Showing posts with label Sport. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sport. Show all posts

Connie Hawkins — 1943 - 2017

October 8, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Click for a larger view. You can’t really tell from this picture, 
but it’s just possible that Clyde made the shot.)
The opening chapter of  Pete Axthelm’s  The City Game (1970) is about the Rucker Tournament in Harlem – playground basketball at its best. Even NBA (or at the time ABA) players would show up. Julius Erving, Nate Archibald, Wilt. The chapter is also about Connie Hawkins

Axthelm was an excellent sports journalist, and it’s a wonderful chapter. At the risk of tl;dr and copyright violation, I’m going to quote a fair amount of it.

Axthelm’s informant is Pat Smith, who had played at Marquette. As they walk by the playground where Rucker used to take place, Smith points to a tree. “When I was a kid, I’d climb up into that tree. I’d stake out one of the branches early in the morning and just sit there all day.”

“It was the kind of game that established citywide reputations. Clinton Robinson was playing. Jackie Jackson was there. So was Wilt Chamberlain, who was in his first or second year of pro ball at the time....” He savored each name as he spoke it; this was a very special honor roll. Some of the names, like Robinson’s and Jackson’s, would be familiar only to the ghetto kids who once worshiped them; others, like Chamberlain’s, would be recognized by every basketball fan. But to Smith and many others they were all gods, and their best games were Olympian clashes. “Chamberlain and Robinson were on the same team along with some other greats, and they were ahead by about 15 points. They looked like easy winners. Then, up in the tree, I heard a strange noise. There were maybe four, five thousand people watching the game, and all of a sudden a hush came over them. All you could hear was a whisper: ‘The Hawk, The Hawk, The Hawk is here.’ Then the crowd parted. And the Hawk walked onto the court.”

Axthelm interweaves Smith’s account of the game with backstory about Rucker and about Hawkins – Brooklyn Boys High, U of Iowa, the scandal and suspension, the Globetrotters (for godssake, the Globetrotters – thanks NBA), the lawsuit against the NBA. You can read about all that in the obits today. (Try Richard Goldstein in the Times.)

Then back to the game.

“The crowd was still hushed as they called time out,” Smith continued. “They surrounded the man. They undressed the man. And finally he finished lacing up his sneakers and walked out into the backcourt. He got the ball, picked up speed, and started his first move. Chamberlain came right out to stop him. The Hawk went up-he was still way out beyond the foul line-and started floating toward the basket. Wilt, taller and stronger, stayed right with him- but then The Hawk hook -dunked the ball right over Chamberlain. He hook -dunked! Nobody had ever done anything like that to Wilt. The crowd went so crazy that they had to stop the game for five minutes. And I almost fell out of the tree.”

But, Smith says, one move, no matter how spectactular does not close out a game. It takes it up a level.. Chamberlain, 7' 1" and strong, stuffs two-handed over Hawkins.

“By then everybody on the court was fired up-and it was time for The Hawk to take charge again. Clinton Robinson came toward him with the ball, throwing those crazy moves on anyone who tried to stop him, and then he tried to loft a lay-up way up onto the board, the way he had done before. Only this time The Hawk was up there waiting for it. He was up so high that he blocked the shot with his chest. Still in midair, he kind of swept his hands down across his chest as if he were wiping his shirt-and slammed the ball down at Robinson’s feet. The play seemed to turn the whole game around, and The Hawk's team came from behind to win. That was The Hawk. Just beautiful. I don’t think anybody who was in that crowd could ever forget that game.” 

The Wisdom of Crowds Redux —Bookies and Bettors

February 5, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several posts in the early years of this blog (e.g., here ) looked at the “wisdom of crowds” – the idea that the collective wisdom of large numbers of interested people is usually more accurate than the guesses of a few experts. Each post focused on a single event, usually a football game, where the public favored one side while the “smart money” (a small number of professional gamblers) favored the other. 

My thesis was that at least in sports gambling, the crowd was not so wise. If it were, it would have put a lot of bookmakers out of business.

The only data I had, unfortunately, was anecdotal – a few games, like the 2010 Superbowl, where the public heavily favored one side and lost. But this season, I’ve compiled a more complete data set – all NFL games. My indicator of the crowd’s opinion is the change in the point spread late in the week – from Friday to kickoff.*  If the spread goes up, it’s probably because the public is betting the favorite. The bookies are raising the line to attract more money on the underdog and thus balance their books. (On most bets the bettor puts up $110 to win $100. The book with equal amounts on both sides – say $1100 on the favorite, $1100 on the underdog –  is guaranteed a net of $100 no matter who wins.)

I looked at games this season where the line moved by at least one point.** Here are the results.


If you had bed against the wisdom of crowds, you’d have won 54 bets and lost 32. Putting up $110 to win $100 on each of the 86 games, you’d have come out $1880 to the good on a total investment of $9460 – about a 20% return. And except for the first week – 1 Win, 3 Losses – the whole season you’d have been in the black, playing with house money.

