Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is the NBA a Sport or a Show?

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was interviewed on ESPN awhile back. He was out of the NBA after having been found to have violated rules against betting.

The interviewer went over the predictable ground, bringing out Danaghy's assertion that he was able to win 70-80% of his bets simply by knowing which referees were pissed off at which players. The logical next question was "were games fixed?". Donaghy insisted no games were ever fixed, because no calls were made that were not "justifiable".

The fact that he could make this assertion with a straight face, and that an aggressive interviewer was not able to challenge it, illustrates a huge problem with pro basketball. What it means is that the calls are so subjective many could go either way, in which case it is all the more important to have totally neutral refs. But the refs are human and apparently none are totally neutral.

Then the interviewer asked the great question, "Do you think the NBA is more of a sport or more of a show"? The answer was more of a show, which upon reflection seems 100% true. If so it explains a lot about why the NBA has never caught on as a major spectator sport like baseball, football, even auto racing. The public seems to have an innate sense that what it is watching is pure show. The NBA feeds into this uneasy feeling with its stupid dunking contests, which have nothing to do with basketball skills, and everything to do with showmanship.

Of course to keep what popularity it has the NBA, like the rigged quiz shows of the1950's, has to maintain the illusion that it is really an honest contest. When the word got out that the quiz shows were rigged, they all disappeared from the air. So would the NBA disappear if the truth became known.

What about other sports? Haven't you been curious about why the camera always seems to find the holding violation after the ref calls it in pro football? Don't the refs ever get one wrong? I think the answer is that there is holding on virtually every play, and only occasionally do the refs actually call it. Consequently, when they do call it it is easily found by the camera. Again, we have a situation of great subjectivity, which makes for a bad situation if you are going to consider this a true sport, a true test of skill. It is easy to imagine a ref who is upset with a particular player who he doesn't like, and watches that player extra closely for violations.

A recent court case illustrates the basic point here. The NFL had contracted with a particular company to exclusively advertise that product. A competitor of the company sued the NFL under an antitrust theory. The NFL's response was that it was a single entity with the teams being 32 separate components of that single entity. Hence no antitrust violation. The NFL won the case on that theory. If this doesn't illustrate the reality, I don't know what does.

Another example is the group of fans who complained about a team not playing its best players in a recent meaningless end-of-the-season game. The fans wanted a show, they didn't want the team to get ready for the playoffs as the situation clearly called for. Such an outcry would be unheard of in a real sport like baseball, tennis, golf, etc.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lessons from the Fifties, Part Two: The Draconian Tax Code

In his book "The Fifties", David Halberstam does not devote a chapter to tax policy of that era. However, he does have an offhand reference to it in his chapter on the quiz show scandals. He writes of Van Doren: "In the end his total winnings came to $129,000; but given the draconian taxes of the period, he actually took home only about $28,000." And Halberstam also referred to this again in commenting that the"double or nothing" bet contestants were asked to make on"The $64,000 question" really meant the contestant was risking far more than he/she would be winning, due to the extra income being taxed at higher rate than what was already won.

In retrospect it is inexplicable how the highest tax rate was allowed to be 91% in peacetime, which it was throughout the 1950's. And for awhile during WW2 it was 94%. (See for a history of the highest marginal tax rate.) It dropped to 28% by the late '80's, and now rests at a comfortable 35%.

People who compain about "high taxes" today should study some history before they bellyache. There is a widespread tendency to rail against raising taxez and against reducing benefits. But the real question is, at what level should those taxes and benefits be? What is a sensible system?

When Kansas introduced reappraisal into its Constitution during the early 1980's, there was a huge outcry when people started receiving their new appraisals. As a result, one of the worst Governors ever, Joan Finney, got elected simply by mouthing anti-tax nonsense. I recall being at a townhall meeting on the reappraisal issue, and an anti-tax advocate I knew told me he had heard from someone whose taxes were being doubled. He obviously thought this was a major outrage; my response was "maybe their taxes were too low before and are only now being corrected". Indeed, this is exactly what reaapraisal was doing, it was correcting for the fact that people with older homes had formerly been getting a huge advantage over people with new homes. The new homes were being valued based on current value, while the old homes had been allowed to stay on the taxrolls at decades-old values, which had been established before the real estate boom of the1970's.

Some clear thinking and scientific literacy is sure needed in times like this.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Scientific Illiteracy, Part Two: Anti-Terrorism Measures

Rachel Maddow had an anti-terrorism expert on the other day whose analysis made so much sense that it is sure to be ignored. The expert pointed out how we always adjust our anti-terrorism measures to combat the latest terrorism attempt, instead of trying to anticipate the next one and guard against it. This makes us completely predictable, so that we are announcing to the world what we are doing, which tells a determined terrorist exactly what he needs to do to mount a successful attack.

Instead, what we should be doing is varying our measures, so that we are not predictable. (The 9-11 terrorists knew exactly what size of knife they could bring on the planes, becuase of our predictability.) But beyond that, the expert said we should be putting our money into investigation and intelligence operations, instead of all of thts "airport security" which costs so much and really accomplishes little.

But the real solution to the terrorism threat is to keep it in better perspective, to not get all stirred up every time an attempt is made. If we keep our sense of perspective, then the result sought by the terrorists is thwarted. Mitch Albom had a great column on this, found here. His salient point:

"Which leads us to the one thing we actually can do about terrorism that would have a measurable effect on it.

Expect it.

Figure that it's coming the way you know someone, somewhere, is going to shoot up his workplace. Someone, somewhere, will start a riot in a stadium. Someone, somewhere, will drive drunk and kill innocent people.

These are horrible events. We try hard to prevent them. But no amount of security, gun laws or alcohol warnings can keep them from happening completely. We accept this as a tragic part of life, but we still go on living.

Maybe the same needs to be done with terrorists who think airplanes are the way to unnerve our society. If we refuse to be terrified by these raging idiots, they lose their effectiveness. If and when the next airplane is victimized, our stock market doesn't go south with worry and our politicians don't go overboard with retaliation tactics, the terror is, to a large degree, neutered.

After all, what do these bombers want? It's not as if they're seeking a cessation of war, the return of a specific land or a specific prisoner release. What they want is mayhem. Hysteria. They want us stirred up with fear and hatred, which enables them to recruit larger masses to do their evil bidding.

We shouldn't play into that."

No indeed, we should not play into that. But that is exactly what the networks did this morning by devoting almost their entire Sunday morning news shows to the attempted terrorist act on Christmas Day. The media is showing the terrorists that they are winning in their efforts to create mayhem and hysteria in our country. We can thwart their efforts by remaining calm and accepting some risk as a fact of life, which it is.

The media is acting like it is a huge failure whenever an attempt, successful or not, is made. The media is unable to recognize that human errors will always occur and no system is foolproof. And of course the politicians all play into this hysterical attitude, by acting like any security breach is unacceptable and an occasion for hand-wringing. The failure to realize that risk is a part of life and some risk will always be there is a form of scientific illiteracy, in my opinion.

An honest reaction from administration officials would be to state that fact, but whoever did that would be out the door by the end of the day. Remember when Janet Napolitano said the rightwing militia groups posed a domestic terrorism threat? She was bad-mouthed so badly for this that she had to retract her statement. Next thing we know one of the very people she was talking about attacked the Holocaust Museum and killed a guard. The fact is, telling the truth too often gets you into trouble in our polarized and scientifically illiterate society. Too bad.