Russ Roberts

Gary Belsky on the Origins of Sports

EconTalk Episode with Gary Belsky
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Advantage Luck... Socialism, Sportsmanship, and ...

Origin%20of%20Sports.jpg Gary Belsky, co-author of On the Origins of Sports and former editor-in-chief of ESPN the Magazine, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the origins of sports--how various sports evolved and emerged into their current incarnations. Along the way he discusses the popularity of American football, the written (and unwritten) rules of sports, and the focus on replay and fairness in modern sports.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: March 21, 2016.] Russ: So, this is a really entertaining book. It covers a lot of things, a lot of sports, and a lot of aspects of sports that people don't know about. It's amusing; and you learn a lot along the way. It also includes some things that people wouldn't call sports, which we'll get to later. But I want to start with a very basic question, which is: Which sport started with the thickest rule book? And which one do you think has the thickest one now? Guest: That's an interesting question. I don't think any of them started with rule books--at least any of the sports that we covered. But I did think some of them started with rules that were written down. And I think it was probably the rules of cricket or the rules of the football association--a.k.a. soccer in America. Or, oddly enough the rules for Ultimate--which people think of as Ultimate Frisbee, which are the most recent rules for the most part in our book. And they were written in the late 1960s or 1970 by a high school kid in New Jersey. And he already had a lot of other sets of rules to look at and imagine what rules of a new sport should be like. And those rules are probably, you know--technically if you did a word count, they would be the longest, the Ultimate rules. Russ: And how about now? In current sports? Do you know offhand? The two major sports that I think of as having tons of rules are football and baseball. Guest: Yeah, when we did--when I was at ESPN the Magazine, we actually did at some point, we asked and answered this very question, and we did, like, a little graphic--forward and back pages of the Magazine we had something for a while called "And Another Thing." It was the last thing in the magazine. And we did a sort of rulebook comparison. I believe it's either like Formula 1 or the NFL (National Football League). Pretty sure. The NFL--we make the point, as I think you know, in the book, that many sports reflect their national character. And the NFL from the beginning was--or football, I should say, from the beginning was an extraordinarily detailed and nuanced, if that's the word, or obsessive set of rules. Russ: Any thoughts on why that is? Especially--baseball has become an American game. And it has lots of rules, by the way. It's not like it doesn't have very many. They are just kind of complicated and hard to remember. Football seems to be evolving every year. Guest: I have a theory, if you'd like to hear it. And the theory has to do with--it's similar to why I think football has become such a popular sport in America. Which is: it's an entertaining sport; but there's a lot of them that are. But there's an aspect of scarcity to football, right? No many how many games we have, no matter how many college football games, professional football games, there's still not just as many football games are there are most other sports' games. And so, that's one of the reasons that I think, and a lot of other people think, that football has achieved its kind of rarified altitude in the American sports landscape, is that there's just not as much of it, no matter how much we think there is now versus what there was 30 years ago. Russ: You mean in a particular season. Guest: In a particular season. Right. There's 16 games as opposed to 160 games, right? Russ: 162. Guest: And so, I think there's something to that when it comes to the actual, each moment of play in football. I just think there are fewer actual moments of activity, and so they all end up taking on a higher level of importance. And therefore a much more likely outcome is that any individual aspect of those rare plays will make people nitpick about them. The reason I say that, by the way, is actually from personal experience: which is that, so, I am a, I'm 54 but I continue to play lots of sports regularly. Not necessarily well, but enthusiastically. You know, I play regularly softball and basketball and sometimes even hockey, and football--in pretty competitive leagues in all those cases. And only in our football leagues do we have the kinds of arguments that if I was watching a videotape of myself I would be embarrassed to be participating in--where people are arguing about whether somebody was out of bounds or whether that somebody jumped offside, or was there holding; or, you know, was there illegal motion; or whatever. You know--pass interference. Whatever the case may be. And it's astounding to me. Because, I play, by the way, with lots of other grownups; and everybody, or many of the people who play, are prone to this; and in any other aspect of their life and in any other sports that they play, they are not as argumentative. And I think it's because every play in our silly, Sunday morning football league feels much more significant. Because they are, relative to any given basketball play or baseball at-bat, etc. So, I think in general the reason why football is so argumentative is not because of the violence of the sport but because there are all these start-and-stop moments--resets, essentially. And they all feel like they are more important than of course they really are. Russ: I guess there's also--the play itself is also very distinctive. There are certain things you could call plays in other sports--a pitch in baseball, or a possession in basketball. But there's also something a little more concentrated about a football play. It would be as if an outlet pass in basketball was--it would just never be as significant. Whereas, if you--in football, and of course as you point out, it is. Russ: I want to raise a different question, which is-- Guest: By the way, you are right. Because, you know, roughly give or take, there are about 120 plays in a given football game; and by any other measure, however you measure those other plays in those other sports, possessions or at bats or even pitches, there's countless more. So, again, it's the import brought on, the sense of import brought on by scarcity, I think.
7:13 Russ: I wonder if there is more to it. I am struck by the fact--you know, you said this reflects the American character. The American character is pretty varied--as anyone would conclude. And it's hard to pin such a thing down. In a way, it's a cliché. But, we do seem to be a somewhat litigious nation, prone to lawsuits. And we also care a lot about fairness. And I'm struck in recent years by how obsessed sports fans are, in every sport--football being just one dramatic example, but we are in the middle of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Tournament. And it, too, has gotten more careful about being accurate. Every sport has, that has a lot of money at stake; and also I think a lot of fans at stake. And--why is that? Why is it that 20 years ago, we just said, 'Well, easy come, easy go. Those are the breaks. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Life's not fair.' In sports we don't say that. We increasingly never say it. Guest: Yeah. Well, I think part of it has to do with the fact that, because of technology, we think we understand more of what's going on in the individual play. So we think that because we have more information that we therefore are closer to approximating some sort of truth. And I think everybody in general wants, you know, it's just human nature or one aspect of human nature to sort of want some idealized, you know, truth or beauty in perfection. And, of course, you and I have talked before: I think the more information you have doesn't necessarily mean you are any closer to having any kind of truth. But I think the other reason is that sports continue to occupy such a prevalent place in our society, writ large and also in our individual minds, because there is some kind of modeling going on. The athletes are exemplars; the games are meant to as, you know, not consciously we see them as ways in which the world can be meritocracies or put in order where effort and intelligence and teamwork and cohesion come together. And we think that that's, at least in Western, I think in Western cultures, we think that those combinations should lead to some sort of absolute certainty about outcome and reward. And if sports are serving that purpose for us, then it makes sense to me that we would always be striving for this idea of, this should be what we are aspiring to. We should always be trying to have the outcome reflect, you know, all the inputs, both sides. So I think it just may be that we think of sports as something that's supposed to guide us, or be some kind of beacon on a hill about how humans are supposed to interact and compete and win with grace and lose with dignity, etc. Russ: That's a great answer. And it might be true. Guest: Even better. By the way, I realized something: you were asking me what sport, when it started, had the longest rule book. In our book, I would argue that the two sports that have the longest pages devoted to the actual rules--as you know, we reproduce the rules of the original, what we identified as the original rules of the modern games for every sport--football and bowling are actually the longest. We can talk about bowling in a second. But football is the longest. But those rules were--they were about 35 years into what you might think of as football as we know it. And so the game-of-football rules that we said were the modern, first rules were being built on top of a set of rules that already existed. The reason why we chose those rules, which were published in 1906, was because it saw the institution officially of the forward pass. And the forward pass is really what created the modern game of football. But, when I was answering your question, when I'm thinking about just sort of the first set of written-down rules that anybody could lay their hands on, and I think the longest of those were probably cricket or soccer. But in our book it's football and bowling, oddly enough. Russ: Yeah, that is odd. We're going to come back to bowling, and I hope, cricket. But I want to come back to your point about aspiration and meritocracy and fairness. And I do think we have a certain--aspiration is the right word, or idealized is another word; vision of what life could be like. And so we'd like to create that in some artificial way in our sports. And when it doesn't live up to that, it bothers us. Now, ironically, we still root for underdogs. We don't always want the "best team" to win; or the team that would win, if they played a hundred times, we love the random element in sports. But we don't want the random element to come from the rules, or the judges--the umpires, the refs (referees)--is part of it. And at the same time, the dark side of that-- Guest: Well, we do and we don't, by the way-- Russ: Yeah, go ahead. Guest: But finish your question, then I'll-- Russ: Go ahead. I'll come back. Guest: I think, depending on the sport, we think, we often reward or at least are slightly amused by, or whatever the case may be, for athletes who play officials or play referees well. Right? You know, in baseball, a catcher who frames a pitch that was out of the strike zone and somehow convinces the umpire that it was in the strike zone--nobody ever sort of thinks that that catcher is doing something wrong. And in fact we admire the great ones, whether that it's Yogi Berra or Yadier Molina, and I'm sure there are other catchers who didn't either grow up in St. Louis or play for the St. Louis Cardinals-- Russ: Yah, they're not who we're talking about-- Guest: but I don't know much about them. But, you know, we think they are devilish. And you know, a veteran who can kind of manipulate a referee in basketball to get a call at a particular moment--we don't think of that--we don't disapprove of that. We kind of admire it. Russ: That's a good point. Guest: But on the other hand, we definitely do respond to certain kinds of cheating and certain kinds of, you know, getting past the rules or getting past the referees as something other than admirable. So, it's a weird mix, in my opinion.
