Category Archives: Sports

Is Russell Wilson an Elite Quarterback?


A Seattle Landmark

Most of this blog post was written a day before Seattle’s amazing victory over the Green Bay Packers, featuring a truly schizophrenic performance by Russell Wilson (RW). Except for a few style edits, not a (substantive) word of this essay was changed by that game, though I refer to it in a couple of places.   Both before and after that game, I believe Russell Wilson deserves to be on any reasonable list of Elite Quarterbacks (E-List), even if it contains no more (as it shouldn’t) than three or four names.

Russell Wilson doesn’t make too many of the E-Lists.  On the other hand, except maybe for three quarters of yesterday’s game, he’s never had a Rodney Dangerfield problem either.  He often gets honorable mention on some of the E-Lists. Because Wilson was both awful and brilliant in yesterday’s improbable playoff game, his position in the rankings probably hasn’t changed much in a day.

While Wilson gets considerable respect, he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl roster (which is really a blessing for him and the Hawks).  And, famed election forecaster Nate Silver’s “538” blog, now affiliated with ESPN and doing sports metrics,  rates Wilson in the middle of QBs, in the 4th Tier of a 10 Tier scheme. Wilson is in the same group with QB Nick Foles, and below a tier containing Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Schaub. Do you think Pete Carroll would trade RW for any of those guys?

Except for Brady and Manning, the names on the E-lists change so often, calling them Elite lists seems almost silly. By my count, there are twelve current starting QB’s in the NFL who have been on and off the E-lists over the past few years. That’s more than a third of the starting QB’s in the NFL. You’re Elite one year, and a bum the next.  Check out QB Phillip Rivers in San Diego. The gents who have graced E- Lists, off and on, for the last several years are: Romo, Rogers, Roethlisberger, P. Manning, Brady, Brees, Luck, Palmer, Rivers, E. Manning, Flacco, and Kapernik.  Of course Brady and Manning have been mainstays; and Rogers and Brees close to that.

This list reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. In the NFL, almost 40% of the QB’s are Elite, at least for awhile.

So, why doesn’t Russell Wilson get on more E-Lists or on the Pro Bowl roster, or reside in a higher tier in the Nate Silver 538 rankings?  A stab at some reasons:

The standard QB stats used by the E-listmakers — passing attempts, completions, yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions — are all greatly influenced (tainted?) by the quality of the QB’s offensive line and receiving corp,  and whether the team has a running back that can overcome an ordinary offensive line. All of that is elementary, and often mentioned; but is never translated into a metric that affects the QB rating. At least I haven’t been able to find an E-List that does that.

Team defense is also a major influence on QB performance, again, sometimes mentioned, but not embedded in any QB measure.  If a QB’s team has a great defense, he’s not playing catch up all the time, trying to score as fast as possible. Playing on a team with ordinary or poor defense can make for gaudy and garish QB stats, which the E-listmakers then use for the E-Lists.

There are no accessible metrics in football, comparable to baseball’s Sabermertics, which get to the bottom of things. (See Bill James and Money Ball).  A main purpose of Bill James’ Stats was to create measures that isolate a baseball player’s production, apart from the influence of the teammates surrounding him. Babe Ruth hitting in the middle of the 1962 Mets line-up would not have had a 170 RBIs. The commonly used QB stats don’t even bother to control for a player’s environment.

The Seahawks offensive line has been at best ordinary for RW’s entire three year career. The same goes for the Hawks receiving corp, which was only a notch above ordinary before Golden Tate left and tight end Zach Miller missed the entire 2014 season with a serious ankle injury. Percy Harvin was going to be the new,  big impact, home run ball receiver RW has never had, but that venture crashed and burned after a few games.

Pete Carroll’s Seahawks are obviously built around defense. Even if the Hawks had a consistently great offensive line and an elite set of receivers, Carroll wouldn’t want, and doesn’t need, RW to be throwing the ball 30 or 40+ times a game.  An equally important reason for that is the presence of Marshawn Lynch, one of the two or three top running backs in the game, if not the best. With a lead, or even a one or two possession deficit early in a game, why throw on every down when Lynch might bust one for 40 yards at any time, or regularly carry five defenders down the field for ten yards?

