Socialism, Sportsmanship, and the Stanley Cup

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Gary Belsky on the Origins of ... Alberto Alesina on Fiscal Poli...

This week, EconTalk host Russ Roberts sat down with golfing buddy and former editor-in-chief of ESPN Magazine Gary Belsky. Their conversation ranged over many sports, with discussion of American football, Indian field hockey, British tennis, and the mystique of the Stanley Cup. And Belsky's newest book...On the Origins of Sports.

Now of course we want to hear what you think...Is sportsmanship a thing of the past? Are sporting contests always a zero-sum game? Are there too many rules in sports today? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments...We love to hear from you.

sports ref.jpg

1. Why does Belsky think football players would suffer fewer concussions if the only time they wore helmets was during games? What would be the costs, if any, if this change were implemented?

2. What's your least favorite rule in sports? What would be your remedy for the problem that rule was enacted to mitigate? (Don't even start on designated hitters...)

3. To what extent is sport a good analogy or metaphor for how we should be as individuals, and how societies or communities should work?

4. How would you define sportsmanship? How does Belsky describe sportsmanship as a counterweight to "taunting?" Is there a concept in economics analogous to sportsmanship? Explain.

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CATEGORIES: Extras (194) , Sports (20)

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Jeff Ankrom writes:

The worst rule in sports is offsides in soccer!

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Jeff Ankrom

Except when the opposition apparently scores and then the offsides flag goes up disallowing their that situation I love the offsides rule...

Trent writes:

Taking a crack at #1...Belsky said something to the effect that players view the helmet as part of their suit of armor. It's something that helps give them the illusion of invulnerablility. If you take away the helmet in practice/outside of games, they would become conditioned to playing without them - not launching head-first at other players, not leading with the head while tackling, etc. The idea is that this conditioning would carry over into the actual games, and you'd see fewer concussions and fewer serious head injuries.

Of course there will be a cost to this, and in no way can anyone accurately predict the full costs/unintended consequences of such a rule (e.g. there could be an increase in severe eye injuries from players practicing without helmets). Clearly there's a perceived advantage to having your players practice in helmets, otherwise some teams wouldn't do it.

As for #2, of course it's the DH - can't remember the last time I sat through an entire 9-inning American League game...

But since you don't want us to get carried away with the DH, I'll go with the penalty rules in Formula One (F1). Every on-track incident now gets picked apart by the race stewards (who are different every race), and if they deem a driver to be at fault, they can assess anything from a stop-and-go penalty in the pits, to a drive-through penalty, to a time penalty, to penalty points (where if you get enough of those things, you'll miss a race). Needless to say, it's applied very inconsistently, and it seems like the race stewards are under pressure to assess a penalty for every incident - e.g. you just can't call a collision 'a racing incident' as somebody has to be blamed.

Amy Willis writes:

@Trent- We're just ribbing Russ about the DH! lol

The helmet suggestion is analogous to the Tullock (?) one about replacing driver's side airbags with spears/the Peltzman effect. Of course, all choices have costs...

Mark Crankshaw writes:
3. To what extent is sport a good analogy or metaphor for how we should be as individuals, and how societies or communities should work?

One thing I would like to get off my chest at the outset: the idea that Europe is "more socialist" than the US is absurd. It is my opinion that this idea is put forth (by many on the left) to deliberately conflate government control of the means of production and explicit government allocation that production (what Karl Marx had in mind), the technical definition of a socialist market, and the welfare state (that does not require a socialist market). It is quite possible to produce goods and services through the free market, depend on the market price mechanism for allocation, and then only in the back-end provide re-distributive tax-financed subsidies for certain favored constituencies so that they can purchase goods and services in the free market. That isn't socialism. That's free market capitalism with the dead-weight burden of a welfare state.

Europe in 2016 is populated by free market capitalist economies with large social benefit welfare states. Even laggards such as Albania and Moldova have, at least a generation ago, jettisoned their socialist markets in favor of a market price-based economy.

This deliberate conflation is an attempt to claim Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, what have you, into the socialist "camp" rather than the "capitalist" one. And since, under this fraudulent classification, Sweden or Denmark is classified as "successful" (or in some heated minds "paradise on Earth"), then therefore socialism is "works". Utter rubbish. These are market based economies--full stop. They are in the capitalist camp--full stop.