13:19Russ: So, I'm going to ask a totally unrelated question, and then I'm going to come back to my point about aspiration and idealism, because I don't want to lose either of them. Guest: Okay. Russ: And we may disagree on this. I know you are a much bigger hockey fan than I am. Guest: Yes. Russ: I don't know about soccer. I've become an increasingly interested soccer fan over the years. I played soccer in high school. I never played hockey, didn't like the fighting in hockey. So I have certain biases against the sport, perhaps. But I find it very frustrating, in soccer and in hockey, that a team can dominate the game and not win because of the size of the goal. That is, you can dominate possession. You can dominate skill. You can have the best shots. But a great goalie can win the game for a team. Or just bad luck. The goals are small. And that can happen in other sports. In football-- Guest: Well, in hockey, the goals are small. In soccer they are not small. Russ: Well, they are small relative to the nature of-- Guest: the playing field? Russ: Yeah. Guest: That's a great question. I have no idea how that actually shapes up. Russ: But put that to the side. You know, in football, you can run down the field; and turnovers and bad luck and you fumble, [?] for field goal; and you can get frustrated in the course of a day. And the "best team" might not win. Certainly the team with the most yards doesn't always win. But it seems to be that in soccer and hockey, it's very often the case that the best team doesn't win. And that--I find that difficult. Other people probably feel it's a feature, not a bug. What do you think? Guest: Well, I think we are going to disagree, but on a different point. Which is that I'm pretty certain--I don't have the data in front of me, but I'm pretty certain that in most of the sports we are talking about, and definitely in soccer and hockey, the best teams--your premise doesn't stand. That, the teams that control possession and that have the most passes on target, which is definitely something they are tracking now in soccer, both of those things, and increasingly in hockey as well--those teams generally do win. There ultimately is a strong correlation between dominance in play and in outcome. I can't swear to it-- Russ: I think that's true. I think that's true on average. I think it's very hard to be a champion if you are not the best team. But it's striking to me--on any one night, in any one quarter, a team in hockey can press and press. And in fact you can have more players on the field than the other team. You can have 2 extra players. A team in hockey can be short-handed by two extra players and still not give up a goal, because of the difficulty, the very difficulty in scoring. Some people say we should make the goals bigger. And I think some people mistakenly conclude that's a good idea because we "more scoring." I don't think we need more scoring. I think we need more accurate reflection of the outcome of the play. But, again, maybe I'm wrong. Guest: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I think I do disagree with you because I think ultimately it's a bit of the--most sports end up being fairly meritorious. That's a [?]--merit ends up, for the most part-- Russ: Triumphing-- Guest: winning out. And you are not wrong that certainly at the highest levels there's certainly not much of a difference between the top few teams. And therefore I think there are random outcomes that make maybe what make only the best team finish third or second or fourth. But I generally don't think that the really weak teams ever end up winning major things. But, again, I kind of think it's kind of like life, to me. I think there's sometimes--a few things. Even when you have great opportunities, like 5 on 3 in hockey, for example--a surfeit of riches still has be navigated and managed well. And oftentimes what happens when teams have, you know, a player advantage--especially in hockey; it doesn't make quite as much of a difference in soccer. But when teams have a player advantage or two-player advantage in hockey, they end up kind of relaxing. And they almost get smug about their ability. Or conversely, they get so tight, and they trust so much because they feel they should--and to a great extent, I feel like that kind of can happen--you can find analogs in life about that. About what to do when you are faced with those moments in which the door is wide open and somehow we freeze, or we get nervous, or whatever the case is. You don't want to take these metaphors too far because they just start to sound hokey. But I think, again, the reason why sports, even when they have those kinds of outcomes, continue to enchant is because there is some sort of non-conscious recognition that, like, 'Yeah, this is how life is.' You and I have played golf together. And even golf, which is a solitary sport, just more than any other physical activity I have, it sort of points out my strengths and weaknesses as a human being. Russ: No comment, Gary. No comment. Guest: And I think that's often true when we are even playing team sports or watching them being played. And that kind of randomness, sort of, and the opportunity, the missed opportunities, and overcome obstacles feels like it has some relevance to our everyday life. The other thing that I thought you were steering towards, at one point in this conversation: It's interesting that, you know, sports as metaphor for life: There's even, especially in leagues, this concern about, you know, wealth distribution. Right? There's the--the NFL more than anything strives toward socialism. Russ: Correct [?] patriots-- Guest: And historically baseball, less so now-- Russ: Correct-- Guest: They are trying to fix this, too, this idea that you had this sort of haves and have-nots. And it's interesting--I've never seen anybody quite take a look at it; I'd love to see you write about this, because I don't know whether or not whether conservatives in general tend to care more or less about that. Or people who are--not even conservatives--people who are more against forced--you know, wealth redistribution--what they are, if they prefer sport situations in which 4 or 5 teams consistently dominate and 4 or 5 teams are always in the bottom, or not. I actually don't know. But it's an interesting thing to think about that I've never quite thought about. That aspect about it. Russ: That's a lot to think about. It might disturb me--it might distract me from my other two questions. I'm going to try to keep those, and then I'm going to come back to that. So, if I forget, you are going to help me. But first I want to say that, you know, when I shoot a 77 and you shoot a 117, of course it's hard for you to hear. Thank goodness there are no video cameras on any of the courses we played on. Guest: You have the hand on the studio control, so I'm glad to simply just, you know, nod and smile. Russ: There you go. That's right. Uh, I've never met Mr. Mulligan. Actually--mulligan is not my problem. It's the ones that count.
20:14Russ: Second thing I was going to say, is that, what I find interesting about the--coming back to your point about aspiration and the accuracy and the idealized fairness and the meritocracy, is that--I don't teach in the classroom any more. But when I did teach in the classroom, one of the things that used to drive me crazy was students' obsession with getting an accurate grade on their homework. And they basically want an instant replay. They wanted a review. They wanted to say: 'This wasn't graded fairly.' And of course, they were often right. And I would tell them. 'It's 10% of the grade. There are many, many homeworks. Any one question is not decisive. I give you a grade based on your homework and then without your homework. And I give you the one that's higher. And, there are going to be times when you got graded unfairly in your own advantage; and you are not going to come back to it.' So, I don't re-grade homeworks. I re-graded exams, which were much more important in the percentage of the grade. But I wouldn't re-grade homework. And it would drive some students crazy. It's like saying, 'Well, we could review this, but we're not going to.' And I think--I don't know whether those are the same phenomena, phenomenon, that's gotten more common--that people are, really want fairness; or whether it's just part of the human condition. And now that we have technology to let people do that in sports, of course they want to review. And of course they want to re-grade if it's possible. And if it's just part of human nature to want to be treated fairly. And for me to assure students, say, 'Look, it's going to turn out fine. Don't worry.' It's not that comforting. And they weren't comforted. And I understood why. But I also told them that if I regraded every homework that people wanted to regrade, I'd spend most of my time regrading homeworks and not much time preparing a lecture. So, there are tradeoffs. Any thoughts on that? Guest: Yeah, a lot of thoughts. As you know, I sometimes teach at NYU (New York University). I teach journalism. So, like a lot of aspects of economics, especially the writing aspects of it--there's a lot of, it's somewhat of a soft skill, right? And I think this is less of a problem. I don't know, because I've never taught, you know, calculus or physics or biology where I think there are mostly right or wrong answers. But I think in the soft skills there's a lot of variability based on, you know, who is receiving what you are producing. And I would tell my students all the time--I would tell them a couple of things. One was, so first of all, I think they are of a piece. I think it's about the same thing, with people striving toward some ideal. But independent of kind of competitiveness and anxiety about careers and GPA (Grade Point Average), I think people are often sort of want to know that they are approaching some kind of idealized level of perfection or at least a high level of competency. And I always told my students, 'There's a lot about this that is similar to your career, which is you could write a story and turn it in to an editor or even a group of editors on one day, and they'll receive it as very strong. And on another day they won't.' Then you sort of have to know how to deal with the consequences. I add, and also recognize that good teachers, and good editors, understand a little bit about their mood; and sometimes they'll stop grading because they know they are in a bad mood. Or they'll come back to something. Or they will look at it again. But that's a hard thing for--it's definitely a hard thing for college students or even graduate students to understand, because I think we've convinced ourselves that with data and technology and the kind of comparables that the Internet can provide, etc., that there is some sort of, you know, absolutely truth in a college-level newspaper story or a college-level economics paper or essay or whatever the case may be. And I think that, you know, it's an admirable pursuit, but it doesn't really help students if they don't understand that life gives you variability and response to the very same work product. And God, that is such a valuable lesson, if you understand that. And also, you were, I'm certain, a much better student than I was. In college, I was a, you know, at best just a solid B student. Russ: It's like golf, here. It's okay. Go ahead. Guest: With a lot of undeveloped potential. I figure as well some of my professors would have described it. But, it's funny, because when I see--we hire, at our firm--we do a whole bunch of things. But they are mostly soft skills. Whenever I see people with perfect GPAs, I don't even look at GPAs. Ever. But if it somehow comes up, I find I have less to talk about, then. I can't really ask people what was the thing that was most difficult for them when they have a 4.0. Because they somehow manage to do everything well. And it's--my most valuable lessons, or my best stories, or the things that are most revealing about myself would I be interviewed by somebody for a job would be the things that I struggled with, and how I managed that struggle, what I do with it, how I might--my course, my chosen path, etc. I like--we named the book "On the Origins of Sports" as kind of nod to Charles Darwin; and Darwin of course talked of course about variation of species, right? And variation within species. And that, to me--variation is kind of the interesting thing about life for me. But I'm not interested in some sort of, achieving any kind of absolute truth in any of--most of the thing that I, because most of the things that I do are kind of often dependent on so many factors that are not, that don't say the same. Russ: I think you are little bit like me. You are a humanist; but you are also really interested in data and facts and evidence. So it's not like everything is fine no matter what. You do care about reality and truth; but you also are willing to give some credence to the softer side of life, which I do as well. Guest: Well, I also think, you know, most of the economics that I know, I learned from you. But also of late the thing that I find myself repeating most often and actually crediting you is just this idea of, and you definitely see it now more than ever and you are made aware of it now more than ever, because everybody yells everything with such certainty, it just--and this is probably a function of just aging, but just how little we know for sure. And how little even when we think we know something for sure, there's not even necessarily a high level of confidence that it won't change at least to some extent moving forward. And I actually find that kind of beautiful and it makes me a more sympathetic human being; and a more nuanced arguer or rhetorician. But it's a hard thing to communicate to people now, because everybody else seems to think, or most people seem to think that we know more than we ever knew. Russ: Yeah. We've figured it out. It's easy. Because we've got the data.