All of this means, RW can’t possibly post the garish yardage and touch down numbers that guys on the current E lists have compiled. Hey, in today’s NFL game, with the rules favoring passers and receivers, even Jake Cutler puts up almost 4,000 yards and 30 TDs.  (Poor Jake probably does have a Rodney Dangerfield problem).

Not even the Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), which is an arbitrary composite of the ordinary passing stats, controls for a QB’s environment.  QBR is a “per passing attempt” stat, which helps RW’s cause, but it curiously ignores a QB’s rushing stats. RW ran for 849 yards this year, amazingly 16th best among ALL runners.  Many of those yards came from intentional runs, option plays, and RW extending a play, then deciding to run rather than throw into coverage.  The 849 yards are not mostly from helter-skelter plays. Many of them resulted in critical first downs.

BTW, all of this might help explain why in the world Tim Tebow could have received two Heisman trophies before anyone figured out he couldn’t throw a football, which may also turn out to be Johnny Manziel’s story. They are part of a long line of Heisman winning quarterbacks who flopped in the NFL. Aren’t the guardians of the Heisman embarrassed about that?  Why has this happened?  Not because, “the college game is different from the pro game” excuse, but because the Heisman intelligentsia have no idea how good a QB really is apart from his team.

If it’s not being done already, stats like hurries, sacks, and hits, which can help measure the quality of a QB’s offensive line; or, for receivers, stats on dropped balls, broken routes, and spacing between them and defenders, would shed much light on the performance of QBs. You can make these into composite measures and adjust QBRs, just like Bill James did for baseball forty years ago.  Or why not  track “quality catches” (or lack thereof), just like the NBA tabulates quality rebounds, and use the information to evaluate a receiving corp, and then adjust the QB rating?

The core data isn’t available to starving bloggers, but I bet “538” and other big players in Sports Analytics can do all of these things. They may have already, but, if so, it’s not in the mainstream.

I am sure RW cares about all this much less than I or his adoring fans do. But over this football weekend and with a third day to remember Martin Luther King, writing about bread and circuses beats watching cable news. Here are some popular, sortable QB passing stats from ESPN to pass the time as the long weekend draws to a close.


The Road Not Taken: Why Didn’t Alex Gordon Try Stealing Home?

Jackie Stealing Home on Yogi

Jackie Stealing Home on Yogi

We will debate forever whether the Kansas City third base coach should have sent Alex Gordon home on the outfield miscue with two outs in the 9th inning of game seven in the 2014 world series, and unhittable Madison Bumgarner on the mound.  It seems like we’ve already been debating it forever. But only one sports writer I could find, Craig Calcaterra, has asked the question: “Why didn’t Alex Gordon try to steal home?”

Good question Craig!  Poets and philosophers from Robert Frost to Yogi Berra have waxed eloquent about Roads Not Taken and Forks in the Road. Frost took the Road Less Traveled. Yogi just urged “taking it.”  And Gordon died at third base.

Gordon stealing home crossed my mind too, as I watched him standing on third, two outs, KC up against the wall, and Bumgarner in total command. He and just about everyone else, must have felt in their gut that the next hitter — poor, banged up Salvy Perez — was already toast; and the Giants just one out from winning their third world series in five years,

What would Jackie Robinson, Pete Reiser, or Rod Carew have done in this situation?”  Why, of course, they’d have attempted a steal to tie the game, and give KC a fighting chance of winning in extra innings.  At least I like to think so. They wouldn’t have just died at third base.  Or would they?

Craig Calcaterra was being fair to Gordon and manager Ned Yost, admitting that he’s not enough of a SABRmetrician (a Money Ball analyst) to know if the odds favored an attempted steal. Here is what I think a good SABRmetrician would say.

Since there have been so few attempts to steal home since the stat geeks started recording every play in every baseball game, there aren’t good data on the success of home plate thefts or on the all important “break even point.”  The “break even point” is the rate of success needed for an attempted steal of home to make sense (in Gordon’s situation).  Since there are so many other ways to score from third base, an attempted steal of home can be a bad play. Would it have been a bad play for Yost and Gordon?

