Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why We're Fans

by Conroy

Rays celebrate their playoff-clinching win
This isn't a sports blog. But this blogger is a sports fan, and I occasionally write sports-centered and sports-related posts. Whether as a witness to tennis excellence, as a critique of college sporting bureaucracy, or as in the case of this post, reflecting on a sequence of events from last night's Major League Baseball games that encapsulates why we fans spend our time and energy following the sports we love. Why we're fans in the first place.

A very short synopsis: last night, on the final day of the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the American and National League Wild Card playoff slots, edging out respectively, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. But how it happened is genuinely remarkable.

Major League Baseball has existed as an organization since 1876, just this past weekend the league's 200,000 game was played. That's vastly more than any other profession league in any other sport can boast. Yet journalists and broadcasters that follow the game, and long-term interested fans like this writer, have never witnessed a night like last night. A night eagerly anticipated, and then fulfilled by games loaded with tension and drama, improbable and sudden twists, and a timing of outcomes that's hard to believe. A baseball fan, a sports fan, could ask for nothing more.

Two Historic September Collapses
Coming into last night's games, the Rays and Red Sox were tied for the American League Wild Card. Ditto the Cardinals and Braves in the National League. The standings were surprising because the Red Sox and Braves had led the Wild Card races by 9 and 8.5 games at the beginning of the month. No team in baseball history had ever failed to make the playoffs with September leads that large. But awful months by both teams (7 wins and 20 losses for the Red Sox; 9 and 18 for the Braves) and strong finishes by the Rays and Cardinals made races out of what should have been early playoff berths. When I write awful, I mean not only were these teams losing, but in many ways their play - so solid all year - almost seemed self-destructive. Both teams were imploding and had one last night to try and salvage the season.

A Phenomenal September 28
All 30 teams played last night, but the baseball world's attention was focused on just four; the Red Sox and last-place Orioles in Baltimore, the playoff-bound Yankees and Rays in St. Petersburg, the Cardinals and woeful Astros in Houston, and the (MLB best) Phillies and Braves in Atlanta.

Cardinal win easy
The Cardinals clobbered the hapless Astros, jumping out to a 5-0 first inning lead on route to an easy 8-0 win that was over before 10:30 PM. They had clinched at least a one game playoff with the Braves.

The Braves jumped out to a 3-1 lead over Philadelphia. The Red Sox jumped to a 1-0 lead over Baltimore, fell behind 2-1, tied the game, and then took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning. The Yankees jumped all over the Rays and starter David Price, taking a 5-0 second inning lead thanks to Mark Teixeira's grand slam, and stretching the lead to 7-0 by the fifth inning.

So far, nothing remarkable. In fact the Rays-Yankees game was turning out to be anti-climactic. Around 9:30 PM it started raining in Baltimore, leading to a rain delay with the Red Sox still leading 3-2 in the middle of the seventh inning. The Braves were leading by the same score. The Rays had managed just two hits. The Cardinals were rolling to victory. Anyone who turned away at this point could have never anticipated what was about to happen. Allow me to summarize in bullet form:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Day and Night

by Conroy

A day/night map of the world
Just a few days ago, September 23rd to be precise, was the September equinox. The date when the sun passes the Equator on its southward journey to the Tropic of Capricorn. Or to put it in a more accurate way, the date (and time) during our planet's revolution of the sun when the Earth's axis of rotation is directly perpendicular to the imaginary line connecting the centers of the Earth and sun. After this date the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (and the northern hemisphere tilted away). From our terrestrial perspective, for the next few months the sun will head ever more southward until the December solstice (December 22 in 2011), when it will reach its southern limit and begin its journey back north, passing the equator for the March equinox (March 20, 2012), and reaching its northern limit at the June solstice (June 22, 2012). Only to head back south again, repeating the cycle, forever.

This familiar cycle, corresponding to the seasonal variation that is such a distinctive feature of life, especially in temperate climates, has always fascinated me. The alternation between summer and winter, light and dark, has directly affected where and how humans live.

The Abuse of the NCAA - A Counter Point

Conroy's post about the NCAA is interesting for the legal and economic issues it raises, in particular the antitrust problem that the NCAA faces. The fact that the NCAA is a cartel—a coalition of colleges agreeing with each other to restrain trade—organized as a monopsony helps explain its egregious behavior. Cartels are generally unstable, so enforcement and credibility are key. If anyone steps out of line, the hammer must fall. That's why the NCAA is so strict in enforcing its rules. And the NCAA is a best described as a monopsony—a single buyer—rather than a "monopoly"—a single seller. Its member colleges "buy" the labor of college athletes with scholarships, etc., but they have agreed not to compete with each other over the terms of the sale. A monopsony will drive prices down, which is what the NCAA has done.

So college players are exploited in the sense that they are paid less than what they would be paid in a competitive market, in which colleges would bid against each other for the athletes, driving the price up; and they also have less control over their own labor than they would if they had more bargaining power. And the NCAA is apparently able to get them to sign over their publicity rights, permanently. Contrast that with a typical non-compete agreement, wherein generally the restraint  has to be reasonable in time and location. Finally, bear in mind that the money these athletes could have earned, by for example selling their autographs, is transferred to other students, in the form of scholarships and cheaper ticket prices. This means that the NCAA effectively transfers money from athletes, who are often from underprivileged backgrounds, to students who are on average wealthier. It's not only inefficient but inequitable.

