Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category
You know, I thought these articles had gone out of fashion:
In 1972, the year I became aware of baseball, its highest-paid player, Hank Aaron, earned $200,000 per season—the equivalent of around $1 million today. Aaron’s salary was 18 times the median household income in the United States. This year’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, stands to earn $29 million, which is 580 times the median income. (In fairness, Verlander may be a more egregious example of inequality than Rodriguez, since he pitches in the nation’s poorest big city. In the first year of his new contract, Verlander will earn $20 million—around 800 times as much as Detroit’s median household income.)
Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that former Slate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars: the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1.
As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1 billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.
McClelland even criticizes the Seitz decision, thinking players would be better off if they were bound for life to one team. Or, actually … I don’t think he cares about the players. What seems to be damaged here is a deranged sense of economic justice.
I shouldn’t bother but … I’m in a fish-in-barrel kind of mood.
First, let’s consider the point made by honest liberal Matt Yglesias: owners will price tickets, concessions and TV for as much as they can get. There is a myth the media like to promulgate (and MLB owners like to hear) that high player salaries drive high prices for games. This is baloney. The owners will charge whatever they can. When was the last time a team dumped payroll and then cut prices? I remember when Peter Angelos was on Baltimore radio flogging this myth. Someone called up and asked if he was going to cut prices now that the Orioles had dumped all their expensive players. He didn’t have an answer.
All that free agency has done is give players a bigger piece of the pie — a pie that they actually baked since no one ever payed a plugged nickel to see an owner (and it’s not like the owners are struggling). Frankly, I wish more businesses were following their example and bumping up salaries.
A few more things to factor in: athletes are taxed at very high rates; they typically only play for a few years, if that; most of those that do reach the highest levels have pursued it with a single-minded devotion. They will have to live on those earnings for a long time. Frankly, if equity is what you’re worried about, I’d spend more time flogging the low salaries of minor league players compared to their MLB counterparts.
The Slate readers are actually pretty savvy and make many of these points in the comments. However, you do get the occasional “why do we pay teachers and fireman so little and ball players so much!” This was always my favorite argument against high player salaries because it is so obviously absurd. At any given sporting event, an average of 30,000 people show up, buying tickets and concessions. They put in a significant amount of effort and money to watch someone like Justin Verlander pitch. How many teachers teach to 30,000 students at a time? If a teacher could teach that many 162 times a year, would she not be paid like Justin Verlander? The fact is that the skills needed to teach — patience, intelligence, hard work, empathy — are thankfully common. There are literally a few million people doing it. The skills needed to fight fires or fight wars — self-sacrifice, strength, courage — are also thankfully common. The skills needed to be a Cy Young winner — while having less value in an objective sense — are much more rare.
Yes, it’s true that Justin Verlander can’t teach a class or fight a fire or do astrophysics for that matter. It’s also true that I can’t hit a curveball. So what?
But doesn’t the huge amount of money spent on sports show that we have our priorities out of whack? Shouldn’t we spend more on education that we do on baseball? Well … we do. Major league baseball made $7.5 billion last year or about $10 for all 75 million people who went to a game and considerably less for those who watched it on television. We spent approximately $800 billion on education — over $10,000 per child in public schools. The difference is the number of people into whose hands that money is concentrated — three million teachers against a thousand athletes. If our devotion to a cause is judged by the how much we spend, how much we worry, how much we argue and how many people devote decades of their lives to it, education is far, far more valued in this country than all sports combined.
So, no, I don’t think athletes are paid too much. I think they are paid what they are worth. The market has not “overvalued” ballplayers nor has it “undervalued” writers. There are maybe a few hundred people in the entire world who can play baseball at a professional level. But there are millions who could write poorly reasoned articles that drip with wealth envy.
A final thought: my enthusiasm for sports bothered me a little bit when I was younger. Surely, I thought, I shouldn’t devote so much thought to such a trivial pursuit. Is not Shakespeare worth ten pennants? I departed from that thought when I realized that one can pursue all interests: Shakespeare, astrophysics, sports and, um, blogging. But it was actually Jonathan Swift who converted me, with his compelling argument that a truly enlightened race (the Houyhnhnms) would, once they had beaten down the necessities of nature, devote themselves to the pursuit of both mental and physical excellence. Whether it is writing, playing piano, measuring stars or hitting baseballs, the pursuit of a craft, the perfection of it the pinnacle of possibility — that is what drives us as a race.