The best analysis I’ve seen on this subject is by SABRmetrician, Josh Goldman, in a 2011 Fangraphs article. Mr. Goldman says that, in general, a prospective thief of home plate , with two outs, needs to succeed about one-third of the time for the play to make sense. i.e., below a success rate of 33%, the runner is more likely to score due to a base hit, passed ball, error, wild pitch, balk and several other scoring possibilities. So, again, an attempted steal would not make sense…..if the expected rate of success is below 33%.

Did Alex Gordon have a better than 33% chance of stealing home?  I would say the answer is clearly YES, though, I don’t fault either the player or manager for not having read (or understood) Josh Goldman’s article.

Why am I so bullish on the steal option?  First, the probability of the hobbled Perez getting a base hit, or even putting the ball in play, against the unhittable Bumgarner,  was much smaller than in Goldman’s “break even” calculation (for the average case).

But, there’s a lot more:

Even though Bumgarner was throwing from the stretch, he doesn’t have an especially quick delivery. In fact, he reaches back quite far in his motion, as you can see in this video.  And, with first base open, all of Bumgarner’s pitches were (deliberately) high and out of the strike zone, meaning the catcher would likely have had a long way to go to apply a tag to a sliding Gordon.

And,  Perez is a right handed batter, which makes it marginally harder for a catcher to react to an attempted steal.  Also, Bumgarner as a lefty, would not have seen Gordon roaming off third base quite as quickly as a right-hander.   The stars were aligned for a steal of home in the world series.  Only thing missing was Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra; or Yost’s familiarity with SABRmetrics.

So, under these special conditions, for an attempted steal to make sense, Gordon would have needed even less than the 33% success rate derived from Mr. Goldman’s generic data; maybe something in the 20 to 25 percent range.

Based on data I found for 2012, among the few runners who attempt straight steals of home, the success rate was about 40%.  These included many speedsters, but also some runners with average speed.  How fast is Alex Gordon?  He’s a big guy, but has stolen 50 bases in the last four years; a lot in this era.  A Kansas City Star sports writer who watches Gordon all the time, thinks he’s got pretty good speed.

So, why didn’t Yost or Gordon take the road less traveled?  As I mentioned earlier, the play is so rare these days, not only is it possible that Yost didn’t give it more than a nano second of thought; it’s likely Gordon had never tried it before, maybe not even in little league. Was there even a sign for a steal of home that Gordon might have looked for?  Probably not,

If Robert Frost had been manager, he would no doubt have coaxed Gordon into taking the road less traveled, perhaps in a poem slipped to Gordon by the third base coach.  Yogi would have just told Gordon to take the fork in the road.  Alex might have been picked off third base while pondering that one.

Either way it would have been a helluva play; one of the memorable ones in world series history, and replayed for years, even if it failed.  A Road Not Taken.







Silver and Wang Electoral Predictions: Genius or Glorified Grunt Work?

percy_xmas copy (1)

Percy the Cat, Elite Forecaster

Nate Silver and Sam Wang (S&W) have gained much acclaim for predicting election outcomes. Am happy for them. They are talented academics and scientists. But there is considerably less to their electoral prediction feats than meets the eye.

First of all, S&W are not really doing high level, sophisticated social science forecasting, as the media thinks.  Their work is measurement more than forecasting; description more than explanation; and involves polling expertise far more than political insight.

After digging into the minutiae of S&W’s methods, the familiar Edison quote about “genius” came to mind: “Genius,” Thomas Edison said, “is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”  S&W are well trained statisticians, but their methods are not anything you wouldn’t find in a decent  graduate level stat textbook; and it would be mostly in the less daunting, descriptive stat chapters.

What separates S&W from the crowd is the sweat labor they employed gathering polling data from every village and corner of the country.  They amass these polls, well over 4000 separate ones, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and “aggregate” them in ways to get a better picture of the electorate a few weeks or days ahead of the election.

Yes, some of their “weighting” techniques for combining polls is creative, but little that CNN’s John King or your average R or D, cable news station “political strategist” wouldn’t immediately understand.  What’s different about S&W, is that other pundits didn’t have the fortitude (or wherewithal) to locate thousands of polls, capture their results, wring proprietary information about them from a few pollsters, and record all of this information in a (relatively) simple stat program or spreadsheet.

Bravo!  S&W deserve much credit for that.  We’d be shorting S&W by saying they (and now their worker bees) are doing no more than glorified grunt work;  but neither are their predictions divinely inspired or the work of genius.