26:55Russ: I want to stick with this question--I don't know if we'll get back to your socialism question and redistribution question. But I want to stick with this question of accuracy. Because you can't help but notice, again, if you are watching the NCAA Tournament these days, and you see in football--it's coming in baseball, it's already come in baseball with replay--the amount of time in the game itself that's devoted to try to figure out what happened. That the game flow--football is incredible, right? Football has almost no action. Anyway. Right? To start with. And then we add on top of it referee conferencing. Guest: Something like 9 minutes of an hour. Russ: Yeah. But the other sports--basketball is broken up a lot already increasingly by fouls. But now it's not just fouls. It's fouls; they go court-side, they look at the replay monitor; they are this a lot more in professional; they are doing it in basketball. At a certain level, you applaud it, because you say, 'Well, we want to get it right.' At the other level, it's like, 'Gosh, the game is so broken up now.' Is there a tradeoff there? Is it ever going to reached, the other side of it? Or are people going to say--I mean, where is this going to end? Guest: Well, I mean, the one thing I will say to that, because I experience it as much as anybody else--but the fact of the matter is that while games are longer now, they are not 10 times longer than they used to be. Right? So I think to some extent, we experience some of this because these moments--the availability heuristic, right? The things that stand out the most are the things we sort of think are more common. And they are. So-- Russ: It's true. Guest: as much as football games are longer now than they used to be, or baseball games are longer now than they used to be, they are not five times as long. They are 20% longer, or 15% longer, or really depending-- Russ: It's really--but I'm making an aesthetic point. It's not about how long the whole [?] takes. Guest: No, no, I get it. You know, I have to say that I think it depends on--my experience, and all these experiences are subjective. Like, I don't mind it in football or in baseball, because I'm interested in these sports; I'm interested in these sort of pivotal moments. You know, baseball is often, rides around kind of--did the home run, was it a double, was there a tag made--etc. One of the most amazing things to watch is the whole phantom tag thing on a double play. Right? Which is--and even now happens more than you would think--that, like, as an entire community, there's somehow this like acknowledgement that there's a certain non-tag tag of 2nd base that is okay in baseball. And everybody, even though it could be fixed with replay, nobody seems to want to. So, I'm just--I think it has to do with kind of like one's level of investment in the nuances of a given sport. What I mean by that is--first of all, there's very little of that in hockey. With the exception of goals, there's very little of that in hockey, that it's the only thing in hockey basically that people examine. Like: Did it cross the line or not? And again, I think that sort of feels like interesting to people. And I don't mind it as an aesthetic thing. I find it kind of interesting-- Russ: It's kind of important. It's not like was there interference on--did he have possession in that play amid-field[?]. It's different. Guest: Right. And in basketball, it just ends up to me, the whole thing ends up feeling disequilibriumatic and choppy. And it's not even so much replay but it's about kind of all the fouling and stuff like that, that is about a technical leverage of the rule that feels to me to sort of spoil, kind of, what I used to think of as ballet, and now seems less so. And so, I don't know if I have an answer: for me it just sort of goes sport to sport. But for the most part I don't mind it because that inner part of my brain that does one-offs[?] to get it right, for the most part says, 'I'm, you know, if I'm willing to give you three hours for a game, I'm willing to give you three and a half if it's going to make the game better.' What's interesting is that where I used to be able to watch baseball at length during the regular season for a whole game, or even in person, or on TV, I find that much harder to do now; and it doesn't have anything to do with the fact that if it's a 3-hour game, [?]. If it's an hour-and-a-half game, maybe I'd like it. You know. But I think that must just be a function of me and the world. Some game in the middle of April, if it's there and I'm just hanging out with kids or with friends-- Russ: It's the Cardinals. Yeah. Guest: Right. The game itself, though, is not that interesting. Russ: That's right.
31:29Russ: I think that's true for me as well. I was just going to make a comment on the phantom play, phantom tag at second base: I think that's a safety reason. I think there are a lot of norms in sports--there are a lot of reasons; we are going to talk about them in a minute. But one of the norms in sports is that on a double play you don't have to touch second base with your foot. You just have to get close to it. And I think the reason that norm is maintained even in the face of replay is that you don't want a shortstop to be hurt making the pivot, or a second-baseman. And I think that's a--there's no easy way to fix that except to say, well, he's close enough. Guest: Well, by the way there is--you could draw a little circle around the base and then you'd start having replay questions of--then it would be like football, right? No, no, and then-- Russ: or a 3-second rule-- Guest: Or it's interesting that we don't do that. Russ: Yeah, it's true. If you could change one rule, or two or three, in sports, are there any rules that you hate particularly, as a sports fan or as a student of the game? Guest: Yeah. There's probably--I would change one habit; and probably two rules. And one, I think I know exactly how I'd change it; the other one, I don't know. But I'm looking for a fix. But the habit I would change is, and I feel it may come very soon, and if it doesn't, it should, which is: We should eliminate helmets from football except during football games themselves. I think if players, from the beginning of their time, and Pop Warner are not allowed to practice with helmets, they will quickly develop better practice strategies that will involve their shoulders and their arms, etc. and helmets in games--it's not that they won't be used as much as they are now, but they will become more safety devices as opposed to armor. There's nothing--it's one of those classic cases of accretion and unintended consequences. But in the book, after each chapter we kind of take a little walk about something related to that particular sport. And in football, we do an evolution of the football helmet. And we make the observation that, you know, the football helmet was officially put in place, no pun intended, to protect players. And over time it became so good at protecting players that players became reckless. It's the exact same psychology-- Russ: Peltzman effect-- Guest: Say it again? Russ: It's the Peltzman effect, it's called, name after Sam Peltzman. Who was an EconTalk talking about that. We'll put a link up talking to it. Some people dispute how widespread that is. It's another way of saying moral hazard: when things are relatively safe for you, you don't take account of the risks so much. Guest: Right. You were the person who made the observation to me a long time ago that there's a very easy way to lower auto fatalities, which is by putting a giant metal spike in steering wheels. Because if you put a giant metal spike in steering wheels, people will drive much slower. Russ: Yeah. I think--that wasn't my idea, Gary. It gets attributed to Gordon Tullock. But it may have been independently developed by lots of economists. Because it is something you would think about if you were worried about airbags being dangerous--which of course they have been at various times. Guest: Right. As I understand it--I've read a little bit about this--if you are going to get into car accident, you want to be in a very large car. But you don't want to be in a very large car if you don't want to get into car accidents. Because people who drive smaller cars that they perceive as less safe are much more careful drivers than people who drive SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles). So I think it's all sort of a piece. But I would change that--you know, I would get us, as a world, out of the habit of practicing skills on the football field with our helmets on, because most people would become much better and more textbook tacklers if they were only able to use their shoulders and their arms. And more importantly if they didn't have to worry about the consequences to their noggins. So that's a habit I would change. The two rules I would change: The one that I know I'm on the side of righteousness, is I would eliminate-- Russ: Don't say designated [?]-- Guest: I would eliminate the 40-year, 43-year tragedy that is the designated hitter. I don't think I even think I need to talk about that. Russ: Of course not. Guest: It's patently obvious about why you would want to have everybody except for a pinch hitter play the field in order to earn the right to be a batsman. So I would fix the designated hitter. Russ: I'm just going to leave that alone. I'm not going to touch it. I will keep it in the interview; I'm not going to--I'm tempted to just delete it but I'll let it go. Guest: Well, you're a great American. And the rule--the other rule that I would change is, again, I don't know, the problem that I would change is the sort of Shaq problem, the sort of Hack-a-Shaq, which is what happens at the end of basketball games where there's, you know, people are sent in to sort of commit fouls on really poor foul shooters, and in such a way that it just drags the game down. It's meant to leverage, I guess, a weakness. And that's a perfectly valuable, a valid exploitation of a weak skill on the part of some players, the fact that they can't seem to shoot free throws nearly as well as they seem to shoot other things, other kinds of shots. But there's something about the way that rule plays out where people are constantly being sent in, you know, lesser players who the coach doesn't care if they fouled out. And the game gets these last two minutes of games just often stretch out forever. And feel like it's almost a different sport. Russ: There's two ways-- Guest: I would-- Russ: Go ahead. Sorry. Guest: I would figure out how to change that. I've heard lots of different strategies. But they all have weaknesses to them. I don't quite know. Russ: There's two obvious ways. One, of course, which you are going to love, is you are going to have a designated foul shooter for a person who has fouled a certain number of times. It's up to the discretion of the team. But that would go against your other rule. So we're going to leave that one alone. I guess the second would be that if a particular player had a certain number of fouls against--that he was fouled a certain number of times--the consequence could be different than just a foul shot. Guest: Right. It could maintain possession. It could maintain more than--right-- Russ: More foul shots. Guest: It could also be that there has some aspect of how many times somebody has fouled within a particular time frame or how many times somebody commits a foul within a particular time frame. Because we know in basketball that the average person does not commit multiple fouls in a minute. Right? Russ: Yep. Guest: And so there's probably ways to deal with it. I wouldn't be surprised if there is some sort of--if there is movement on that rule change over the next couple of years. What about you? Russ: Well, you know, I think listeners don't know Gary as well as I do, but Gary is one of the great question-askers of all time. You see this is the second time he's put himself in the interviewer's chair very effectively. Guest: Oh, I'm sorry. Russ: Oh, no, it's great. It's awesome. I'd have to say--it's interesting. I was reading and article by Bill James, who I'd love to have as a guest on EconTalk some time. I can't get ahold of him, but if anybody knows him, please let him know I'm interested. But Bill James, who I have a lot of respect for, recently wrote an article that kind of shocked me, that his suggested rule change if he could change one thing would be to get rid of the balk in baseball. And I thought, 'That's a weird thing. You hardly ever have any.' But of course, the reason we hardly ever have any is you avoid it, and the whole idea--he has a lovely essay I'll put a link up to where he explains the consequences--of the balk rule and slowing down baseball; and you can't deceive the runner. Of course, we allow that kind of deception constantly in other areas of sports, and even in baseball. It was a very creative and interesting idea. I don't know what else I'd care about. I guess I'd maybe make the DH (designated hitter) mandatory at the National--nah, I'm just kidding.