This should be, to anyone following European football, quite obvious. In "socialist" states (as in the days of the Iron Curtain) football clubs were owned and operated by the State (with club names that made that quite clear-- CSKA Moscow, the Central Red Army team).

Today in Europe, some of the names remain, but the public ownership and operation of the clubs vanished a generation ago. Football jersey's in every country in Europe (from the Azores in the mid-Atlantic to Vladivostok, Russia) are plastered with the logos of privately owned business, covered mainly by privately owned TV networks. No football association is a subsidiary of the national government (as they were in socialist states).

The idea that Europe is socialist shouldn't just be pushed back against. It needs to be de-cleated in much that same way that Jack Tatum back in the day de-cleated a number of wide-receivers foolish enough to make a crossing pattern in his area.

Back to the question. I would drop the "should" in "how we should be as individuals, and how societies or communities should work". The normative is not in my perspective. However, from my vantage point, sports is an excellent analogy or metaphor about how individuals, societies, and communities in fact do work. Human society is not all cooperation (the dominant leftist paradigm--and you're free to disagree, GregG)-- nor is it all competition (the dominant leftist 'straw-man' position). It tends to be a cooperative competition--ruthless, violent, and me-first-- just like sports.

I guess my fascination in sports is inspired by this cooperative yet fiercely competitive set of enterprises. To be successful in the sports I love (and I've passionately loved a lot of them at one time or other--baseball, American football, basketball, lacrosse, hockey, soccer, tennis, NASCAR, F1), requires the participants to engage in a very elaborate amount of cooperation. However, the end game is always fierce, physical and ruthless competition against a clearly identified opponent. Once one has engendered a passion for (or against) one of those opponents-- the love of the game will follow.

I've never gotten into Golf or figure skating, though both are cooperative and competitive. They aren't physical enough for my taste. I've never gotten into boxing because that's too physical for my taste. I like those in between those extremes.

My fascination with sport is compounded by the ease and depth with which one can statistically analyze sports since I have a penchant for statistical analysis. The more one knows about the history, the personalities, the subtleties of a sport, the greater the interest. But a healthy dose of emotional attachment does it for me. My interest in baseball has waned tremendously though my knowledge of it, at one time, was exceedingly deep. I don't support any team, so I really don't care who wins (and my favorite players, such as Ozzie Smith, have long since retired).

However, each goal that Norwich City concedes is physically painful to me, each loss felt as keenly as if I were actually playing myself (maybe even more so). Every fanatical sports fan can relate and no doubt the 'anti-sport' types will never understand...

Greg G writes:


I am willing to give you some artistic license in characterizing the "dominant leftist paradigm."

And I am inclined to think sports is a healthy outlet for your impressive enthusiasm and energy...probably even more so than arguing economics and politics.

jw writes:

- I agree with Belsky on the DH (and the DFS was hilarious!..)

- Soccer will never be popular in the US until they get rid of "extra time" and use a simple countdown clock AND they solve the "my leg is broken in three places flop and then get up and run full speed" issue.

- No one in a business foursome uses the rules of golf. This is due to double digit handicaps, too long a round, too busy to arrive 30 mins early to warm up on the range and not wanting to have the customer embarrass themselves. Hence, two off the first, penalty and drop for any stakes or lost ball, and three over par max score. These are declared on the first tee. However, improving your lie is still a capital offense.

You will never experience any colder look than going back 250 yards to the tee and telling the foursome waiting there (during a sure to be five hour round) that after searching for your ball for five full minutes you can't find it and have to hit again.

(BTW, there is an additional autumn rule - if everyone agrees that hit into the fairway or rough but you can't find your ball in the leaves - free leaf drop.)

Tim writes:

This isn't really a least favorite rule, but rather least favorite application of a rule...