To begin with, the feat of calling all (or nearly all) state presidential or senatorial elections correctly, is not as difficult as it sounds. That is especially true in today’s highly polarized electoral map. As I sarcastically said to a friend the other day, “my cat Percy could predict which party will win/hold about 80 of the 100 Senate seats in November..…simply because that’s how many seats are either SAFE or NOT UP FOR ELECTION. (Only one third of the Senate is up for election every two years).   Any barely competent, non partisan electoral handicapper would agree with that.

There are about 20 states among those with Senate elections in November where the election of a D or R would not be considered a black swan event; they are  theoretically in play,    But of those 20, about 10 are considered to LEAN STRONGLY in one direction or another. See for example Real Clear Politics, Politico or the Cook Report.

Thus, remaining in sarcastic mode, a Sea World Dolphin, being smarter than my Percy the Cat (though not treated as humanely), might do well (if not perfectly) predicting which party will own about 90 of the 100 Senate seats after the November 4th election.  The mainstream, non partisan electoral map handicappers widely agree the D/R split on those 90 seats will be between 44/46 and 46/44 on election night.

Now we’re in the home stretch, down to about 10 toss up states. There isn’t perfect agreement on the specific composition of the battle ground seats, but all the mainstream handicappers say there are 9 or 10 states where the election could go either way.  I’m going with 10 in this little exercise. (It’s a nice round number),

It’s of course a lot harder from here on. But, we’re dealing now with about 10 difficult calls; not struggling with 100 races to predict, as the fawning media makes it sound when they say Silver or Wang miraculously called the D/R split in the Senate,  or the 50 state electoral college outcomes perfectly.

Based on a scan of Real Clear Politics, Politico, Cook Report, and Rasmussen, it is a sure bet the D/R split of the remaining 10 toss up states will be somewhere in the
7-3 to 3-7 range.  Las Vegas odds makers would be exceedingly comfortable with that; probably also with 6-4 to 4-6, but I won’t push it.

Thus, without barely lifting a finger, we can confidently say the range of plausible outcomes is between 53/47 and 47/53.  Not between 0/100 and 100/0, as you might infer from the gushing and awestruck Rachel Maddow (who knows better) or Wolf Blitzer (who may not).  Most people reading this blog, probably already know this.  But more regular folks don’t, which is not a failing.

S&W’s celebrity status could wane soon, because their approach is prone to being upended by what social scientists call the Hawthorne Effect: Just the awareness of being closely watched (by a researcher) changes the subjects” behavior.  So, don’t you think all those obscure pollsters – the 3,980 other than prominent ones – are changing how they poll, now that they’ve been subject to S&W ‘s proctology exam?

S&W are aware of all that, and trying to stay one step ahead. That’s probably why Silver moved to ESPN (from the NY Times), where he can hedge bets on his career, regressing to measuring baseball performance, or embracing college basketball bracketology.   He won’t do nearly as well there because you have to really know something about forecasting and  basketball to predict the final four.

A Feel Good Story About a Big Time Professional Athlete: Thank You San Diego Padres’ Cameron Maybin

Cameron Maybin Jersey

Cameron Maybin Jersey

This is an absolutely true story about an unlikely encounter between a short (shrinking), sixty-ish, balding, white haired, semi retired economist;  and a tall, obviously very fit, wealthy, professional athlete, with lots of great hair and charisma. We need a few of these good stories right now.

The balding, white-haired economist (BWE) was doing some business last Monday at the Ameritrade Building in the Fashion Valley district in San Diego.  Although he had some professional business to handle, the BWE was dressed in jeans and a San Diego Padres jersey with the name “Cameron Maybin’ on the back.

Maybin is the starting center fielder for the Padres major league baseball team.   A speedy, gold glove caliber fielder,  Maybin is working to improve his hitting , after a breakout year in in 2011. Further progress was interrupted by injury due partly to Maybin sacrificing his body regularly in center field making highlight reel catches,

The gentleman is fast, graceful, and fearless in center field. Earlier in his career, he was touted as the next Ken Griffey Jr.  He’s still young enough to have more than a few great years.  Here are Cameron’s stats.

The BWE had bought the Padres shirt with Maybin’s name on it a few years ago.  He had heard of Maybin, but didn’t know much about him at the time, except that he had great potential and covered a lot of ground in the outfield.