As for today’s Superbowl, there has been no movement in the line. It opened at 3 two weeks ago and has stayed there.*** Small bettors are tending towards the Patriots, larger bettors towards the Falcons, so the money is about evenly distributed. Of course the deluge of bets in the next few hours could change that balance.

My own hunch is that the Falcons will win it on the field.


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* Line changes early in the week are usually caused by large bets from “sharps.”

** The change in the point spread is not a perfect variable. For one thing, different books put out different lines. I used the consensus number. For another, bookmakers now respond to betting imbalances by changing the odds rather than the point spread. For example, in today’s Superbowl, the point spread is 3. If a book is getting too much action on the Patriots and needs more Falcons money, rather than raising the line to 3½, they will adjust the “vig.” Bettors usually think of the vig as a tax on losing bets. If you win, you get $100. If you lose, you pay $100 plus the tax – usually 10%. But to balance the bets, a book might raise the vig on the Patriots to 15% or 20% and lower the Falcon bettors’ rate to 5% or even 0%.  In this case, the unchanged point spread would be misleading. The public would be betting on the Patriots, but the line remains at 3.

*** Books are very reluctant to change a point spread of 3. It’s the most common outcome – out 10% of games are decided by three points. If a book raises the line to 3½ and gets a lot of action on the underdog, and if the final score is 20-17, the book loses all those 3½-point bets while not collecting on the 3-point bets. That’s one reason that when the line is 3, books are much more likely to adjust the vig rather than the points.

Short Con, Long Gain

December 7, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Erving Goffman wasn’t much of a football fan, but he would have loved this play that the Patriots pulled off against the Eagles yesterday. It’s all about self-presentation.

(If YouTube prevents the embedded video from running, click here and watch it there.)

It’s a con basically, and Goffman loved con games. The con man:
  • makes a presentation of self that . . .
  • projects a definition of the situation. . . .
  • so that others will act on that definition. . . .
  • and behave towards him the way he wants them to.

Why do the Eagles leave Brady uncovered?  A guy I know who saw the play said, “At that point, Brady looks just like a running back in the slot position (in fact, that’s what he is), so there should have been a linebacker covering him.”

But  “what he is” is what people define him to be, and at first, he projects the definition of himself as the quarterback. He goes down the line yelling at the linemen as though he is calling an audible or shouting instructions. That’s what quarterbacks do, and there is no information to suggest that he is not the quarterback. Then he stops for at most a second. The announcer says that he looked confused. The ball is snapped, and even then Brady just stands there. He is no longer projecting a definition of himself as quarterback, but he is not acting like a slot receiver either. The Eagle defenders cover the usual suspects, a list which does not include Tom Brady the famous quarterback.

Finally, he runs his pass route without an Eagle anywhere near.*

Goffman liked con artists because they provide a clear example of what we all do. The main difference is that the con man is doing deliberately and consciously what the rest of us do unawares. In fact, most of us would deny that we are trying to manipulate others’ impressions of us. It’s only when some mistake happens and we fear that others might get the wrong impression that we can see how much work goes into making sure that they get the right impression.
                       
[A similarly Goffmanesque football deception, though at a less professional level (middle school), was the subject of this blogpost  of five years ago.]

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*This sneaky stratagem, unlike others in the Belichick-Brady book, has the virtue of not violating any NFL rules. With this reception Brady was making a good gain but not smashing any records, not even those on his cell phone.       

The Front Page is the Stage for Moral Outrage

October 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The world of the tabloids is a constant drama of moral clarity. Usually the plot centers on a moral outrage – what bad guys do and get away with – but sometimes the good guys win. The point is that the moral boundary is unmistakable, and the characters are clearly on one side or the other. The specifics can vary, and either side may win, just so long as there are black hats and white hats.

In sport, we root root root for the home team, and when they are also on the good side of a moral conflict, and when they win, that’s the story that gets the front page.  In today’s episode, the white hats and the black hats are both actually blue, but the only shades of grey are the visitors’s uniforms.

Yesterday’s playoff game between the Mets and the Dodgers at Citi Field was not just about winning and losing. It was about justice. In the previous game, Shane Utley had broken the leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada on a slide aimed clearly at Tejada and not at second base. The Post abandoned the usual sports euphemism of “hard” (in basketball, a player “gives the hard foul” – e.g., by smashing his elbow into another player’s body or face) and used the old-fashioned, morally charged term “dirty.”


Baseball officials had suspended Utley for his crime, so he was not in the game last night. But he played a key position in the tabloid headlines.* “Mets bash LA; Utley,” said the Post. The News was even more punishing of the Dodger who was nowhere to be seen, bashed, or kicked: “Kicked ’em in the Uts.”


In the tabloids, justice in absentia is better than no justice at all.

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* New York’s broadsheet, the Times, seems not to have noticed this triumph of Good over Evil. The front page is devoid of sports news, and if there is a moral angle in any of the stories, it rests subtly between the lines. 


Pigskin Preview (i.e., Football Cliches)

September 2, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about the University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title - “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months. 

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league. . . .