39:35Russ: Let's move to some of the--well, I want to say one more thing about rules, and then I want to come to some of the aspects of the book that I want to make sure we talk about. This week, week and a half or so, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals had a controversial statement, interview, about that baseball is too stodgy; people need to be able to express themselves more; we're a boring sport; people should be able to break the so-called 'unwritten rules.' One of those unwritten rules is that after you hit a home run you don't flip your bat. Of course, that rule gets broken now and then, and as a result, sometimes the player who breaks it gets the ball thrown at his head. What are your thoughts on Bryce Harper's response to the unwritten rules of baseball? And what do you think about rules, generally? We've talked about some already. Guest: Um, unwritten rules are kind of like the manners and mores of society. So, these are many societies; they have their understandings of what you do and don't do. And I think they are always interesting. We did special issues on them at the magazine, or packages about them. And I think for the most part they kind of have an intuitive logic about them. Of course, some of the unwritten rules were bad for society and they got fixed-- Russ: Absolutely. Guest: But, it's funny. I think the argument against showboating in baseball is analogous to the argument in defense of fighting in hockey. The argument in defense of fighting in hockey has always been that, you know, you've got a lot of very strong, very big men, moving quickly with their adrenaline and testosterone flowing and you've got to give them an outlet-- Russ: And a lot of sharp objects in their hands. Guest: There's a lot of sharp objects, and if you don't give them an outlet, then they will behave with consequences that will be serious and deadly. The lie is put to that theory by European hockey, in which they don't have fighting, and people are not stabbing each other with sticks or slicing off people's hands and fingers. Now, there will be people in America who will say, 'The last thing we want to be is like Europe.' But irrespective of those kinds of nationalistic or cultural biases, I think that's a little bit BS--the whole idea that you need fighting because it's a pressure steam valve. Russ: Well, we did an episode on that. We'll put a link up to it, in which an author and guest made a case for that. But carry on. Guest: So, I think in baseball, as I understand it, one of the arguments against showboating is that some percentage of pitchers, if you show them up by hitting a home run, as if the hitting of the home run was not in itself showing up their lack of skill, they are armed with a projectile that they can throw upwards of 90 or 100 miles per hour, and that very much can kill people. Somebody has died in baseball in a game. There's a margin of error such that you want to sort of figure out how to keep things relatively calm so the baseball doesn't become a weapon. It just makes no sense to me, because, again, like, these are grown men who should be able to regulate their anger. And I think--you know, a code is a code. Bryce Harper wants to stomp around the bases. Jeff Leonard--some players historically figured out ways to basically do something that didn't look like grandstanding. Jeff Leonard of the Giants was one of many players who figured out a way to do something that was actually very subtle but was basically his form of grandstanding, such that it really used to anger people on the other team. Leonard, when he hit a home run, would sort of run around the bases like, arm kind of cocked, halfway down, like half of a flap of a bird. But it was specifically meant to be the equivalent of, 'I am runnin' 'round the bases acting like a crazy man; I'm just doing it in a way that just doesn't look like I'm doing it.' So, you know, nobody was--people didn't like him, and I'm sure he had balls thrown at him, but nobody tried to kill him. And so, I think that this is just, a lot of the baseball rules have to do with culture and have to do with, I think they get reinforced because there's a perception that different people from different cultures will celebrate in different ways; and there's probably some longstanding--I don't want to get into too much of this stuff but there's probably some longstanding ideas about how baseball, which is this American sport that was historically played in a white-only league, was supposed to be played; and we want to sort of keep it that way; and I think there's still vestigial biases against celebration that come from that. But these things kind of have to be worked out by individual players. I don't think you can legislate this kind of stuff. And I think if Bryce Harper wants to do that, then he should start celebrating more. To be honest with you. Russ: I suspect he will. And he gets to celebrate a lot. Guest: And these things will change over time, if there's enough of an impetus from underneath. Tiger Woods celebrated in a way that was just so much different than almost every other golfer before him. First of all, not only was he more passionate, but he was more coordinated. I think when you would see Tom Watson dancing around a green after sinking a putt, it just looked embarrassing to all human beings. As great as a golfer as he was. And Tiger was just sort of much more coordinated in his impassioned fist bumps and things like that. And in the beginning--this was golf, remember. But people got over it; and they understood that it was not about anything other than Tiger Woods being happy that he did something great. Not that he trying to show up anybody else. And so there's a way in which you can--the other fellow doesn't mind celebration. The other fellow minds taunting. And it's been pretty good in the NFL--they've figured out a way to sort of, you know, navigate that fine line. And I think that should be one in baseball, too. There's a way to celebrate that's not saying, 'I beat you.' There's a way to celebrate that says, 'I did something great.' And I think that's where we--some sports are just slower than others to have that understanding permeate the entire group of people that are playing. Russ: Yeah, I mean, I think, just to close out on this: When David Ortiz would come around third and in joy, pure joy, throw his helmet into the dirt or the crowd or the stands, wherever he tossed it to meet his teammates at home plate, it's a beautiful thing--if you are a Red Sox fan--but he never pointed at the other team's pitcher or mocked him. And it was a beautiful--it was an expression of joy. And I think that's what we celebrate in sports. And I agree with you 100%. If it's not taunting, it makes it sweeter. Guest: And it's almost always easily discernable what somebody's doing. Right? I know that from my own athletic pursuits; I know that from watching my friends and watching professional sports. Like, 95% of the time you know whether somebody is celebrating, or taunting. And I do think, by the way, that taunting is something to remove. Because, again, if the idea of sports is an analogy or metaphor for how we should be as individuals and how societies or communities should work, there is something very meritorious in the idea: It's fine to celebrate and even crow or signal dominance with one's own greatness; but it's another thing, and not a healthy thing, to make other people feel bad about their weakness or their loss. Even in war, we have an entire kind of set of rules, written or unwritten, about what losers are supposed to do or about how we're supposed to treat people who lose--prisoners of war, etc. We have decided that we can have victory celebrations in liberated cities, but we don't murder our POWs (Prisoners of War) or we're meant not to just because they are weak and we've captured them. And there's a spectrum of all different kinds of things that are about that. And so there's no reason that sports can't have that kind of nuance brought in to these kinds of things, I think.
48:19Russ: And I think--it reminds me--you think about taunting versus celebrating: Sports is almost always a zero-sum game. And a recent listener--I apologize, I can't remember the listener's name--asked me the question, I think it was on Twitter, whether our ideas of economic competition have been poisoned by sports competitions. When sports competition, every winner there has to be a loser. It's not always true in economics. Both people can gain from trade, for example--almost always do. Not necessarily both countries gain, every person within every country as we've been talking about recently on here. But I think we, to some extent import our ideas, probably, about competition from sports to other areas because it's so vivid in sports. And so, when you celebrate, there has to be a sad person. One of the things I find so powerful about the NCAA Tournament is that it is one and out--basketball tournament. And so, there's a lot at stake. An incredible play that wins a game creates a lot of unhappy people. There's no way to ignore that. And the Networks have figured that out. The camera bounces back and forth between the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. And there's an incredible human spectacle there. It's a powerful thing. And it's inevitable in sports. It would be painful to add to that, humiliation that comes from the victor to the loser. Guest: Yeah. I think--sports as metaphor is a great one, but it has its limits. In life, there's this sense of--there can be multiple winners; and in fact we're striving for that. I think a very small percentage of humans on the earth want to do well and also want other people to do less well. But in sports, you do want that, in many situations. But again, the whole idea of sportsmanship is a recognition that this could be me on the other side. Sportsmanship is essentially an unwritten Geneva convention. It's: I'm going to behave to you when you're down because I want the same treatment when I'm on the other side. That doesn't make me less likely to want to win. It just makes me more able to kind of like go forward the next day or the next day or the next practice or whatever the case may be. But it's interesting, because in general I think in the interconnected, hyper-technological world we live in, everything gets heightened. And all of these--the sort of winner-takes-all mentality that sports have, only one person gets the trophy--gets heightened, I think, in the world today. Russ: Yep, and the pain of loss. Second place isn't a great achievement. It's nothing, unfortunately in many, many sports. Maybe almost every sport. The runner up gets no glory. The owner tries to usually or sometimes the announcer tries to say, 'Yeah, they had a great season. They didn't win at all, but they had a great season.' And most of the fans think, 'Nope. We lost. It's over.' It's astounding, right? I think a lot about the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. And that game was decided in basically the late endings of a couple of the last two games. It's impossible to think that the Rangers had a phenomenal season, yet it's impossible to think that it's one of the most painful seasons for the players and the Rangers fans. Russ: No comfort there, I don't think. Such is life.
