Friday, March 03, 2006


The Sports Guy meets The New Yorker

I’m a big sports fan, as you might have noticed from my Olympics columns. I’m also a modest fan of Bill Simmons of, and yes, largely because I, too, am a Red Sox fan. I’m also a fan of fiction, good essays, and poetry. I’m a graduate of Montana’s creative writing program and have been writing fiction and non-fiction for the last, oh, 32 years. I subscribe to The New Yorker, and one of my favorite writers is Malcolm Gladwell, mainly for the way he manages to think over old problems in new ways. He’s an idea man. This week the Sports Guy melded with Gladwell. Simmons has been running interviews with various known people on sports. This time he interviews Gladwell. (Parts 1 and 2.) Gladwell did not disappoint. Simmons asked Gladwell about how athletes tend to perform better in contract years. True to Gladwell form, he begins to compare the way we treat underachieving athletes to the way we treat our nation’s academic underachievers:
[W]hat are the lessons of the contract year? A big part of talent is effort. Maybe this kid is plenty smart enough, and he's just not trying. More to the point, how can we say he isn't smart. If talent doesn't really mean that much in the case of Dampier -- if basketball ability is incredibly variable -- why don't we think of ability in the case of this kid as being incredibly variable? And finally, what does the kid need? In the NBA, we'd say he needed Phil Jackson or Hubie Brown or maybe just a short-term contract. We'd think that we could play a really important role in getting Dampier to play harder. So why don't we think that in the case of the kid? I realize I'm being a bit of a sloppy liberal here. But one of the fascinating things about sports, it seems to me, is that when it comes the way we think about professional athletes, we're all liberals (without meaning to be, of course). We give people lots of chances. (Think Jeff George). We go to extraordinary lengths to help players reach their potential. We're forgiving of mistakes. When the big man needs help with his footwork, we ship him off to Pete Newell for the summer. We hold players accountable for their actions. But we also believe, as a matter of principle, that players need supportive environments in order to flourish. It would be nice if we were as generous and as patient with the rest of society's underachievers.
There’s a couple of points I’d quibble with. First, with NBA players there’s no doubt as to their inherent basketball talent. They go through rigorous years of play against increasingly better skilled competitors. Academic talent or intelligence is harder to quantify. Next, there’s money invested in the players. Money means more than people. Period. Still this is as good an argument as I’ve heard defending more investment in people who are in danger of falling out of society. Then there’s this cool study:
There's a famous experiment done by a wonderful psychologist at Columbia University named Dan Goldstein. He goes to a class of American college students and asks them which city they think is bigger -- San Antonio or San Diego. The students are divided. Then he goes to an equivalent class of German college students and asks the same question. This time the class votes overwhelmingly for San Diego. The right answer? San Diego. So the Germans are smarter, at least on this question, than the American kids. But that's not because they know more about American geography. It's because they know less. They've never heard of San Antonio. But they've heard of San Diego and using only that rule of thumb, they figure San Diego must be bigger. The American students know way more. They know all about San Antonio. They know it's in Texas and that Texas is booming. They know it has a pro basketball team, so it must be a pretty big market. Some of them may have been in San Antonio and taken forever to drive from one side of town to another -- and that, and a thousand other stray facts about Texas and San Antonio, have the effect of muddling their judgment and preventing them from getting the right answer.
Gladwell used this study to argue why he’d be a better GM of the New York Knicks than Isiah Thomas. He’s arguing that Thomas knows too much about basketball to make good decisions. I, of course, apply this to politics and could argue that I could run the country better than Dinky because I’d play things safe and conservative. But that’s assuming that Dinky knows anything about running a government. Maybe I would be better just because I would pay attention... More on Isiah Thomas and on why sports GMs take bigger risks than, say, big businesses:
The mess he is creating right now in New York will be studied by business school students 50 years from now alongside Enron and But wait, is it enough to say that GMs behave this way because it's more fun? An economist would say that people pursue high-risk strategies when they are protected against the consequences of failure. The technical term for this is "moral hazard": When the federal government agreed to guarantee the safety of deposits in savings and loans, the savings and loan industry in the 1980's went crazy and made tens of billions of dollars in ridiculous loans. Their thinking was: If we score, we score big. If we lose, the government bails us out. That's the moral hazard of insurance.
The interesting thing Gladwell suggests in this interview is that sports can be used as a lens through which to look at larger issues in society. I think the same is true on an emotional level, too: sports contains the emotional dramas of love, betrayal, courage, and cowardice, all of which are either muted or lacking in our everyday lives. And for good reason. Most of us find it difficult enough to navigate bills, work, chores, vacations, raising children, mortgages, politics, religion without involving the extremes found in the day-to-day business of, say, baseball. But we still need to connect to those emotions, and sports allows us that outlet... Anyway...this post has exploded. It should be a good precursor to tomorrow’s sports post...on fantasy baseball! Stay tuned...
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