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.


Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

“We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.”


Coach and Economy

August 31, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Illinois football head coach, Tim Beckman, was just fired after a ton of evidence showed that he forced Fighting Illini scholar-athletes to play hurt.

[A] player, Simon Cvijanovic, alleged that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.

Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a “lifetime of surgery” related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices in an attempt to shame them, the former player said. [Source: Inside Higher Ed.


In response, Coach Beckman said,

The health and well-being of our student athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.

You can’t blame the coach for lying. What else could he have said?

The problem is not that the coach is a liar or that he callously ignores the risk of lifelong debilitating injury to his players. Beckman is surely not the only coach who pressures players this way, and it’s not because the coaches all lack moral character. Nor will firing one coach have much effect. Coaches “act like our bodies are just disposable” (as Cvijanovic tweeted) not because coaches are moral monsters but because the entire system of Division I football is focused on winning.

Deep Throat was right: follow the money. Winning teams at big schools can bring in big money – media deals, tchotchke sales, alumni donations, etc. That multi-million dollar contract that Illinois gave Beckman wasn’t for improving the health and well-being of the players. It was for winning.

As long as the team’s won-lost record was improving,* university officials were not concerned about what Beckman was doing. Or if they knew, they probably assumed, correctly, that this is how coaches coach. When the news first reported Cvijanovic’s accusations back in May, Coach Beckman’s boss, the Athletic Director, said that Beckman “has put the welfare of this young man above all else.” It was only after the investigation – triggered by the young man’s tweets – that the Athletic Director was shocked, shocked to discover that Beckman made footballers play hurt.

Will the NCAA now impose new rules on the treatment of injured players? If so, my guess is that the reason will not be an overriding concern with the health and well-being of players. I’m going with Deep Throat. The IHE story doesn’t mention it, but Cvijanovic has filed a lawsuit against the university. As with concussions in the NFL, a few successful lawsuits might lead to changes. Failing that, it will be the Humanitarian Impulses of the coaching staff versus the economic pressure on Winning. In that contest, Humanitarian Impulses is a big underdog. My advice: go with Winning and give the points.

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* When Beckman took over in 2012, the team went 2-10 and 0-8 in their Big Ten division. Two years later, they were 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the division.   

My Handshakes Bring All the Boys to the Yard

April 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Handshakes are important. They can make a difference.

After Kentucky lost to Wisconsin in the semis Saturday night, several of the Wildcats started off the court, skipping the handshake line.The Kentucky coaches managed to round up some of them, but three of the Kentucky stars shook no hands.* 

That was now. But this Kentucky-handshake contretemps seems to be history repeating itself, albeit with some color reversal.

In 1950, for post-season basketball, the NCAA had a close rival in the NIT. The “I” stands for “invitational,” and Kentucky, always a basketball power, easily won an invite. City College was a bit iffier, but they too were invited, and in the second round they matched up against Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp.

Part of the Rupp legend was racism.  According to journalist Marvin Kalb, Rupp had been quoted saying he’d never coach a team with “kikes” and “blacks.”  This was still in the days when Southern universities were segregated. The Kentucky squad was all White, all Christian, something of a contrast to the City College starting five – three Jews and two Blacks.

As the game was about to start, the City College coach Nat Holman told his players to show their sportsmanship and shake hands with their Kentucky counterparts. The City College players went to their positions for the opening tip-off and, following coach’s orders, each extended a hand to the Wildcat standing next to him. Before a crowd of 18,000 at the Garden, the Kentucky players turned away. No handshakes from the Wildcats.

The scenario had the effect Holman had intended. The City College players were, to say the least, fired up. Final score: City College 89, Kentucky 50. That may still stand as the worst loss in Kentucky’s history.

Sure there are differences – the no-handshake before rather than after the game, the players doing the snubbing Black, the snubbees mostly White. But the similarities – Kentucky, no handshake, loss to a Northern team – were a thematic echo I found too intriguing to pass up.
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* Some observers lumped this unsportsmanlike conduct together with Andrew Harrison’s comment about Wisconsin’s center Frank Kaminsky. In a post-game team interview, when a reporter asked a question about Kaminsky, Harrison, thinking he was off-mike, muttered, “Fuck that nigga.” I see this less as poor sportsmanship than as grudging admiration. If I were Kaminsky, I wouldn’t be offended. I’d be flattered.


Deflated

February 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

For Seattle fans, it was what poker players call a “bad beat” – a big pot and a hand that’s nearly sure to win but then loses on the final, unlikely card. A loss like that can dampen enthusiasm for things beyond football, at least in the short run. On the other hand, a sudden and satisfying victory can whet other appetites.

PornHub, which purports to be the most popular place for porn, ran its data on traffic before, during, and after the big game (their full report is here). The chart below shows the data for the home cities of the two teams plus Phoenix, where the game took place.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As you might expect, the Super Bowl took a bite out of porn, and more so in Boston and Seattle than in other cities.  The folks who would ordinarily be checking in to PornHub started leaving early for an hour or two of pre-game hype, and of course they stayed for the real game.  Even Katy Perry held their attention at halftime.