So, why did the BWE buy Maybin gear, when he could have had a Gwynn, Hoffmann, or Adrian Gonzalez shirt?  And what was BWE thinking when, on Monday, September 22nd, he wore the Maybin jersey to a professional meeting, where everyone else was dressed in suits?  And since BWE owns about ten baseball jerseys, why did he choose that particular one, on that specific day?  Certainly not to impress the suits in the Ameritrade Building.   Keep all of these forks in the road in mind as you ponder the rest of the saga,

After the meeting with the suits ended around 2:00 pm, the BWE took the elevator from the 9th floor to the lobby.  As the BWE walked out the elevator, he heard a man with a loud voice, from a distance away, saying,  “hey man, you just made my day. Hey, hey, let me tell you, you made my day.”

Being certain the words were meant for someone else, the BWE proceeded briskly toward the exit, not even bothering to look back. Then, he heard it again. This time the voice was a lot closer. “Hey, my friend, I can’t tell you how much this means to me!”

Now, the BWE was curious and puzzled. The BWE turned and saw a tall, handsome, obviously fit, young man, in workout clothes, with a lot of great hair, charisma, and a big, warm smile, with intensity in his eyes, that might have been bordering on tears. He reached out to the BWE, and repeated, “I can’t tell you how much this means to me……you wearing my shirt.  I AM CAMERON MAYBIN,” he proclaimed.   It sure was Maybin.

It took the BWE a beat or two longer than it might have twenty years ago to figure out what was going on; but once he did, joy broke out all over. He couldn’t imagine an encounter quite this improbable, affirmative, bridging so many gaps, and coming at a time when so much of the news about rich professional athletes is depressing.

Almost makes you want to believe in angels. The BWE’s late wife, Cheryl, believed fervently in angels, and that there were no coincidences in life. The BWE was a severe skeptic.  But he’s now thinking it over.

The day of the encounter with Maybin was September 22nd , the BWE’s and Cheryl’s wedding anniversary.  And, it  turns out, Cameron’s agent is Brian Goldberg (BG), whom it appears is the same BG that was Ken Griffey Jr’s, agent.  And Maybin is friends with Junior. What’s the significance of that?  The BWE’s baseball hero was Griffey.  But an unfortunate encounter with the Mariner great some years ago tarnished the BWE’s passion for the game.

I am going to believe that an angel got Cameron and I together at the Ameritrade Building to celebrate my anniversary with Cheryl; and to mend things with Junior and baseball….and maybe also to do some good for Mr. Maybin, who, after, all, did say it made his day.

All the best to Cameron Maybin.  Hey, man, you sure made my day….big time.    The BWE

Are the LA Clippers Worth $2 Billion? – What A Silly Question!

Basketball Gold

Photo By Norm Olson, copyright 2013

Everyone by now knows that Steve Ballmer, the 34th wealthiest person in the world,
according to Forbes, and former Microsoft CEO, has offered to buy the NBA Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise for $2 billion. At this writing, it’s not a done deal. But since the price demolishes all records for sports franchise sales, I will be very surprised if the deal doesn’t close. The price has triggered a lot of questions. The most common: “Are the Clippers really worth $2 billion?” This is a teachable moment.

A preliminary answer is: “The Clippers are worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay.” Period. That’s not entirely satisfying. But it is instructive. People don’t always buy things because they believe it will make (more) money for them. If you’ve ever collected coins, art, or baseball cards, you know that you “overpaid” at one time or another just for the joy of owning that Bob Uecker Topps card you were searching for on ebay for several years, or the Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck refractor.

Ballmer, who is said to be worth $20 billion, merely places a lot of value on owning a professional sports franchise, like his former Microsoft associate, Paul Allen (who owns the Trailblazers and Seahawks), and other high tech giants who now own professional sports teams.

Ballmer is brilliant and charismatic, but he just got pushed out of his Microsoft CEO job; he’s 58 years old, probably wants to have some fun the rest of his life, remain relevant somehow, and stay in the lime light. That’s worth $2 billion to him. Want to fight about that with Mr. Ballmer?