But often, when firms cannot compete by lowering (or, in a monopsony, raising) prices, they compete in some other dimension. So athletes reap other kinds of benefits. In fact, college athletes derive significant non-pecuniary benefits from being college athletes. They are revered, for one thing, even if not forever. It reminds me of the exchange in the movie Eight Men Out between Rothschild and Atell (the ex-boxer):
Arnold Rothstein: Altogether, I must've made ten times that amount betting on you and I never took a punch.
Abe Atell: Yeah, but I was champ. Featherweight champion of the world!
Arnold Rothstein: Yesterday. That was yesterday.
Abe Atell: No A.R. you're wrong. I was champ, and can't nothin take that away.
Of course, the NCAA creates more rules to limit competition in these dimensions, and generally it is more efficient to compete over prices, so these facts are not relevant to an antitrust analysis. Such an analysis would begin by noting that they NCAA is a cartel in which members are restrained in their ability to freely negotiate contracts—it's a horizontal price fixing arrangement. This makes it a "per se" violation of the Sherman Act. But when the Supreme Court examined the NCAA, it chose not to invalidate the arrangement as a per se violation. Instead, it applied the "rule of reason" and considered pro-competitive benefits that might justify the restraint of trade. The Court did so, because it believed that the "product," the college athlete—unpaid (i.e., amateur), attending classes, etc.—simply would not exist without the cartel:
This decision is not based on a lack of judicial experience with this type of arrangement, on the fact that the NCAA is organized as a nonprofit entity, or on our respect for the NCAA's historic role in the preservation and encouragement of intercollegiate amateur athletics. Rather, what is critical is that this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product is to be available at all.
This argument is not meritless. There are reasons to believe that if the NCAA were eliminated, college sports would suffer. Colleges would face higher costs. Labor costs would obviously rise, but there would also be tax and legal costs. Colleges might have to pay taxes on the income they derive from their teams, since they would be operating a business remote from their educational mission. They would also open themselves up to lawsuits brought under Title IX for discrimination, since female players would be paid less than male players. And converting college teams into professional teams would reduce team loyalty—alma maters would feel less connection to the players (and therefore the teams), be discouraged by trades, and feel less inclined to donate; and players would feel more pressure to take alternate offers and less loyalty to their teams.

The quality of the players might increase, and more resources might be diverted into college sports. But perhaps our society already puts too much emphasis on, and invests too much in, competitive sports. After all, it's a market characterized by superstars and arms-races, and for that reason prone to inefficiency. Choosing to participate in college sports means spending less time in the classroom. Eliminating the NCAA would make that trade-off more dramatic. It's a competitive world on and off the field, and we would do better as a society by investing more heavily in education and less heavily in sports.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Abuse of the College Athlete

by Conroy

September is always an exciting time in college life. The semester has just started, freshman are getting acclimated to campus life, students (most of them) are getting back into the grove of studying, homework, and testing after a long summer of doing other things. This time is also the start of football season, a highly anticipated event at many colleges, especially the largest state and private universities. In fact college football is such an ingrained part of college life and the greater American culture that autumn Saturdays are synonymous with the sport. Scenes from bucolic campuses, of raucous jam-packed stadiums, and intense on-field competition paint a picture of joyful, if fervent (and a bit over-serious), leisure. But college football, and major college sports in general, are built on some unsettling realities.

This past week there was an excellent article by Taylor Branch in The Atlantic (which features some of the best writing anywhere) about the inherent hypocrisy and corruption of the National Collegiate Athletic Association - better known by the acronym NCAA. Mr. Branch's lengthy article is worth the read and it explores and explains many of the troubles attached to major college sports in America.

The central concern, unsurprisingly, has to do with money; the fact that college athletics, and especially football and (men's) basketball, are big business, worth nearly $11 billion per year to the nation's colleges and universities. And yet the "student-athlete" sees not one cent of this revenue. There are deep implications to this fact, and it has given rise to a sharply divided debate.

From one perspective, college sports offer athletes a golden opportunity to earn a college degree, for many a free education including tuition, room and board, and books. At many schools this could be worth well over $100,000 over four years (the maximum eligibility period for college athletes). Players get the invaluable experience of working as a team, compete at a high level, travel, and meet people they never would have otherwise. They also get to be a part of an essential element of the college experience, perhaps the central aspect of college life that binds the student body, faculty, and alumni together on a regular basis.

The opposing view sees high-level college athletes as nothing more than unpaid exploited labor. Players are placed under high pressure to compete and win with sport as the primary goal and education as a decidedly secondary focus. Football and basketball players are used to earn their college and the NCAA huge sums of money. And if these players dare to try and profit in any way from their own talents, they risk their eligibility and scholarships.