But after Pete Carrol’s game-losing call and Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception, porn paths parted. The seekers in Seattle hurried back online while those in Boston apparently stuck with their TVs for some of the post-game ceremony.

Then, about an hour after the game, porn traffic in Boston rose and didn’t begin to taper off until after midnight. But in Seattle, the post-Bowl bump was shorter lived. Even though the night was young (8 p.m. PST) the Seattle fans lost their interest in PornHub. Phoenix, in the Mountain time zone,  is a useful comparison. Even though the hour was later, Phoenix pornophiles were still checking in as their disheartened Seattle counterparts were logging out.

In the end, it was Seattle that was deflated.

Patriots and Scoundrels

January 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sunday, and no football. But we’ll always have Belichick and Brady.

I’m not saying that the Patriots are out-and-out liars. But they are outliers.

The advantage of an underinflated ball, like the eleven of the twelve footballs the Patriots used last Sunday, is that it’s easier to grip. Ball carriers will be less likely fumble if they’re gripping a ball they can sink their fingers into.

We can’t go back and measure the pressure of balls the Patriots were using before the Colts game, but Warren Sharp (here) went back and dug up the data on fumbles for all NFL games since 2010.  Since a team that controls the ball and runs more plays has more chances to fumble, Sharp graphed the ratio of plays to fumbles (values in red squares in the chart below) along with the absolute number of fumbles (values in blue circles). The higher the ratio, the less fumble-prone the team was.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

One of these things is not like the others.  That’s what an outlier is. It’s off the charts. It’s nowhere near the trend line. Something about it is very different. The variables that might explain the differences among the other data points – better players, better weather or a domed stadium, a pass-centered offense – don’t apply. Something else is going on.

As the graph shows, when the teams are rank ordered on the plays/fumbles ratio, the difference between one team and the next higher is usually 0-2, there are only two gaps of 5 until the 9-point gap between #3 Atlanta and #2 Houston. From the second-best Texans and to the Patriots there’s a 47-point jump. 

Sharp also graphed the data as a histogram.


It’s pretty much a bell curve centered around the mean of 105 plays-per-fumble. Except for that outlier. And the chart shows just how far out it lies.

The Patriots play in a cold-weather climate in a stadium exposed to the elements.  Yet their plays/fumble ratio is 50% higher than that of the Packers, 80% higher than the Bears. They have good players, but those players fumble less often for the Patriots than they did when they played for other NFL teams. 

Usually, the statistical anomaly comes first – someone notices that US healthcare costs are double those of other nations – and then people try to come up with explanations.  In this case, it wasn’t until we had a possible explanatory variable that researchers went back and found the outlier. As Peter Sagal of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” said, “The League became suspicious when a Patriots player scored a touchdown and instead of spiking the ball he just folded it and put it in his pocket.”

UPDATE, Jan. 28: Since I posted this, there has been some discussion of Sharp’s data (“discussion” is a euphemism – this is sports and the Internet after all). If you’re really interested in pursuing this, try Advanced Football Analytics  or this piece  at Deadspin “Why Those Statistics About The Patriots’ Fumbles Are Mostly Junk,” (to repeat, “discussion” is a euphemism, and if you want more strongly voiced views, read the comments).  Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight  links to some others.  In sum, the evidence is not as strong as what Sharp’s version suggests. (One of the difficulties I suspect is that a fumble is a rare event. The difference between the teams with the surest grip and the most butterfingered is about one fumble every couple of games.

Gifted and Talented – Academics and Athletes

January 16, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can women be brilliant?  Apparently, academics don’t think so, at least not according to some research reported in The Chronicle (here). 
New research has found that women tend to be underrepresented in disciplines whose practitioners think innate talent or "brilliance" is required to succeed.
Women might be successful in those fields, but while the top men in those fields will be seen as having some ineffable je ne sais quoi – in the words of the survey questionnaire, “a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” – women achieve their place the old fashioned way– hard work.  The Chronicle interviewed Sarah-Jane Leslie, one of the authors of the study.

It’s easy to find portrayals of men with a “special spark of innate, unschooled genius,” like various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes or television’s House, M.D. But accomplished and smart women—think Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series—are typically depicted as simply hard-working.

That reminded me immediately of a similar issue in sports, where the key variable is not gender but race. (See this HuffPo piece.) The observation has become almost a cliche. Blacks are perceived to have natural talent while Whites achieve a place on the All-Star team through diligence and perseverance. Or to paraphrase Ms. Leslie and The Chronicle:

It’s easy to find portrayals of Blacks with a “special spark of innate, unschooled genius,” like Michael Jackson or Magic (note that name) Johnson. But accomplished Whites – Larry Bird or Steve Nash – are typically depicted as simply hard-working.

The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money - Again

January 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several posts in this blog have looked at the “wisdom of crowds” in football betting. In brief, the wisdom of crowds idea asserts that the collective opinions of the many are more accurate than the opinions of a few experts. (For a fuller explanation, see this post from 2009.)