52:08Russ: We're going to switch gears, dramatically. I want you to talk about--you can't help but noticing it as you read your book--the role that the British Empire plays in sports. Today. Guest: Yeah. It's funny. When we were talking earlier, or when we were doing our pre-conversation, you asked me what were some of the more interesting revelations from me in research in the book. I should have known the British Empire thing beforehand, but in all the rules that we found, that we identified--and most of them are agreed upon by historians. A couple of them we made our own calls about this. But, none of them with the exception of one did we have to translate from any other language into English. All the original rules of sports as most people agree on them were written in English. And they are written in English because they are either the product of British people inventing a sport or Americans who are the children of British people, the offspring of British people, inventing a sport. And what you realize when you look at the second and third--depending on how you measure it, by participation or by fandom, whatever the case may be--but the second or third or fourth most popular sports in the world are cricket and field hockey. And these sports are incredibly popular, they are the second or third most popular sports in the world, because they are beloved in India and Pakistan and places like that, which were part of the Raj, or part of British colonialism. Because as the British spread their might across the globe, they brought with them their recreational activities; and those recreational activates were adopted by the locals and often mastered by the locals to an even greater extent than the British soldiers or merchants or bureaucrats could boast[?]. And they became phenomena in those countries. Because if you are popular in India, as I like to say, you are world popular. And it's so interesting to me that the modern sports industrial complex kind of owes its origins to sort of British colonialism. And I never really realized that until I started to understand, like, that field hockey--which I think of mostly as an Indian sport in the subcontinent--and it has its origins in the Teddington Hockey Club in London. And you start to realize that as you just look at a history of sports just how much the British had an effect. Now, we're careful in the book to say it doesn't mean that people were kicking around pig bladders stuffed with grass in all parts of the world. But the first people to sort of codify the rules of their pig-bladder-stuffed, ball-kicking game, and spread it in a way that everybody else said, 'Yeah, this is the way the game should be played,' were the British. Pig bladders, by the way--I learned something in doing this sport--that in resource-constricted cultures, you basically used almost every single thing from a slaughtered animal: the hides, the meat, the organs. The one thing that basically there was no use for were the bladders. For whatever reason. Russ: That's because they--I was going to say kishke, but that's intestines. Okay. Guest: Yeah. And the bladders--but they are actually very good material that when dried can actually be, basically, balls. And so in most cultures the bladders of certain animals were the ones originally repurposed by, mostly idle children, sometimes soldiers, to be the thing that they would throw or kick or play around. So we kind of owe a debt of gratitude to animal bladders as well. But, field hockey was invented in England. But certainly in South America and in Asia and in Africa there were pastimes or idle time-wasters that involved people hitting balls-- Russ: roundish things-- Guest: or things like balls with sticks. But the British, because they were often setting up the bureaucracies in a lot of these countries, their games followed. In the same way that most of the Indian rail system is a reflection of sort of the British ideas of the width of train tracks, the gauges of train tracks, so, too the sports that they now think of that they now dominate--cricket and field hockey are very much subcontinental sports from a dominance level. But for the most part, that's a reflection of British imperialism. Russ: Well, they gave the world, you know, legal systems, sports, political systems--but maybe sports--I never knew about sports. I never thought about it. It's fantastically interesting.
56:57Russ: Now, I have a pre-publication copy of the book. It's a beautiful book--even in prepublication there's a lot of beautiful pen-and-ink drawings. And one of the more entertaining ones, one of the nicer ones, are trophies. And it's shocking how many different sports have different trophies. Of course, you've seen them--when you start to think about it, you've seen them on TV when they get presented, so you realize, 'Yeah, that's what the World Cup winner looks like,' and 'That's what the baseball World Series winner looks like,' etc. But probably the most famous trophy by name would be the Stanley Cup. Guest: At least in America. Russ: Yup. At least in America. And Canada, for sure. But a few things are interesting about the Stanley Cup that I didn't know about. One thing I did know is that it's really big. I knew that. It's also, I think: doesn't every player on the winning team get to have it for a day? Guest: Yes. Every player on the winning team gets to take the cup for a day. In the old days, I think they would just give it to them and then, 'Please bring it back tomorrow.' Now, you have it for a day; but you are accompanied by a steward for the National Hockey League, or for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Actually, like, there is actually someone who is with you. So you can't just take it by yourself, as far as I understand: there's always somebody who is with you. But there are shockingly few rules about what you can do with it. People have baptized babies in the Stanley Cup. They've drunk out of it. They do all sorts of things in it. And it has gone to obviously many places in rural Canada, where some guy will have won the Stanley Cup and then bring it back to the pond, drink where he grew up in Red Deer, Alberta. It is a big trophy, but it's not as big as it could be. So, the trophy basically has these sort of bands around it. And each band is made up of--the trophy narrows, so the bottom band probably has 12 kind of rectangular pieces of metal that have the names of the players of a particular year that won the Cup etched on it, on the bands. But as people, the years move on, the bands are removed. So, if you took the Stanley Cup right now, you wouldn't see the names of teams that won in the 1920s. Like those are stored in the Hockey Hall of Fame because you can't fit them all at this point-- Russ: I wondered about that-- Guest: They exist somewhere. There's an aspect of the Cup that's modular, if that makes sense. But it's a fascinating trophy. When I was at ESPN they brought it to the magazine's offices. And these were pretty hardened--whatever that means--sports journalists. And everybody was crowding around it as if it was the cutest baby ever born, from Prince William and Judy Garland. You couldn't imagine the level of interest in this trophy. And they let us touch it, and lift it up. It's very heavy--heavier than you would think. Oh, and the most fascinating thing about the Stanley Cup is the number of mistakes on it. Like, routinely--like the classic of this is Jacques Plante, who was arguably one of the 5 or 10 best goaltenders of all time. And he was on Cup-winning teams multiple times. And so, his name was on there multiple times. But almost never the same name: Jac, Jacq, Jacques. It's just hilarious, the mistakes that are on the Cup. There's something very humanizing about that fact. I'm sure Plante didn't mind. I think they got it right at least once. And he won multiple times. But it's quite amusing. It's a--it really is iconic. And if you are a sports fan and you just grow up watching the Stanley Cup, and that's one of the more emotional kind of--the end of the championship run in hockey, it's just an emotional--the handshake and carrying it around. If you watch that as a kid, or even as an adult, and then you get to be in the presence of that trophy, it's pretty powerful.Russ: So I want to say two things in defense of hockey, after I was tough on it earlier. The handshake is one of my favorite things in sports, coming back to this taunting and respect thing that we touched on earlier. Because I think when you see that--the only thing even close to it, or any other sport--for me; I'm sure there are some analogs--but the only thing that's close to it at the professional level is professional football: you will see players embrace and share words after a contest. And you see the mutual respect. But in hockey it's very transparent. People aren't wearing helmets. They're very--well, they are, actually, but they are not hiding their faces as much as a football helmet does; and the camera is on them only--you see everything. So I find that very beautiful, especially when the goalies embrace. Because the goalie is such a lonely position. And as we've talked about earlier, so much rides on it. There's got to be an incredible camaraderie between two goalies, and you get to see a little taste of that. That's one thing. The second thing is: It's a gorgeous thing--again, there's nothing quite like it in any other sport, where the players take turns skating around the rink holding the trophy aloft, the Stanley Cup. And I'm always thinking, you know, I couldn't even skate around the rink. Let alone carry a really heavy trophy. Has it ever been dropped during that? And you are exhausted. You've just gone through this brutal thing and you just told me it's heavy. Has anyone ever dropped it? Has anything bad every happened to it while it was on vacation with those players? Guest: Not as far we can find out. We found no record of it being dropped. It strikes me that it--you know, it must have been. But there are no great stories, like there are about like the World Cup--the trophy for the World Cup was stolen twice. And there are other stories about other trophies. But the Stanley Cup, no. I would suggest to you, by the way, that you are right: I think it's the most powerful sort of loitering that happens--it happens after the Stanley Cup is won. But also, in the World Cup, and now, increasingly in other soccer championships there is like that exchange, there is ease[?] of players that sort of feels also like a sign of respect. Like, 'I want to remember this for the rest of my life,' so everyone kind of giving each other, you know, like, sort of souvenirs. Russ: Yeah. It's beautiful. Guest: So, that's also kind of I think a beautiful tradition. It's probably easiest in soccer--rather than it would be in football. You're my shoulder [?]. Russ: Yeah. It's a little trickier.
1:03:52Russ: Well, we're out of time. Is there anything you learned in writing this book that sticks out, that's a favorite either fact or insight that we didn't talk about? Guest: There's probably two, one that actually made it into the book and one that didn't because it didn't sort of fit. The one that made it into the book was how much tennis owes its existence in modern form to the invention of the lawnmower, because the sport of tennis, or some similar sport, had been played by European royalty indoors in courts since the 1400s. But it was basically a sport that was not even known to commoners, for the most part. And, in the 1830s or 1840s, there was a patent for the lawnmower that sort of changed British back yards. It basically turned backyards into play areas. And the first game that became very popular was croquet. It was popular for quite a while, but then in the 1860s and 1870s the second generation of young adults who were looking for things to do to socialize, athletically, they grew bored--millennials. They grew bored of croquet and they basically stopped going to these clubs. And there was a guy who knew about the game of tennis, that old game, and so he basically commercialized it--put it into a boxed set with like a diagram for the court and rackets and tennis balls and instructions--and sold it at department stores. And it became a giant hit. And those rules in that boxed set are basically for the most part the rules that launched modern tennis. And the interesting fact about that is, the proof that I'm telling the truth, is that if you actually go to the website for the most tennis tournament in the world, which is Wimbledon, it is played at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. And in the old days, it used to be called the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, actually. And that--I found that just delightful. And the fact that didn't make it in, because it didn't work into the way we structured the book--we went through, we give a little bit of a history for each sport, and then we take the rules and we annotate them and give them a Talmudic sort of treatment, like 'This is what they meant back then,' and 'This is how the rules evolved.' But in John Thorn, the great baseball historian, brings up this great fact, which is--I love this; this is true about all gambling; but it was definitely true about gambling having to do with baseball. In the early days of baseball, gambling was a big deal, as it was in the early days of croquet. People were often much more interested in the sport as a gambling vehicle than they were in just watching it. But it used to be, in the stands, all the gamblers would sit together in what was called a 'gambling pool,' and they would make wagers about different at-bats or different outcomes; and eventually they powers that be in baseball kicked them out of the stands, and they would go hang out somewhere else together and send runners back and forth to the field. And where they hung out were billiards parlors, where lots of gamblers tended to hang out. And eventually those billiards parlors became known for the gambling pools that used to hang out there; and so they became known as 'pool parlors,' which is why we call billiards 'pool.' Billiards became known as pool because that's where gambling pools used to hang out. For me, that was just hilarious. I never knew that. Russ: That's very cool. I can't help but think of 'Trouble. Trouble. Trouble,' from The Music Man, Harold Hill. Guest: That's the beauty of [?]. Russ: "It starts with 't' and it rhymes with...".