In the NBA, I've observed there to be a somewhat unwritten rule about how certain types of physical contact are officiated when the direct result is the ball going out of bounds. For instance, a player on Team A is going up for a rebound with good body position, and is able to get two hands on the ball, only to be hacked from behind from a player on Team B, causing the ball to be sent out of bounds. In my experience, if no foul is called on the Team B player for that contact, then the ball will be awarded to Team A, even if the Team A player technically touched the ball last. I'm fine with this unwritten rule, because it seems to be called quite consistently and has established this kind of middle ground for contact that is not egregious enough to be called a foul, but that nevertheless was the cause of the ball going out of bounds.

But now enter the world of replay, and my discontent with the application of this "rule"... if that play happens to be reviewed, I've seen instances where Team B is awarded the ball, even though Team B would almost never be awarded the ball without replay. This seems to be a glaring inconsistency between replay and real-time officiating.

jw writes:

Speaking of basketball, my pet peeve is the blatant bias and discrimination that is pervasive in the sport, all based upon - let's put it delicately - genetic makeup.

That's right, I am talking about the unspeakable - the fact that little guys always get the calls. Big men have to play at a much higher level to make sure that absolutely no contact is made when defending against little players while little players can push, shove and hack big men to their heart's content.

Righting this wrong may require a constitutional amendment.

Danley Wolfe writes:

The level of violent contact is one important way that "contact sports" of American football and basketball have changed. The current attention to damage to the head and spinal cord is correctly and absolutely required.

As the game changes the rules should (and often do) change.

Wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff of the Raiders (played with QBs Daryle Lamonica followed by Ken Stabler) had graat success although Biletnikoff was known to use "Stickum" on his hands.

"Stickum (TM) was/is a trademark adhesive of Mueller Sports Medicine, of Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, is available in powder, paste and aerosol spray forms. Also, "excellent for baseball bat handles, vaulting poles, use by weightlifters ...

"Stickum and other adhesive or "sticky" substances such as glue, rosin (tree sap) or food substances, were used for years in the National Football League to assist players in gripping the ball. The use of adhesives such as Stickum was banned by the league in 1981, and the resulting action became known as the "Lester Hayes rule" in association with the Oakland Raiders defensive back known for his widespread use of Stickum. Despite the ban, Hall of Famer Jerry Rice freely admitted to illegally using stickum throughout his career, leading many fans to question the integrity of his receiving records. Rice's claim that "all players" in his era used stickum was quickly discredited by Hall of Fame contemporaries Cris Carter and Michael Irvin." [quote attributed to Wiki].

But reason for mentioning is, while Stickum was banned, pro football receivers now wear globes with tiny sticky suction cups (or tiny beads that provide "stick") to the same effect as applying Stickum. You would not see one handed catches by receivers flying horizontally across the end zone... due only to wearing the gloves. There is probably an answer - but why is this allowed but Stickum not allowed, gloves are foreign substances.

In basketball there are a number of issues in my mind:

1) getting it right on continuation fouls, charging fouls vs. blocking fouls - has improved but is still a problem
2) in professional basketball, they used to call walking and double dribble. Now you see guys receive a pass, take a dribble, change pivot foot, and then start dribbling again down the floor taking 3 or 4 or more steps as they go in for a layup.
3) 10' basket: the current rule goes all the way back to the invention of the game by James Naismith nailing a peach basket 10' ft high on a barn wall in 1892 when The average male height was 5'7". Since then players have grown in height say to average of say 6’8” with tallest as high as 7’3” - Kristap Porzingis of the Knicks and Boban Marjanovic of the Spurs (while Dikembe Mutombo from the Congo at 7’2” retired in 2009 … so don't you think it’s time to raise the height of the basket to 11.5 - 12 ft ??

It’s gotten almost boring to watch these superb athletes stuffing the ball with such ease … reminds me of shooting baskets with balled up paper balls into the waste basket in my bedroom when I was 5 years old.

The height of the rim won't change... there is too much in stake with ESPN game highlights, Atari like action games, NBA dunk contests, ...too much money at stake. It’s more of a circus than a game of basketball.

Luke J writes:

2) Forward progress in American football should be eliminated. I'd bet you'd see a change in tackling technique as well that would lead to less injury. Worse than the forward progress rule is the automatic first down for nearly every defensive penalty. If it ain't a personal foul, it should not be an automatic set of downs.

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