Today’s playoff game between the Bengals and the Colts provides an example. The crowd loves Indianapolis.  Two-thirds of bets have been coming in on the Colts, who opened as 4-point favorites.  Nevertheless, early in the week, the line went down to 3 ½.  Apparently, the bettors who the bookies most respected, were taking the Bengals, even though the Bengals' star receiver, A. J. Green will not be playing.

Today, the public has continued to bet the Colts, with the result that some books have raised the line back to 4. 

The smart money is still on the Bengals. But if you believe in the Wisdom of Crowds, you should be on the Colts.

UPDATE:  The smart money wasn’t. The crowd was wise. The Colts easily beat the Bengals 26-10.

Social Capital and Social Values

October 1, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I offered data showing that among professional footballers, wide receivers and cornerbacks, compared with other positions, were more likely to have been arrested. By coincidence, shortly after posting that I listened to a recent interview on WNYC’s “Death, Sex, Money”  (here) with former cornerback Dominique Foxworth. Googling Foxworth led me to an April 2014 video from the Harvard Business School. Given the representation – two cornerbacks, one wide receiver, and a running back – I figured that the famous HBS case method was now including cases involving sociopaths. 

Here is a brief excerpt. The speaker is cornerback and media-certified thug* Richard Sherman.



So it turns out the athletes are there not as examples of social pathology but for their particular expertise on social capital, though the discussion winds through many other topics. The other panelists along with cornerbacks Sherman and Foxworth are wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and running back Arian Foster. They are bright, informative, and frequently funny. If you have an hour, listen to the whole thing.

If you watch from the beginning, you will also hear the moderator’s introduction of the panel members, which is worth noting for what it says about HBS values. In addition to listing some statistics about their athletic records, Prof. Elberse is careful to specify how much money each of them is making.  In the football stadium, what matters most is the final score. At the Harvard Business School it’s income. What’s surprising is not the implicit value itself; it’s that Prof. Elberse makes it so blatant.**

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* In the wake of his comments after the most recent Superbowl, Sherman was widely labeled a “thug.” The word was used about him at least 600 times on television. For more, go here, or just Google “Richard Sherman thug” and check out any of the 112,000 pages.

** For more on money as the ultimate value, and how this value emerges in ordinary conversation, see this earlier post.

Football Violence - Position or Disposition

September 27, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section.  So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.

These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium. 

This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet (here), and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000.  Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?

Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving  – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent.  And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.*

(Click to enlarge. The graph comes from Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight. )

This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday).  The violence resides not in the players but in the game.  On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).

But let's not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well.  First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers.  The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns. 


Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster.  For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)



The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen. 

This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals.** Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.

As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected.  Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players - the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play.  Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison.  Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.

Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. Position can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.

If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.


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* Some critics have questioned this comparison since it does not take income into account. Of course, arrest is a fairly rare event, and it would be kind of hard to find a large enough sample to allow for estimates among men 25-29 with incomes over $500,000.  

** Changing his name to match his uniform number is one example. For another, once during an official video review of his catch of a pass to determine if he was in bounds, Ochocinco borrowed a dollar bill from an assistant on the sideline, went up to one of the refs on the field, and offered the dollar as a “bribe” to rule in his favor.  Everyone who saw the gag found it funny – everyone except the NFL brass, who fined him $20,000.

Reality Football

September 5, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Scatterplot , Jeremy Freese posts this excerpt from Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb, a sports writer.

Maybe you don’t understand at all: Maybe you attended a liberal arts college in New England, or maybe you grew up in a city where the athletes were professionals (New York, say, or Boston, or Chicago, or London). . . . Maybe the thought of a university’s morale being tied to its football team strikes you as a fundamental failing of American society. Maybe you hear stories about corrupt recruiting and grade-fixing, and maybe you cannot understand how a sport with a long history of exploitation and brutality and scandal can still be considered a vital (and often defining) aspect of student life. Maybe you see it as a potentially crippling frivolity, or as a populist indulgence, and maybe the threat of football encroaching on the nation’s educational system makes you wonder how someone could possibly write an entire book extolling its cultural virtues.

And the thing is, I would like to tell you that you’re wrong, but I also know that you’re not entirely wrong.


Jeremy, a long-time Big Ten fan (Iowa and now Northwestern), admits to his own increasing ambivalence about the game.  Me, I’m more like those “maybe” people Weinreb imagines. In the town where I grew up, many adults felt towards the high school football team the way college team fans feel about their team. They went to all the games (sometimes even the away games), they knew the team’s history and would compare individual players to those of five or ten or more years earlier. And this wasn’t Odessa, TX.; it was a white collar, WASP suburb of Pittsburgh. I wondered what was wrong with these grown men. Many of them didn’t even have kids in the school.  The phrase “get a life” hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, that’s what I would have said.

I had the same feeling some years later when I went to a Princeton game – the alums in their tweed sport coats and striped ties shouting “Go Tiger” while we – grad students and young faculty – regarded the whole scene with stoned irony.