When I watch a baseball game, I see Justin Verlander throw a ball 100 mph with the right spin to make it move just enough to be almost impossible to hit. I see Albert Pujols, in a split second, decide to swing and launch the bat into the precise position to hit the ball as hard as possible. I see Austin Jackson, at the crack of the bat, take off and pursue it into the gap at just the right angle that he can spear it with his outstretched arm. Every game, I see something that should be impossible but isn’t.
Isn’t that worth $10 a head?
A few years ago, I invented a Bowl Championship Points System. The basic idea was response to the Bowl Championship Cup, which was awarded, for a while, to the conference that did the best in the bowl season. But because it was given out for winning percentage with a minimum of three games, it almost always went to the conference that played in … three games. If a conference went 2-1 or 3-0, they would “win” the cup over a conference that went 6-2 and won two BCS games. This crossed me as absurd and a result of not understanding the effects of small numbers on percentages.
In my system, each conference gets two points for a bowl win, an extra point for a BCS bowl win and loses a point for a bowl loss. So it rewards conferences that are both in a lot of bowls and do well in them. Yes, it favors the major conferences. But it should favor them as they usually have far more depth than the mid-majors. The system is fair, I think, because it mostly favors the top conferences but a mid-major can win if they have a really great season. And, in fact, one has and another might this year.
I’ll just quote my old article on past results since the inception of the BCS in 1998 and contrast my system to the bowl championship formulation. (And no, I am not going to correct for the Stalinist revisionism of vacating wins from either Penn State or USC).
It may seem like my system is biased in favor of the SEC. But I designed it when the SEC was in a down cycle and it was favoring the Big-12. The SEC does better in my system simply because they get into more bowls and win more bowls. Over the BCS years that I have now entered into the system, here are the records of each conference coming into this bowl season.
SEC: 67-47 (16 BCS wins) = 103 points
Big East: 43-27 (7 BCS wins) = 66 points
Big 12: 54-53 (9 BCS wins) = 64 points
Big 10: 45-54 (12 BCS wins) = 48 points
Mountain West: 31-20 (3 BCS wins) = 45 points
Pac 10/12: 37-40 (11 BCS wins) = 45 points
ACC: 45-53 (2 BCS wins) = 39 points
Conference USA: 29-40 (0 BCS wins) = 18 points
MAC: 19-23 (0 BCS wins) = 15 points
WAC: 21-29 (2 BCS wins) = 15 points
Sun Belt: 8-11 (0 BCS wins) = 5 points
Independents: 7-12 (0 BCS wins) = 2 point
It’s fine to hate the SEC. I probably would had I not been raised in Georgia. But their dominance in the BCS era, particularly from 2006-2012, can not be denied. The other conferences cluster near .500 but the SEC is away ahead. This is true if you use W-L, national titles, BCS bowl wins or my system. On win percentage, the Mountain West or Big East would take the lead (but with a fraction of the bowl appearance). Those are the only two conferences that could be said to have legitimately matched the SEC in bowl performance.
So why am I posting this now, while we still have two bowls left in 2013? Here’s why. With the old bowl championship system, Conference USA would have already have “won” the bowl season by virtue of winning the Beef O’Brady Bowl, the Hawaii Bowl, the Armed Forces Bowl and the Liberty Bowl. While I’m happy for those teams, this doesn’t really cross me as exactly dominating college football.
As of right now, the points system has Conference USA, the much-maligned ACC and the hyped SEC in a tie at 7 points. Should ‘Bama win their third title, the SEC will take the points system with a 6-3 record and a BCS win. However, should Notre Dame win, the SEC will lose it (as they should, having already lost one BCS game) and Conference USA/ACC will split the title.
The SEC is still the dominant conference, but they have waned a bit in recent years even as the hype has exploded. From 2006-2013, they have placed first or second every year, which sounds about right for a deep conference that has won six straight titles, gone 41-22 in bowls and won nine BCS games. But their peak was three years ago. They have come down to earth enough to be beatable as Northwestern, Clemson and Louisville have shown.
Notre Dame has a very good chance in this game because they play defense. For all the hype lavished on the SEC’s speed, what has made it the dominant conference is being one of the few to take defense seriously. If you look at the powers — ‘Bama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, LSU — they all have great defenses. When SEC titans clash, you don’t get 50-45 shootouts like you do in the Big 12 or Pac 12. You usually get low-scoring slugfest. A classic SEC game features a tough running game, punishing defense and enough passing to keep things lively. This year, we’ve seen SEC teams rise and fall with their defense. Georgia has trouble with Nebraska until their defense clamped down. South Carolina won, in part, because their defense clamped down, setting up the last minute heroics. Florida failed because their defense was completely lost at sea. Even Texas A&M, for all of Manziel’s amazing performance, pulled away when their defense shut out Oklahoma in the second half.
