interest of the game. The spirit of the game rather than the letter of the law. Everyone wants some level of competitive balance. Cooney was no different. He erred on the side of competitive balance (and possibly player safety). A human instinct. Psychologists and (behavioural) economists might label it a bias in human decision making. The bias, this compensating tendency, being a departure from some idealised benchmark. Maybe it is the benchmark that needs adjusting. This brings us to the man who spotted the evolution of that benchmark and another revolutionary ’98.
Ireland had its eighteenth-century revolution in 1798. Not as successful or memorable as the French or American revolutions. Those revolutions were celebrated. The efforts of the United Irishmen less so. This is best captured in ballad “Who fears to Speak of ‘98” written by the economist John Ingham Kells in the middle of the nineteenth-century – motivated by his view that contemporary nationalists were downplaying the revolution of 1798. The Trinity College political economist was as perceptive of economic currents as he was of political currents. A few decades later, John Ingham Kells was the first to notice the movement towards homo economicus. An evolution in economics.
The claim that John Ingham Kells was the first to classify “economic men” is made by Joseph Persky in “The Ethology of Homo Economicus”. The paper was published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. At the time, the journal was a favourite for behavioural economists seeking to undermine the dominance of homo economicus. Many of the articles published empirical evidence of decisions that departed from those predicted by the homo economicus construct. The anomalies accumulated. They were labelled bias and blunders. Cooney’s decision not to send off Duignan would be seen as evidence of such a bias. There is a need for a more systematic examination of these decisions.