Over the years, I grew less critical about the fans, mostly because of sociology, which taught me to look at institutions, not just individuals. Some of the men in my town really liked school football. Others (my father, for example) liked to play bridge. So what? But those accusations of brutality, exploitation, and corruption that Weinreb mentions – those are more than just “not entirely wrong.” They are accurate and important.  But the fault lies with institutions like the NCAA, not with the fans and athletes.

Sports, Markets, and Ficitons

August 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Owners of money-making operations can make more money if they pay their workers less. But they paying less is possible only if others are not offering to pay more. This often requires that the business form a cartel – an agreement among owners not to compete. That way, they can all pay their workers less than market value. 

As Adam Smith pointed out long ago, businesses don’t really want competition.  What’s interesting political conservatives who are not in business, despite their talk about freedom and capitalism and the free market,  often want to shelter hugely profitable business from competition.

Thus it was that yesterday Claudia Wilken,  a liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton, told the NCAA it would have to start paying their workers.  The NCAA and its affiliated businesses (sometimes known as “universities”) didn’t just pay their workers less.  They didn’t pay them at all. Even better.

Of course, the NCAA claims that the football and basketball players are not workers creating a product that the NCAA sells for huge amounts of money. No, these are “scholar athletes.”  And for years, the courts have gone along with this fiction. With yesterday’s court ruling as a start, that may soon change.

The ruling, which would take effect in 2016, does not mandate that players be paid. But it could allow universities to engage in bidding wars for the best athletes, though the N.C.A.A. would probably try to prevent that by capping payments, which Judge Wilken said was permissible. [NYT]

We’ve been here before. In sport, the courts have long been slow in recognizing what was obvious to everyone else. In 1922, the Supreme Court exempted major league baseball from the Sherman Anti-trust Law, ruling that baseball was an “amusement,” not a business. Another fiction. Even in 1969, when the Court admitted that baseball was a business, the conservatives on the Court still continued to allow teams to enforce the “reserve clause,” which prevented players from seeking a better deal with another club.  If Mickey Mantle didn’t like the contract the Yankees offered, his only option was to retire.  Dissenting were three of the Court’s great liberals – William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and William O. Douglas.

The reserve clause finally disappeared, not because of a court ruling but because the players had formed a union.  In negotiations with the owners, the union was strong enough to force them to give up the reserve clause. College athletes have never been able to form a union.  Recently, athletes at Northwestern voted to form a union. In April, the NLRB ruled that the athletes were employees and could unionize.  Of course, those who were getting rich off the atheletes’ unpaid labor – the university and the NCAA – objected.  Just last month, they filed briefs arguing against the NLRB decision.





Still, it may be hard for college athletes to form unions given the short tenure of each member. And I expect that the NCAA and its universities will, like admittedly for-profit corporations, do everything they can to prevent or bust the unions.  So for now, the courts are the only hope for bringing any real pay, let alone competitive wages, to college atheletes.  So for now the courts are the workers’ only hope. Yesterday’s ruling offered that hope.

So when it comes to money-making athletics, who’s for competition?  Liberal judges and unions.


Soccer and Status Politics

June 27, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ann Coulter nails it in her column on soccer.  Not the part about the rising interest in soccer signalling America’s  moral decay. That’s just her usual attempt to be provocative.  What Coulter gets right is that soccer is part of the cultural divide.  The question she raises is much bigger than whether soccer is an inferior sport to baseball or football. It’s “Whose country is this anyway?”

Though she doesn’t say so explicitly, Coulter frames soccer is a matter of status politics – the struggle for recognition, respect, and prestige among different groups. She sees the soccer demographic as is a coalition of White liberals and immigrants of the past generation or two. The anti-soccer side comprises what Sarah Palin called “the real America” – non-urban, White, Protestant, nativist, Republican.  That’s Coulter’s side, and she’s worried that in the long run, her side will lose.

We’ve seen this match-up before. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Prohibition provided a vehicle for “real Americans” to assert the virtue and predominance of their way of life over that of the immigrant, non-Protestant groups. The opposition to Obamacare (and just about any Obama policy) had pretty much the same roster.  (See an earlier post here.) In both cases, these groups felt a threat to their position of privilege.  The anti-Obama crowd is explicit about this sense of loss and threat. America is “our” country, “they” have taken it away, and we are going to take it back.  (See my “Repo Men” post from three years ago.)

Coulter is absolutely open about her nativism and Xenophobia – none of this “America is a nation of immigrants” nonsense. Or as she says, “I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”  And one of the bullet points in her argument that soccer is a sign of moral decay is
  • It's foreign.
Followed by
  • Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it's European.
(The metric system is simpler and more logical. But it’s used in all those foreign countries, and it’s used universally in science – two reasons for conservatives like Coulter to give it the red card.)