In previous years, we’ve seen offense juggernauts like Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon get beat because their offense hadn’t really faced a tough defense before. I remember the 2008 title game, when the TV broadcast had a clock for how fast Oklahoma’s offense moved. They stopped using it because Florida, unlike most Big 12 teams, had an actual defense and put some of their best athletes on defense and Oklahoma was forced to slow down.
That’s why Notre Dame could win this. They have a great defense and can match Alabama stop-for-stop. It should be a low-scoring game that could turn on anything.
This is also why I think the Big 10+ is destined to rise again. The Big 10 is the only other conference to take defense seriously. They had a bad year this year. But then again, two of their best teams were kept out of the bowls.
Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.
On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.
In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.
Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.
But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.
Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:
So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.
We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.
Last year, I suggested a way baseball could bring some relevance back to the regular season: by recognizing the team with the best record as the League Champion. This year’s League Champions, under that formulation, would be New York and Washington. I find that a far more useful metric of overall team quality than “made the post-season”.
The recent massive trade between Los Angeles and Boston, in which Boston is dumping most of their high-paid stars to LA, has brought the Ewing Theory back into the lexicon. Here is Bill Simmons’ 10-year old explanation of the Ewing Theory. The Ewing Theory — better described as the Ewing Effect — is when a star player leaves a franchise, the media all assume this spells doom for the franchise and the team “inexplicably” (although usually quite explicably, if you look closely) wins anyway. It was first brought into light by Simmons, a writer I generally like, in the context of the Mariners’ surprising 2001 season.
The Ewing Theory has kicked around for a while and I’ve never liked it. I’ll get into the weeds below but the basic reason is that it exemplifies many of the worst things about sports media coverage and sports fandom. Sports writers and sports fans simple love to tell us how a great player isn’t really that great. They love to talk about how some player they don’t particularly like is really a loser who fails to elevate his team. When a team flops or stumbles or simply can’t win the championship — keeping in mind that winning a championship is a team effort and, by definition, only one team can do it every year — the media/fans will often pick out the best player and vent their frustration on him. And those who never liked him anyway will gloat about his lack of leadership. This tendency has become far worse in the last few decades as player have started to make more and more money.
But is it possible that a player can, on paper, be really excellent but drag his team down? Well, it’s possible. A great player could eat up so much salary that the team can’t sign other great players. A great player could be blocking an even better player. A team could center their strategy on the great player at the expense of even better components. The latter may especially be true in a sport like football, where there are a lot of moving parts on any team.
But the Ewing Theory seems to postulate something different: that the very absence of a star player can elevate the existing team to be better. And after looking at it, I’m convinced that this effect either doesn’t exist or is very small. The Ewing Theory keeps foundering on much more secular and concrete explanations.
See, this is why I point and laugh at sociologists:
[N]early three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Notice anything they have in common? The researchers did. “It is now customary for the participants in all of these events … to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit,” they note in their analysis, which appears in the journal Electronic News.
Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage. “The remaining sports represented—rowing, cycling, and fencing—are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage,” the researchers write.
First of all, it’s common to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit in almost every Olympic event. They cherry-picked this study to 14 events, leaving out things like Tennis, Sailing, Synchronized Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics that might dispute their theory. They also made the odd choice of putting cycling in the “non-sexy” category despite the skin-tight outfits that are worn. I’m sure if cycling got more coverage, they’d flip it back into the sexy category.
Second, they ignored that Americans prefer to watch events where they are likely to medal and the events they list are where we tend to clean up. We don’t win a lot of medals in rowing, cycling or fencing. Softball and soccer get lots of medals and little coverage, true. On the other hand, there have been numerous complaints from the public about the lack of coverage and they only recently became medal events (1996 for both).
Third, if you look at the study’s graphs, you’ll see that men’s coverage is equally skewed, with almost all the coverage going toward … beach volleyball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, track and volleyball. In short, no one wants to watch fencing. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women doing it. I don’t want to watch fencing and I used to fence! Maybe if the US started dominating those events, they would be watched.
Fourth, notice the catch-22 underlying the study. If we aren’t watching women’s events, it’s because of sexism. But when do watch them, the most popular event, by far, is women’s gymnastics. But this just proves our sexism because they’re in leotards!