The main reason we ask if the Clippers are worth $2 billion is that we’ve all learned
from Econ 101 (and by osmosis), that economic behavior is always “rational” in some sense; that economic actors only buy or invest when “it pencils out,” meaning that the buyer will get a positive monetary return on the investment. Yet, even within the classic economics framework, if you think about it for a moment, Ballmer’s purchase may very well “pencil out.”

From Father Sarducci’s, five minute economics PhD, with 2.5 minutes devoted each to “supply” and “demand,” it’s obvious the supply of major league sports franchises is small and artificially constrained; while, the demand for them is going through the roof. Guess what happens to price.

Check out the number of newly minted billionaires in America and the world who are looking for new things to do with their billions; and compare that with the number of major league sports franchises on the market. And then look at the trends. If you believe Thomas Piketty, the number of multi billionaires is going to get much larger in the next few decades. The quantity of major league sports franchises won’t grow nearly as fast. That’s true, almost by definition. If every mid size city in America gets a major league franchise, its no longer “major league.”

But, the NBA will grow internationally. Ballmer is a forward thinker; and can play chess on a very high level. Don’t you think it crossed his mind that in 20 years, the NBA will have franchises in China, Brazil, and Germany? How much do you suppose those markets will generate in cable revenues and gear sales for every NBA owner?

Congrats, Mr. Ballmer and have fun with your new toy. Condolences to Seattleites who’s last best hope for bringing NBA basketball to that town, Mr. Ballmer, is now committed to a franchise in LA.

What the Number Geeks Would Say About Duke and Mercer

Photo By Norm Olson, copyright 2013

Photo By Norm Olson, copyright 2013

Don’t think too deeply about why Mercer beat Duke. They were close enough in talent for a Mercer win to be as probable as catching a cold on a coast to coast flight, which isn’t likely, but hardly improbable. End of discussion, the stat geeks would say. Move on.

Today’s article doesn’t try to unearth a story buried on Page Seven, rather it provides a minority viewpoint on Duke’s elimination by “lowly” Mercer. The perspective is of a statistician, or numbers geek. On the heels of Money Ball and Adam Silver’s bravura performance during the 2012 elections, that viewpoint intrigues many people.

Suppose Mercer and Duke played in a 10 team conference, with all teams of top,  25 coaches’ poll caliber, each playing exactly the same 27 game schedule. They play every other team 9 times.  Suppose, further, that Duke had a .700 season record in that league, and Mercer, .500. That’s my wild, but,  I think,  plausible, guess of how much better Duke is than Mercer, if they played identical schedules in a good league. That’s clearly a supposition, but I need this device to help me provide a few observations. The basic math behind this can be found in any good stat 101 course, and here in a watered down, but accessible, discussion.

Under this scenario, the stat geeks would tell us that Duke has about a 70% chance of winning any particular game against Mercer, on a neutral court. That may sound high, but it also means that if Duke and Mercer played 9 times in this imaginary conference, you would expect Mercer to win three of the games. Those are really not bad odds for Mercer. So, Mercer’s win – if you accept my .700 versus .500 premise — doesn’t mean Mercer is better than Duke. It merely means that the March 21st game was one of those three occasions out of nine that Mercer would be expected to win.  End of discussion.  Move on. Good thing for ESPN that it doesn’t hire stat geeks to do the color analysis.

This is of course little consolation to Coach K or the Duke players; and even less solace for the alumni and boosters. The next time Coach K talks with the University President, we can be sure he won’t use the stat geek argument as an alibi. But it’s still a good explanation.

Ten or twenty years ago, the difference between Duke and a Mercer-like school in the tournament would have been more like .800 versus .300. That, according to the stat geeks, would translate roughly into more than a 90% chance of Duke winning any particular game; or Mercer winning one game, at most, out of 9, against Duke. Yes, a decade or two ago, it would have been very unlikely for a Mercer to win a game against the Blue Devils.

What has changed? Some in Duke nation are thinking Coach K has a lost a step or two, or become a bit (sub consciously) complacent. It’s called losing the edge; not being hungry enough anymore. Maybe his half time exhortations have lost some zip; or his attention to fine detail has withered. It doesn’t take much to move the needle by a lot in the fast lane.