Maybe liberals do like soccer because it’s European, or more accurately international.  But it’s equally true that conservatives fear things because they are foreign.  They demand that the rest of the world become American.  In 2006, John Tierney, a conservative/libertarian writing for the Times, said (here), “Instead of us copying the rest of the world, the rest of the world could learn from us. Maybe they love soccer because they haven’t been given better alternatives.” *

To see what else the soccer soccer coalition liked, I went to Google correlates and entered “world cup.” Unfortunately, data for the current World Cup are not in, so most of the queries are from 2010.  The map looks like what you would expect – the states where people Googled “World Cup” were the Northeast corridor and California. What’s more puzzling is that many of the highest correlates were for movies – Oscar nominees like “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker,” but also movies liberals like – “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” “Inception,” and “Eat, Pray, Love.” All these had correlation coefficients with “World Cup” of 0.87 or higher. Here are the results for “World Cup” and “Oscars 2010.”



The other highly correlated cluster of terms had a different theme:
  • hanukkah 2010 (0.8989)
  • passover 2010 (0.8972)
  • yom kippur 2010 (0.8950)
  • chanukah 2010 (0.8874)
Here are the graphics:



This does not necessarily mean that people who Googled “passover 2010" also Googled “World Cup.” It means only that in states where people Googled “passover 2010" people also Googled “world cup.” In New York and California, for example, it might have been Jews looking for information about Passover and while Hispanics Googled “World Cup.”

Soccer, Jews, and moral decay.  This combination reminded me of something Coulter said in a 2007 interview with Donny Deutsch, who happens to be Jewish (the full transcript is here):


COULTER: Well, OK, take the Republican National Convention. People were happy. They're Christian. They're tolerant. They defend America, they —
DEUTSCH: Christian — so we should be Christian? It would be better if we were all Christian?
COULTER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: We should all be Christian?
COULTER: Yes. Would you like to come to church with me, Donny? . . . . .
COULTER: No, we think — we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.
DEUTSCH: Wow, you didn't really say that, did you?
. . . . . .


DEUTSCH: Ann said she wanted to explain her last comment. So I'm going to give her a chance. So you don't think that was offensive?
COULTER: No. I'm sorry. It is not intended to be. I don't think you should take it that way, but that is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews.

Coulter didn’t mention soccer at the time, but perhaps that is yet another sign of the how Jews are imperfect compared to Christians – they live in places where soccer is popular, places where small-town and suburban WASP conservatives are not so dominant. For Coulter, that’s not just imperfect, that’s moral decay.


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*In 2012, Marco Rubio, addressing the Republican convention, used nearly identical language – the same know-nothing arrogance – in speaking about Democratic proposals like Obamacare: “These are ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world instead of making the rest of the world more like America.”

We Still Don’t Call It Football, But . . .

June 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

How American is soccer now as a spectator sport? My totally unscientific indicator is the front page of New York tabloids.  And today, they both had the US-Germany World Cup match.


The inset in the Daily News picture is a letter written by coach Jurgen Klinsmann for workers to give to their employers:  World Cup as excused absence. 

(Someone ought to remind Coach Klinsmann that this is the US, not Europe. Employers here don’t even have to give workers a day off for childbirth.)


Eight years ago, the World Cup was not front page news, perhaps because team USA went 0-2 in the first round. In 2010, soccer made it to the front page of the Post, when the US was knocked out of the tournament by Ghana.


It’s still one of my favorite captions.  But if the US loses today, I doubt that we’ll see this kind of ironic humor.



The Belmont – No Place Like Place?

June 7, 2014
Posted before post time by Jay Livingston

At Freakonomics Steven Levitt argues for making “a place bet on California Chrome” mostly because the odds to win will be so low.

When California Chrome won the Preakness, a $2 bet to win returned $3. A $2 bet to place also returned $3! . . . You can’t know with certainty what the place payout will be ahead of time because it depends on what other horse finishes in the top two, but if you watch the allocation of money in the place pool you can get a pretty good idea. Sometimes crazy things happen. When Big Brown won the Preakness, he paid $2.40 to win, $2.60 to place, an $2.40 to show!

Levitt is right when he says that the place payout depends on which other horse finishes in the top two. But he’s wrong when he says that you can get a pretty good idea by watching the place pool. The Tote board at the track does show how much money is bet on each horse to win, to place, and to show.  The place payout is determined by taking all the losing bets and dividing them up among people who bet on the winner and those who bet on the place horse.

The reason Big Brown paid more to place than to win was that horse who finished second, Macho Again, at 40-1 was the second longest shot in the race.  That meant more money in the place pool (all the money bet on the other ten horses) to be divided.  So if you are betting a heavy favorite to place, you not only have to watch the place pool bets, but you also have to pray that the horses with big money bet on them finish no better than third.

Levitt’s best bet is Commanding Curve to win. The odds will be attractive. A dollar on California Chrome, if he wins, will get you fifty cents; if you bet him to place, you might win only a dime. The morning line on Commanding Curve is 15-1, but I expect it will by lower by post time. Commanding Curve closed six lengths on California Chrome in final furlong of the Derby, an indication that he might have the stamina for the added quarter-mile of the Belmont.  Commanding Curve also skipped the Preakness, giving him an extra two weeks of rest.