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Mark Wonsil writes:

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Walter Clark writes:

You two are too much involved with sports to see it in perspective. You are like fish talking about life without knowing that water even exists.
I'm talking about your tacit acceptance that nothing exists without written rules.

I am one of the many who grew up playing sports because there was no other thing to do. That was what boys did. I had no idea it was optional until I discovered science. So I find sports childish and stupid, but I do know the rules and was able to understand every word you said.

What you miss, being so involved with water you fail to recognize it, is that written rules don't have to dominate the game. For example. In high school my coach finding baseball provides no exercise whatsoever, transformed the game so it needs no umpire and at the same time made it so much fun, it destroyed any appreciation of the game you two seem to worship. He put the pitcher on the batter's team, then walked away. After we got used to that, he came back and introduced a second ball, a third and then as many as we wanted. Suddenly we discovered that it is possible to tire the outfield. You can increase your score by pitching the way the batter wants it and pitching often. It was called Quick Ball, but now I see it as anachy-ball.

What that taught me is that sports is most appreciated by the obedient mind. As is getting good grades, Russ. It is hard for you to consider no government because obedience is part of your nature.

Warren writes:

A simple rule change I advocate for the NFL:

-Change the regular season to 18 weeks but keep 16 games/team.

-Each team now has 2 byes, one in each half of the season and no byes the first or last two weeks and no byes within 4 or 5 weeks of each other.

-Always have a bye before a Thursday night game.