The stat geek would look at this differently. It all has to do with the gap between Duke and Mercer closing from (perhaps) .800/.300 to .700/.500. This hasn’t happened because Coach K is a worse recruiter or has lost a few IQ points. A lot of the change has, of course, to do with the “one and done” trend in college basketball, with the top teams losing players to the NBA after one or two seasons. This affects Duke much more than Mercer.

Less obvious is the impact of the major media coverage that a Mercer and its players receives today, compared with ten or twenty years ago; from multiple ESPN channels and radio sports talk shows, to a raft of blogs that scout and rate players from every top 100 school. There is an amazing amount of detail that’s easily found on just about any player or team in the country.

In the past, a high school kid with offers from Duke or UCLA wouldn’t give a thought to a small, niche program, even if it meant riding the bench at Duke for a few years. If the kid was worried about getting lost in a large pond, he’d at least wind up at a Marquette; small, yes, but an established basketball school that’s been respected for a long time. Today the opportunities for attention are vast. The kid, and his parents, with NBA dreams would look seriously at Mercer, Butler, Gonzaga, George Mason, and others, knowing he will be show up on the NBA’s radar screen.

What about the fate of Coach K? The college basketball bloggers all say Duke’s latest recruiting class is first class. The program is in fine shape, as far as we can tell. Coach K has a lot of integrity, so I would not be the least bit surprised if he raised the possibility with the College President of moving on (Coach K, that is, not the Prez). I can’t imagine the President raising it.

I know a few ardent and knowledgeable Duke fans who argue the team was not well prepared for Mercer and that Coach K was unimaginative and lackadaisical. So, if Coach K offers to move on, the Prez could bite, if he’s heard enough (sacrilegious) barbs about the Coach from influential boosters.  As a stat geek, I am putting a probability around that of about 10 or 15 percent. That’s low, but not negligible. Then, what happens to Coach K? Maybe Phil Jackson, the new New York Knicks GM, goes for a different “K” than predicted – Krzyzewski instead of Kerr. Not very likely, but fun to think about. It would give fans and writers enough material to keep themselves busy and amused during the five years it takes to turn things around in New York.

Why Can’t the Olympic Games Be Healing?

No More Olympic Baseball - Enjoy Curling

No More Summer Olympic Baseball – Learn Curling

The Olympic Games, for as long as we’ve known them, don’t merely reflect nationalistic fervor, but feature it, as central to the quadrennial spectacle.  Instead of allowing the Games to serve as a pause in national, ethnic, religious, and racial discord, we are reminded of them every day, and at each event

This critique isn’t unique, but hard to find in mainstream reporting, which of course has a vested monetary interest in the Games.  Two recent pieces by Jay Greene and Jonah Goldberg present a different view than you’re likely to get from Meredith Vieira.

I don’t “hate” the Olympic Games the way Mr. Greene does, nor consider it to be the worst enabler of evil in the global culture, the way Goldberg presents it, but such views are worth a look.

Yet even Greene and Goldberg miss one part of the Games’ toxicity —  its natural promotion and goading of nationalistic fervor.   (I emphasize “natural”).   Ultra nationalism has been central to the Games for so long, and is so pervasive, that it’s now just part of the ambient light and noise. Why do I consider this a big problem?  After all, I too enjoy the ritual of standing to the national anthem before baseball games; and am not ashamed to be tearing-up when operatic voices intone God Bless America at Yankee Stadium.

But I was also raised to believe that an integral part of the Olympic Spirit involved emphasizing the commonalities between Americans and Russians, not provoking wider differences.  The ancient Olympics were supposed to have brought together the (constantly) warring city-states of Greece, for a few days every four years, in truce and harmony, with real cease fires enabling the athletes to safely travel to the games. These cease fires, according to Greek historians, had half lives much greater than the ones we commonly hear about today in the middle east.  And the athletes originally came as individuals, not team members; though I’m sure they didn’t hide the names of their city-states.

Even if the Olympic Spirit is a myth, and the Greek historians are wrong, why have we fostered a tradition that adds to discord, rather than healing?  I’d settle for just “neutrality” on this scale.   Even if you believe the games were never a vehicle of peace or brother (and sister) hood, their embrace of nationalism is toxic and perverse.

Yes, I know, the answer, as always, is “money,” but I am going to suspend or assume it out of the equation for the course of this blog post, as economists are wont to do, so we can carry on.  In what manner do the Games take every opportunity to feed and fuel nationalist fervor? Here are the most obvious ways, and some (partly tongue-in cheek) proposed reforms.