I've seen the merits of college athletics first hand. I was a student at the University of Maryland when my beloved Terps won the 2002 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, and felt the way the team's, our team's, accomplishments energized the student body (and even the faculty). It was a great experience and still is a great memory. However, I share many of the concerns regarding the fairness and indeed the appropriateness of major college sports. I offer a few of my thoughts:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Time Travel Silliness

by Conroy

The latest time travel entertainment
In a couple of weeks Fox will air Terra Nova, the most expensive television program in history. The show's premise is that future civilization can only be saved by sending humans back 85 million years into the past. I have no idea what in this extinct period is going to save humanity (I'm assuming that will be the ultimate outcome of the show), but such a setting does allow for dinosaurs (plentiful in the trailer) and undoubtedly many other obstacles challenging to modern man. Whatever the details, the program is just the latest in an unbroken string of high profile television shows, movies, and literature based on time travel. Or what I like to call the tired time travel conceit. Tired and preposterous. (It's right up there for me with all those movies where one person's consciousness gets switched into another person's body, or the unending end of the world apocalypse stories.)

The idea of time travel has been around for centuries (if not longer) and its use in fiction became prevalent in the nineteenth century, when the genre was adumbrated by Dickens in A Christmas Carol, then explicitly used by Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and perhaps most famously in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. And these are just the more noteworthy examples. In time, time travel has become even more popular, unfortunately.

Now don't get me wrong, I like science fiction. And I know the whole point of the genre is to take humans to places and times different from the here and now. After all, isn't the point to remove people from the familiar and surround characters with radically different conditions in order see with fresh eyes the realities of the human condition? Or at least pose the relevant questions in a different light? That's the core of science fiction and it makes for some great stories and ideas...but time travel? Really, come on.

Time Travel and Paradoxes
The Terminator sent from the future
One well known example of what drives me crazy about time travel stories is from the Terminator. In the story a war between humans and machines is being fought in the not-too-distant future. The machines utilize time travel to send back an android (excuse me, "cybernetic organism") "terminator" to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor the human leader, before he was conceived. If the android succeeds then Connor will never be born and the human rebels will be leaderless (I guess). To stop the Terminator, Connor sends back a human to protect his young mother. In the process of the movie, the human protector, Kyle Reese, impregnates Connor's mother -- with Connor. This is a classic example of what is known as a predestination paradox. Reese travels back in time on orders from John Connor, impregnates Connor's mother, who then gives birth to John Connor. If Reese is never sent back, Connor can never be born, and the adult Connor cannot order Reese to go back and protect his mother. There are other examples of this just from the Terminator and its sequels.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

City of Bridges

by Conroy

New York, perhaps the world's greatest city, is renowned for many things. The largest city in the United States, and one of the largest in the world, it's a center of world culture, commerce, finance, education, entertainment, and international affairs. The city is densely sprawled over five boroughs situated on three islands - Manhattan, Long Island (Brooklyn and Queens), Staten Island, and the mainland (the Bronx). Probably the first image that comes to your mind when thinking of New York is its famous skyline. The city, and especially Manhattan, is synonymous with that great American invention, the skyscraper. However, if you let your thoughts fall from all those celebrated buildings, and think about how the city's islands are linked (to each other and the mainland), perhaps you'll recall some of New York's other great engineering monuments - its many outstanding bridges. Indeed, for someone captivated by large bridges, such as myself, there can be no better city in the world to visit than New York, the city of bridges.

Last weekend a couple of friends and I drove to New York to watch the U.S. Open. Leaving New Jersey we crossed the Goethals Bridge to Staten Island, went across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn, and past the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, and Williamsburg Bridge on the way to Queens. Each distinctive and impressive, but these exemplars are only a fraction of the total. All told there are 37 major road and rail (or combination) bridges in the city. They include all major forms:
  • arch (Alexander Hamilton, High, Washington);
  • bascule (Greenpoint Avenue, Pelham, Pulaski);
  • beam (Rikers Island);
  • cantilever (Goethals, Queensboro, Outerbridge);
  • causeway (Cross Bay Veterans Memorial, Joseph P. Addabbo);
  • steel arch (Bayonne, Hell Gate, Henry Hudson);
  • suspension (Brooklyn, Bronx-Whitestone, George Washington, Manhattan, Robert F. Kennedy (formerly the Triborough), Throgs Neck, Verrazano-Narrows);
  • swing (145th Street, City Island, Macombs Dam, Madison Avenue, Spuyten Duyvil, University Heights, Willis Avenue);
  • truss (Kosciuszko, Third Avenue), and;
  • vertical lift (Arthur Kill, Broadway, Marine Parkway, Park Avenue, Roosevelt Island).
The Historic
This long list includes the historic, the massive, and the beautiful. Let's start with the historic, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge spans the East River and connects lower Manhattan with northwest Brooklyn. It was designed by the famous bridge builder John Roebling and completed by his son Washington; construction spanned the years 1870 to 1883; it is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the country. At the time it was built it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It represented a leap in engineering and is a forerunner of the great suspension bridges built in the twentieth century. Its combination of engineering innovation, impressive size (especially for the time), and distinctive architecture have made it a New York icon and one of the most recognizable bridges in the world.