This gives players more rest and with an added week more teams a chance to be shown on national TV with additional revenue for the league (have an extra Sunday and Monday night game). So better for the players, better for the team and better for the league. Hence, it doesn't happen.

Trent writes:

Fun discussion, though I wish you would have delved into the sports/fan/capitalism/socialism topic as there are many interesting points to discuss. One of my favorite dichotomies involves auto racing.

In the US, NASCAR rules auto racing, and it's the France family that runs a top-down operation. They control the rules, which are designed to promote parity in that if one manufacturer has an advantage over another, they'll equalize the car. For example, if the Ford cars are quicker than the Chevrolet cars, the rules will require Ford to run a different wing package to decrease their speed relative to the Chevys. Further, if during a race, there's too big a lead, the race officials will throw a yellow flag for "debris on the track"...thereby bunching up the field.

In other words, NASCAR wants parity in that they'd love to have all 43 cars within a few seconds of each other on the final lap, bumping into each other all the way to the finish line. I don't want to use the term "socialism" here, but would rather call it "heavily managed competition."

Meanwhile, the rest of the world prefers Formula One (F1), which runs a worldwide schedule, though it's heavily dominated by Europeans and overseen by the FIA, which is based in France (the sport is also led by British billionaire Bernie Ecclestone).

F1 rules mandate that each team must build its own car within the guidelines of the rules. Once conforming to the rules, the car/chassis must pass a crash test. Then there are various testing restrictions and race rules, but all teams essentially strive to compete and innovate within these regulations.

When a team builds a superior car, they are very likely to win most of the season's races (see Mercedes 2014/2015/2016 and Red Bull before that). The FIA does not step in and penalize the quicker team; instead they stay neutral and let the other teams work to improve/innovate/catch up....e.g. compete. And during a race, if a driver gets out to a big lead, he may well lap most of the field - in Sunday's Grand Prix of China, all 22 cars finished, but only 13 cars were on the lead lap. The safety car is only deployed if there's a crash or if there's actual debris on the track.

In other words, F1 is more about competition under a set of regulations - and the governing body works to enforce competition, not to influence winners/losers by helping some teams/hurting others.

I therefore continue to find it ironic that here in America, viewed as the home of free-market capitalism & competition, NASCAR is most popular, while in Europe/the rest of the world, viewed as much more socialistic/statist in nature, F1 is most popular.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
That, the teams that control possession and that have the most passes on target, which is definitely something they are tracking now in soccer, both of those things, and increasingly in hockey as well--those teams generally do win. There ultimately is a strong correlation between dominance in play and in outcome. I can't swear to it.

I am a self-proclaimed soccer aficionado and I'll affirm from my statistical research this is most certainly true (to gauge the depth of my passion for footy here's a link to my soccer statistics website Crankshaw Sports Stats). Clubs at the top of the table indeed tend to dominate possession, shots, shots on target over teams at the bottom. I have created a number of sophisticated and accurate soccer simulations, and this positive correlation is fundamental to simulating and being statistically accurate (here is a link to my many free soccer simulations here) .

However, the subtlety here is that in professional soccer there is a deliberate strategy (called 'playing the counter') that many teams will successfully employ that entails sacrificing significant amounts of possession in an attempt to capitalize of a few high-probability counter-attacking opportunities. The club currently atop the English Premier League standings, Leicester City, will deliberately allow opposing clubs to maintain the bulk of possession, absorb a multitude of low percentage attacks, and then hit the attacking club (who has pushed up the back four to facilitate the attack) on the counter when there is a long clearance or a quick outlet pass.

If the club running the counter has sufficient speed on the wings to beat their opponent to the ball, then there may be a handful of high percentage opportunities that can be created. Over the course of 90 minutes, a club with a handful of high percentage opportunities can defeat (and should defeat IMO) a club taking numerous but low percentage opportunities.

Part of the beauty of the "beautiful game" to we aficionados is the multitude of strategies employed by clubs to achieve victory. There is the smothering 'tiki-taka' approach of FC Barcelona, the lightening counter-attack of Leicester City, to even the bruising long-ball style of a Stoke City. To be successful requires some combination of attacking guile, defensive tactics, and the individual brilliance or the collective determination to bridge the two.

Greg G writes:

I loved this episode. Especially this:

Guest: "It's interesting that, you know, sports as metaphor for life: There's even, especially in leagues, this concern about, you know, wealth distribution. Right? There's the--the NFL more than anything strives toward socialism. Russ: Correct. That's why they hate the Patriots."

It's possible that may have been on the wrong side of the line between joyous celebration and taunting...but you can get away with a lot when your sense of humor is that sharp.

Or this:

Russ: "That's a great answer. And it might be true."

That was a great example of the combination of generosity and skepticism that Russ uses to constantly get the most out of his guests.

I also appreciate that Russ has the broadest possible vision of the purview of economics. Anything involving limited resources and trade-offs forcing decisions with opportunity costs might well benefit from an economic analysis. Many, if not most, scarce resources aren't financial ones. Despite the fact there is a lot of money in sports, there was hardly even time to get to that. That might be another interesting podcast one day.

Greg G writes:

Walter Clark,

Easy there angry scientist guy. Russ actually knows a lot about self organizing systems.

You are like someone too much involved with Quick Ball to see that it has died and baseball has thrived.

David McGrogan writes:

This was a fun podcast but I felt like it only scratched the surface. Some other questions that I think would be really interesting to discuss at some point:

-Why do you see divergence from British sports in some areas in America, but not others? Americans play tennis, golf and so on just like the British do. But they don't play much rugby or cricket and have replaced them with their own versions. Why?

-What is it about Britain? I understand that the Empire explains a lot about why the best cricket and rugby playing nations in the world are South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, or why hockey is so big in India, or why Argentinians like rugby and football (soccer) so much. But that doesn't seem to get at why it was the Brits who invented so many sports in the first place. This is a country of around 65 million people. It has *at least* 92 professional football (okay, okay, soccer) teams. It has, let's say, 50 professional rugby teams across both codes. It has at least 20 professional cricket teams. And that's just the traditional big team sports. It doesn't take in to account the popularity of motor sports, horse racing, golf, etc... The *density* of sporting competition in the country is surely unparalleled around the world - except perhaps for those countries established by Brits (Australia, NZ, the USA...). Why?

-Not so much a question, but it would be great to have an Econtalk episode some time about the origin and history of cricket. I understand the sport is kind of recherche to those across the pond, but it exemplifies so much of what Russ is interested in - laws/rules coming about organically in the absence of central authority, emergent order, and the evolution of international competition through informal trade-like arrangements.

lloydfour writes:

Trent,

I watch NASCAR and I do not watch F1. I find F1 boring as only one team leads the entire race and no one can challenge them.

NASCAR is entertainment and so they attempt to give the audience an entertaining show. They change the rules to make that happen. Sometimes they do fake it just like movies do. That's OK with me. I see that as product R&D. The best part of NASCAR race is the beginning and the end when they are are bunched, pushing and shoving.

I was always puzzled why people put so much effort into sports fandom when they could put the same effort into improving themselves and their lives. Now I know that it a mirror to some ideal version of their lives. I see now that the truth about fairness and success is revealed at the end of a game while in life, that reveal could take years and may not be so clear.

Thanks.

A.G.McDowell writes:

I would expect low-scoring games which can be modeled via Poisson processes like soccer to be unpredictable, unless the skill levels are very unbalanced, which is unlikely at the top level because of player transfers. Suppose the home team is incapable of scoring and the expectation of the score of the away team is 1, so their Poisson parameter is 1. Then with probability e^-1 = just under 37% the score is 0-0. 0-1 itself is only 37%, 0-2 is 18%, 0-3 is 6%, and so.

Jason Bekolay writes:

McDowell is on the right track. With hockey, goals are more frequent than soccer, but still relatively rare. The most predictive stat is shot attempts adjusted for the game situation. The shot attempt spread is pretty tight - typically the worst team is around 40% on the season with the best around 60% - so luck is a pretty big factor in a single game. And goaltenders certainly do have the biggest impact on a team's results. That randomness makes hockey fun to watch in it's own way, but I'm biased as I grew up with the game as a player and a fan.

Edward writes:

The guest suggested that biases against showboating derive from baseball's "whites only" history, where that sort of thing was frowned upon. Wow.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ A.G. McDowell


I would expect low-scoring games which can be modeled via Poisson processes like soccer to be unpredictable

Not necessarily. I have constructed a fairly simple model that incorporates a full league table here to predict the outcome of football matches (in this example the EPL). The model is correct about 53% (in selecting from three possible outcomes: win, draw, or loss). Here are the model fits.