Fifth, notice that exceptions to their theory — Lindsey Vonn, Picabo Street, Bonnie Blair, Jackie Joyner Kersey, Wilma Rudolph, etc. — are just ignored. Their theory is deliberately made plastic enough — defining “socially acceptable” sports arbitrarily — that they can sneak any damn conclusion they want into it. I skimmed through the study and found numerous references to track and field being socially unacceptable for women — these studies published at a time when Marion Jones, Flo-Jo and Jackie Joyner Kersey were some of the most popular and recognizable women in the games. I was personally at the 1996 women’s 100m final when Gail Dever and Gwen Torrence finished 1-3. The build-up was huge; the coverage extensive and the stadium exploded when they won.
What the fuck are these people talking about?
Now I will let on about one thing. People tend to pay less attention to women when they play sports that were designed by men and emphasize masculine traits like strength. They pay more attention when women play sports designed with women in mind that emphasize feminine traits like grace, coordination and beauty. Gymnastics is popular precisely because the people who designed the sport understand this. The events are very different for the two genders. The men’s events emphasize strength and endurance; the women’s coordination and grace. Both are entertaining, grueling and incredible displays of athleticism; but they are also expertly tailored to the sexes.
Really, the more I look at this, the more it sounds like someone started out with their conclusion and trolled the data to support it. This is what passes for research in sociology.
Update: One last point. They complain that women only get 48% of media coverage despite winning 50% of the medals. That … doesn’t really cross me as significant. And breaking the coverage down by athlete is ridiculous. The media’s coverage of the Darling of the Games is notoriously fickle.
This interactive graphic, showing how world records in olympic events have changed over time, is pretty damn cool. The improvement in the discus is particularly stunning.
While part of this has to do with improved training and technology, these are just part of a larger trend of tapping deeper into the human potential. The people we were a century ago were a shadow of what we are now — well-fed people with all our teeth, marbles and bones who can live functionally into our 80′s. Vaccines and the reduction of childhood disease, in particular, have created an explosion in human healthy, lifetime and potential.
I do think we are reaching the limits this side of genetic engineering. Watch how the records asymptote. I just hope the same isn’t true of our progress in science and technology.
The frustrating thing about Gregg Easterbrook is that he often makes good points but goes too far in his argument. Today’s TMQ on how rivals.com ratings of high school players are a bit overblown:
Rachel Bachman shows that 54 percent of the high schoolers that earned a five-star ranking, the top classification, not only were not drafted high by the NFL, they were never drafted at all.
High school football players — being on Rivals, the ESPN 150 or any similar ranking is a big thrill and a way to get college coaches to call your cellphone. But being listed has NOTHING to do with whether your athletic career will go well and might even hold you back by swelling your head.
A 46% chance of being drafted in the NFL is really good. As Bachman notes, only 10-20% of lower-ranked prospects get drafted. So a five-star prospect is 2-5 times more likely to end up in the NFL than a lower-ranked prospect. And probably even more likely to be there than unranked prospects.
Scouting is a difficult business. All sports have busts and unexpected stars, despite the tens of millions spent on scouting. It’s fair to say that the rivals.com ranking is no a guarantee of success. But to say it is unrelated to success is bullshit, because it clearly is.
I still like Tuesday Morning Quarterback, but Gregg Easterbook’s ignorant shooting from the hip is beginning to grate.
TMQ continues to think Atlanta has become so obsessed with its no-huddle offense — everything called at the line, with multiple checks before the snap — that the Falcons are losing track of the fundamentals. When receivers and linemen don’t get the actual call till two seconds before the snap — Matt Ryan sometimes uses more than one “sim” call before he checks to the real play — there just isn’t time to get set mentally.
Atlanta is 22-3 when it features the run and Michael Turner rushes for at least 100 yards. Of course, some of those games are ones in which Turner got carries because the Falcons had a second-half lead. But the Falcons are trying to be too fancy; they need to go back to basics. The Packers, Patriots and Saints can be super-quick fancy. Ryan is good but he’s not Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
This is categorical garbage. Atlanta’s season turned around when they de-emphasized their moderately effective running game and leaned more on Matt Ryan. Early in the season, they were fading in the second half because Michael Turner is not the star he was and their running game couldn’t ice games. Don’t believe me. Try Football Outsiders who rank Atlanta with the 8th best passing game and 25th best rushing game. They also rank Turner as the 28th most effective RB, despite the 1300 yards. Meanwhile, Ryan is rated as the 7th best QB in the league. He’s not Rogers, Brady or Brees, but he’s comfortably in the same tier as Manning, Stafford, Romo and Rivers.
Update When Easterbrook gets his facts, he’s good. The article contains a debunking of the “we’re slashing fire departments” lie making its way through progressive circles.