My own long shot is Wicked Strong, another possible closer. The morning line is 6-1, but I predict it will be higher. He had some bad racing luck in the Derby and still got fourth.

Finally, I cannot do a post on horse racing without reiterating my pet peeve about the incorrect use of “track record” that has become so widespread (see my earlier post here).  In racing, where the term originates, it does not refer to a horses’ past performances. It refers to the record time at that track for a given distance. People don’t have track records, tracks do. The Belmont stakes is a mile and a half.  The fastest time for that distance at Belmont – the track record – is 2:24.  That’s way fast, and here’s what it looked like.


In a sport where the difference between win and place is usually a fraction of a second, Secretariat is four or five seconds ahead of the rest. 

UPDATE: Both Levitt and I were wrong. The winner was Tonalist at 8-1, a horse who had raced only four times and only once against top horses, though he won that one (a grade-2 stakes). The place horse was an even longer shot, Commissioner at 20-1.

Prophetic Umpires

March 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“It ain’t nothin’ till I call it,” said umpire Bill Klem. And if he called it a strike, a strike it was.  As Klem knew, the umpire has something resembling papal infallibility.  That was then. Klem worked behind the plate from 1905 to 1942 and holds the record for throwing players and managers out of the game (the infallibility thing is sometimes a bit much for players to take).  Now, thanks to modern technology, we can know just which calls the umpires miss.

Here’s Matt Holliday taking a called third strike.


Holliday’s body language speaks clearly, and his reaction is understandable. The pitch was wide, even wider than the first two pitches, both of which the umpire miscalled as strikes.* 


The PITCHf/x technology that makes this graphic possible, whatever its value or threat to umpires, has been a boon for sabremetricians  and social scientists.  The big data provided can tell us not just the number of bad calls but the factors that make a bad call more or less likely.  In the New York Times today (here), Brayden King and Jerry Kim report on their study of roughly 780,000 pitches in the 2008-09 season. Umpires erred on about 1 in every 7 pitches – 47,000 pitches over the plate that were called balls, and nearly 69,000 like those three to Matt Holliday.

Here are some of the other findings that King and Kim  report in today’s article.
  •  Umpires gave a slight edge to the home team pitchers, calling 13.3% of their pitches outside the zone as strikes.  Visitors got 12.6%.
  • The count mattered
  •     At 0-0, the error rate was 14.7%.
  •     At 3-0, 18.6% of pitches outside the zone were called as strikes
  •     At 0-2, only 7.3% of pitches outside the zone were called as strikes
  • All-star pitchers were more likely than others to get favorable calls . . .
  • . . . Especially if the pitcher had a reputation as a location pitcher.
  • The importance of the situation (tie game, bottom of the ninth) made no difference in bad calls.
It seems that expectation accounts for a lot of these findings. It’s not that what you see is what you get. It’s that what you expect is what you see. We expect good All-star pitchers to throw more accurately, especially control freaks like Greg Maddux.**  We also expect that a pitcher who is way ahead in the count will throw a waste pitch and that on the 3-0, he’ll put it over the plate.  My guess is that umpires share these expectations. The difference is that the umps can turn their expectations into self-fulfilling prophecies.

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* I took the graphics from fangraphs

**The pitcher in the clips is Tyler Clippard, a pretty good closer for the Nationals. He was selected as an All-star once, not nearly enough to meet the King-Kim criterion level of five.

Super Bowl Post – Crowds, Birds, Horses

February 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have posted frequently – maybe too frequently – about the “wisdom of crowds” in sports betting (in this post, for example, which has links to earlier posts going back to the early days of this blog).  For those of us who doubt that wisdom, today’s Superbowl looks like a notable opportunity.

The initial line two weeks ago from most bookmakers was pick ’em or even the Seahawks favored by a point.  The crowd, in its alleged wisdom, jumped all over the Broncos.  The bookmakers, desperate for Seahawks action to balance their ledgers moved the line, and by early in the week the Broncos were 2½-point favorites.  Betting is still going 75% for the Broncos.*

Of course, a single game (n = 1) is not a good test of this betting strategy.  Still, as Damon Runyon said, the race is not always to the swift, but that’s the way to bet ’em.

It’s two hours till game time, and although this may be the year of the horse, I’m going with Seattle.

UPDATE, Monday, Feb. 3: Well, that was easy. Rarely is the crowd so decisively unwise. Their Broncos handed the Seahawks a two-point lead on the first play of the game, and after that it was all downhill. The Seahawks won 43 - 8. 

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 *Bookmakers are leery of raising the line to 3 to attract Seahawks money because if the Broncos do win by 3 (the most common margin in football outcomes), those new bets will be result in a push rather than a win for the books. The books will pay Broncos bettors, who only gave 2½ points, but they will not collect from Seahawks bettors who took the 3 points.  So instead, the books are lowering the vigorish (in effect, the surcharge on losing bets) from 10% to 0% for Seattle bettors but raising it to 15% or 20% for Broncos bettors.