Charles Chandler writes:

Nice podcast, but there was a problem with the file that I downloaded from iTunes. It was poorly edited in the sense that some sections and thoughts were repeated 3-4 times. I suspect that an intermediate version of the editing process was uploaded for final download. The quality of the file is much poorer than normal. But I still love your podcast.

Thanks. C. Chandler

[Charles: I just downloaded the whole file from iTunes and had none of the problems you had. I suggest deleting it and trying it again. Or download from our buttons on this webpage (same file, just a different way of downloading it). If you continue to have problems, please email me at webmaster@econlib.org. In general, for faster attention, tech problems should be emailed to me or Russ rather than posting them to the comment section..--Econlib Ed.]

A.G.McDowell writes:

@Mark Crankshaw I would be interested to know the accuracy with which you could predict score draws (i.e., both sides score the same, and each side scores at least one goal). Under a Poisson model this should be fairly rare - hastily mucking around with spreadsheets I don't see any parameters which make this more likely than 14% - so if you can pick out matches ahead of time and get more than 14% score draws in those matches then you are doing very well and either my spreadsheets or the application of the Poisson model are broken.

(And no, I don't think it is an accident that stereotypically football pools revolved around the prediction of score draws)

Trent writes:

Russ,

After listening to this podcast a second time, I thought of three sports-related topics for future use that would have economic applications (all the while hoping you're able to one day book Bill James):

* With exponentially more data available to teams, they still don't seem to do any better at drafting players - particularly the NFL. There seem to be as many colossal 1st round draft pick bust as there were 10, 20, 30 years ago. Would suggest somebody like Gil Brandt for this.

* Similar notion with the data availability, except from a gambling viewpoint - is the general public still as bad at betting on winners as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago? I would think so, given the growth of the Las Vegas casinos (where sports gambling is legal). Would suggest a long-time Las Vegas sports book manager....think I've heard the Golden Nugget's manager interviewed on sports talk radio of late.

* A follow-up to your Moneyball podcast a while back with respect to baseball analytics. The conventional wisdom in today's baseball media is that baseball analytics is losing its effect because everybody's doing it - they claim that Team X doesn't get an edge from using analytics....merely they're using analytics to keep up with the other teams. The notion is that teams are trying to find the next big breakthrough, but nobody's found it yet. This would obviously be a great topic for Bill James. I know Craig Wright worked with him on the annual Baseball Abstract years ago...another founding 'sabermetrician' if you will...maybe invite Wright, or try to reach James through Wright?

In any event, always enjoy the sports-themed podcasts....always listen to them multiple times...and always end up wanting more of them.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ A.G.McDowell

What I have done is to fit the model linked above for every Premier League match back to 1992-1993 (the initial Premier League season) which encompasses 8,986 matches through 2014-2015. In that data-set, score draws occurred 17.9% of the time.

From there I can empirically derive the probabilities of exact scorelines given a specific model fit. For example, I can calculate the historical probability of home club (where the model predicted them to score 1.50 to 1.59 goals) scoring 0 goals, 1 goal, 2 goals, 3 goals etc.. I can do the same for the away club given their model predicted score. The cross product of these goal scoring distributions (home distribution, away distribution) will yield a matrix of all possible scorelines, with each scoreline in the matrix having a corresponding historical probability (where all the historical probabilities in the matrix will sum to 1). From there I can calculate the historical probability of a score-draw given a fit predicted score (which may deviate significantly from the overall 17.9% given the predicted score of home and away).

Using this historical EPL fitted data-set, when both clubs are predicted to score at least one goal by the model, the historical probability of a score draw is 21.7%, where that condition does not hold the historical probability of a score draw is reduced to 15.9%. In those rare matches (less than 300) where both clubs are predicted to score more than 1.5 goals, the historical probability of a score draw is 21.9%. In matches where both clubs are predicted to score less than 1 goal, the historical probability of a score-draw is 17.4%.

The reason I do not bet on score draws (or on anything else for that matter) is that you are right, these are relatively rare phenomena (a small subset of the scoreline matrix whose sum of probabilities is even smaller). I would shocked if those running the football pools haven't done a similar analysis and then derive their odds accordingly.

My interest has always been in creating statistical simulations. If you are interested in this data-set, I would be glad to put it up (probably still as an excel workbook) on my website for download.

Gene writes:

Just a few random remarks:

I would have liked a little less of the sociological speculation and a little more about the book that this podcast focused on. I really wanted to learn a few things about the origins and original rules of these sports!

Russ' thoughts about the difficulty of scoring goals in hockey were very odd. Was he suggesting the rules of the game ought to be changed? By that logic, the rules of baseball ought to be changed as well. Imagine a great starting pitcher on a terrible team (my favorite example would be Steve Carlton, who went 27-10 for the '72 Phillies, a team that won only 59 games). Shouldn't the rules be changed so that all the greatly superior opponents of the bad teams can't be stymied by the difficulty of scoring runs off a great pitcher?

Re the alleged socialist/capitalist contrast between the NFL and MLB, Jayson Stark does an annual column debunking the alleged parity produced by the socialistic NFL.

George writes:

Regarding the discussion of "accuracy" and "idealized fairness" in sporting competitions, it looks like this is now an area for competitive advantage: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/20/sports/baseball/yankees-replay-guru-ensures-umps-call-em-as-cameras-see-em.html

Seth writes:

I appreciate Mark Crankshaw's post and Gary's challenge of Russ' notion that in soccer the better team often doesn't win.

In my experience of watching matches from youth to the EPL I've come to the opposite conclusion -- the better team seems to win more often in soccer than other sports I've watched a significant amount. But, I will admit, that's just my feeling.

I'd just say that better doesn't always translate to stats, like Mark's example of how the counter can beat a possession-based team.

I think of it in terms of a skills mismatch. When the two teams have a skills mismatch of a level or more, the better team usually wins by several goals.

When the teams are equally matched on skill, then the matches are decided more by luck, mistakes or not at all -- which is why, I believe the tie is a fixture in soccer unlike other sports. If both teams demonstrated the ability to match up, they both get something (a point in the standings), instead of having some arbitrary decision rule that relates very little to the team's skill level.

Also, this podcast reminded of this Freakonomics podcast: What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee and the World Have In Common?

Chris R writes:

I just wanted to provide clarification on the lack of known Stanley Cup mishaps. The Cup was left overnight in Ottawa's Rideau Canal in 1905 after being kicked there on an alcohol fueled dare, temporarily lost by a group of intoxicated Montreal Canadians in 1924 on a snowbank and almost stolen from display at Chicago Stadium from a Canadians fan in 1962, among others. The cup was also dropped numerous times during the celebratory post-victory skate. As a result, a replica "Presentation Cup" was created in the 1960s while a the original remains on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Robert Swan writes:

Walter Clark:
You're free to view your game as anarchy ball, but unless it was played alone, you presumably had to agree some sort of framework of rules (written or not) with the person(s) you were playing.

It's like so called "free verse" poetry. Where there are no rules there is no scope for skill.

Trent:
I suppose I prefer F1 to NASCAR, but it's pretty marginal. F1 is so rule-bound these days that it should relinquish the name. In the '70s and '80s there was real innovation. I would let F1 have the name back if they reduced the car restrictions to a specified footprint and a fixed grade and weight of fuel; crash testing too I guess.

On soccer, I think it's a pretty good game, but I find Australian Rules football to be the most entertaining of the "football" codes. Soccer could copy one thing from Aussie Rules (or Gaelic football): award (say) 1 point for each corner conceded and 5 points for each goal. That ought to reduce the number of games decided by penalty shootout.

In general I'm not a big sports follower these days. So many sports strike me as more circus/theatrics than the contests of skill and strategy they once seemed. I don't think this is entirely down to my growing old and cynical.

Robert Swan writes:

Having a conversation with myself again.

I was musing on what I said yesterday, suggesting that F1 would be better if reduced to a simple contest of "there's your fuel, make the most of it", when an old memory came to mind.

Many sports have put rules in place to try to keep things "fair". The American motocross claiming rule (from the 1970s) was of that kind, and a thing of beauty. What it said was that you could put in a claim for any of the motorcycles in your race. You lodged the claim after the race along with a fixed sum of money (about 3x the price of a typical shop-floor machine) and the bike was yours.

Such an elegant way to make sure nobody just spent their way to victory; how could it possibly fail? Well, fail it did.

Simple rules fail. Complex rules fail. I sometimes wonder whether, in all the arguments about top-down vs. bottom-up, we're not just battling over whether to head upstairs or downstairs on Escher's staircase.

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