The Games always open with a grand procession of the countries. The athletes march in together, closely knit, joined at the hips, under national flags and colors.  Sometimes they salute their leaders in the viewing stands with gestures not too different from the genuflections seen in their homeland military parades.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  What if they marched in groups organized around their athletic specialties:  all the runners together; the weightlifters in one group; and so on.  That would make for an interesting contrast in body types.  And we would also see how old and out of shape a lot of the equestrians are.

Why not do it that way?   Each athlete could still dress in native garb to celebrate their culture.   Maybe even carry a little flag; they would certainly wear the national pins they like to exchange with other athletes.   But the Russians, Algerians, Chinese, and Brazilians would march in together.  The rainbow of colors, both the clothes, and faces, would be gorgeous.

The Games feature team sports with nations clashing in rinks, courts, and in water; and with athletes pumping fists in the air after every score.  These events aggravate national tensions; they surely don’t heal them. Riotous flag waving rooters in the stands add to the hostilities.

What if they got rid of team sports altogether?   The earliest games didn’t have them.  Ok, that’s way too radical because we’d be throwing out entire (team) sports, not just the toxic parts of nationalism.   Lets try another idea: What if the teams were all multinational, organized by continents, sub-continents or other regions?   I realize that sounds utopian, even silly.  But that’s only because we’ve been doing it one way for so long.

Sure, regional teams would require basketball players, for example, to train with hoopsters from other nations for at least half a year before the games.  (That would be five months and 29 days more than the NBA all star teams trained together).  That might force Americans to learn Czech passing and defensive techniques, and vice versa.  Maybe David Stern would frown on that.

Yes, there are aspects to this which seem impractical, if not impossible.  Can you imagine an Israeli point guard playing alongside an Iranian center on a Middle East basketball team?   I myself can barely envision that.  But, It has a zero chance of happening if you won’t even think about it.   Something like this could happen if it was entirely separate from the Olympics, perhaps a venture which George Soros and Ted Turner could put together, with advice from Mitt Romney.    Or another Clinton-Pappy Bush collaboration.  Would it sell?

In today’s Games, the medal winners always stand on platforms while the anthems of their homelands are played.  Why is this necessary?  The orchestra doesn’t play the Italian national anthem at the Academy Awards when an Italian director wins an Oscar, though they may play a few notes from Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu, as the winner wends his way to the stage.

Okay, maybe the Oscars are a bad counter example, because Hollywood is so far to the left that anything patriotic (on behalf of any country) might be scorned.  Consider, then, the Nobel Prizes. You don’t hear the three national anthems played when Russian, U.S. and French chemists share a Nobel.   (Yes, the Nobel folk also have a reputation for leftist politics, but much more so in areas like literature, peace, and economics; not chemistry).   So, why not dispense with the flag waving and anthems, which only make some viewers more prone to take a course in suicide bombing?

Then, of course, when you tune into ESPN , FOX, or NBC, the first thing they report are the national medal totals.  What’s missing is a John King type analyst with a giant ipad screen which shows whether the Americans still have a chance of over-taking Norway and Russia in the medal competition, given the precincts that still haven’t reported……..I  mean the events still to be held.

The media of all countries dwell on the national standings. Of course, I understand they need to do that for the ratings.  Or to sell newspapers.  OK, so what if the lead stories were about great accomplishments from athletes no matter where they come from?  Or, if they reported on those regional or continental teams I proposed earlier.  Remember, I didn’t say this was practical; and I assumed away the need to sell advertising minutes.

A lot of today’s billions are made by Google (or a company that Google eventually buys), which identify customers or niche markets to feed just about any interest or fetish.  Surely there are enough of us who can’t stand the Olympic fueling of international discord, who could be identified by Google, and are willing to pay a little to watch sports coverage that made the national medal standings in the Olympics an after thought.  I would still go to Petco Park every summer to see the Padres, and experience goose bumps when they sang God Bless America; especially if it was Kate Smith’s great grand daughter singing it, together with Kate,  like Nat and Natalie.

Sure I get the goose bumps and sometimes cry when I hear the U.S. anthem on TV during the medal ceremonies.   But I have plenty of other times to experience that.