The Situationist

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It Depends on What You Mean By “Discrimination” . . .

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 14, 2010

At the beginning of the month, I bemoaned FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and pointed to the country’s poor human rights record.

On Monday of this week, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president responded.

Okay, well, he didn’t *technically* respond to me, but he responded to a question that I would have liked a straight answer to: How can FIFA, which purports to be strongly against discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation (among other things), justify holding the World Cup in a country that explicitly discriminates against homosexuals and women?

What was Blatter’s joking response when asked about the possibility of corporal punishment against gays visiting Qatar in 2022?

“I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities.”

Then speaking more seriously he explained,

We are definitely living in a world of freedom and I’m sure when the World Cup will be in Qatar in 2022, there will be no problems. You see in the Middle East the opening of this culture, it’s another culture because it’s another religion, but in football we have no boundaries.

We open everything to everybody and I think there shall not be any discrimination against any human beings be it on this side or that side, be it left, right or whatever. If they want to watch a match somewhere in Qatar 2022, I’m sure they will be admitted to such matches.

So there you have it: discrimination, for Blatter, means whether you are allowed into the stadium or not.  The lashes you receive outside the stadium for exercising your basic human rights are not FIFA’s concern.


Posted in Entertainment, Situationist Sports | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Choosing a World Cup Site

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 5, 2010

Qatar has been awarded the 2022 World Cup.

Given the mysteries of FIFA (soccer’s world governing body) decision making, I was less sure than most that the United States had this one “in the bag,” despite what the New York Times described as “an apparently superior technical bid.”

Still, I was surprised that the pea-sized (okay, Connecticut-sized) Middle Eastern nation got the nod . . . and more than a little disappointed given the human rights record of the country.

FIFA was apparently drawn to the idea of the transformative power of football and the notion that a World Cup in Qatar could alter opinions of the Arab world.  According to the head of Qatar’s winning bid, Sheik Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, the 2022 World Cup will “present a new image of the Middle East — far away from clichés and closer to reality.”

But the present reality of Qatar is not so pretty.

As Amnesty International reported back in June of this year, Qatari laws “prescribe imprisonment for criticizing the Emir, for writing about the armed forces without permission and for offending divine religions, as well as . . . punish[ing] blasphemy and consensual ‘illicit sexual relations.'”  In another report, it was noted that “discrimination against women [in the country] remains rife” and “[d]eprivation of nationality has been used by the government against a number of individuals and tribes to target political opponents.”  According to the UN Refugee Agency, homosexual behavior is illegal in Qatar and, as recently as 1996, an American citizen was sentenced to six months imprisonment and 90 lashes for homosexual activity.

I am hopeful that winning the bid for the World Cup could prompt Qatar to think seriously about its commitment to human rights.  There are twelve long years to improve the treatment of women, gays, dissidents, migrant workers, and others before the tournament begins.  A lot of progress could be made.

But I remain skeptical.  It appears that most of the Qatari 2022 proposal is focused on building glittering new soccer stadiums and ways to get to them (see the stunning video below).  FIFA officials were clearly wowed by the $4 billion dollars allocated for soccer arenas and $50 billion allocated for transportation and other infrastructure improvements.  What they should have been pushing for, however, was a commitment to fixing the abuses and injustice built into the Qatari legal and social systems.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part I & Part 2,” and “Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?.”

Posted in Politics, Public Relations, Situationist Sports, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Painkillers and NFL Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 6, 2010

Situationist contributor Michael McCann recently wrote a column for Sports Illustrated on the prevalence of painkiller abuse by National Football League players and how it connects to situational pressures to play.  Here is an excerpt:

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. . . [F]or the vast majority of players, unless there is reasonable cause, the collective bargaining agreement mandates no testing for the likes of cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates (morphine and codeine) and phencyclidine (PCP) until April. Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as Tylenol or Aleve, are not tested, nor are prescription pain medicines such as Vicodin, Demerol, Percocet or OxyContin. By contrast, testing for steroids and illegal performance enhancers occurs throughout the year.

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Given that NFL players are tested for substances of abuse only during the offseason and for steroids throughout the year, while the other two “physical” pro leagues — the NBA and NHL — test for substances of abuse throughout their seasons, a cynic might infer that the NFL and NFLPA are more worried about players using steroids to get bigger and stronger than those same players using illegal drugs for treating pain or getting high.

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Relief of pain, of course, is an understandable desire for any NFL player, just as it is for any person. To expect NFL players to completely refrain from pain relief would be unreasonable and counterproductive.

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But as NFL players become bigger and stronger, and as their hits and tackles become harder and more injurious, do the NFLPA and the league have an increased responsibility to monitor pain relief? And how can the two determine if players are using painkillers to treat pain or merely to get high?

These won’t be easy questions to answer in a sport that requires physical collisions at high speeds and a league that cannot — and should not — monitor the lives of its players 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But they are important to ask because pain is a sensory response to bodily damage. If pain is muted, a person may not appreciate the damage inflicted. If that person endures the violence of NFL games week after week, not adequately comprehending bodily damage could cause serious and long-term health problems. These questions are also important to ask because NFL player contracts usually contain more non-guaranteed money than guaranteed, and NFL players are expected to “be tough” and “play hurt.” One could easily imagine them feeling pressured to use whatever it takes to stay on the field.

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Dr. James Otis , a Boston University professor of neurology and director of the Pain Management Group at Boston Medical Center, also detects a potential link worthy of more attention, especially given the narrow dates of testing for substance abuse drugs. “Persons with impaired judgment due to multiple head injuries are more susceptible to dangerous behavior, including abuse of painkillers,” said Otis. “It is very peculiar that players would only be tested for opioids during the offseason, when they would most likely use painkillers during the season.”

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To read the rest of the column, click here.  For related Situationist posts on painkillers, see Mark Lanier visits Professor Jon Hanson’s Tort Class (web cast) and  The Racial Situation of Pain Relief.

Posted in Law, Life, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Performing Under Pressure

Posted by Adam Benforado on September 22, 2010

Situationist friend Sian Beilock’s highly anticipated new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, is now out.  As someone who has had both great successes and great failures under pressure, I’ve been very excited to read Choke since Sian first mentioned it to me.  What exactly happened in that 8th-grade piano recital when my mind went blank halfway through that Bach three-part invention?  Mom, I finally have an answer . . .

Here’s a description of the book:

It happens to all of us. You’ve prepared for days, weeks, even years for the big day when you will finally show your stuff—in academics, in your career, in sports—but when the big moment arrives, nothing seems to work. You hit the wrong note, drop the ball, get stumped by a simple question. In other words, you choke. It’s not fun to think about, but now there’s good news: This doesn’t have to happen.

In lively prose and accessibly rendered science, Beilock examines how attention and working memory guide human performance, how experience and practice and brain development interact to create our abilities, and how stress affects all these factors. She sheds new light on counter-intuitive realities, like why the highest performing people are most susceptible to choking under pressure, why we may learn foreign languages best when we’re not paying attention, why early childhood athletic training can backfire, and how our emotions can make us both smarter and dumber. All these fascinating findings about academic, athletic, and creative intelligence come together in Beilock’s new ideas about performance under pressure—and her secrets to never choking again. Whether you’re at the Olympics, in the boardroom, or taking the SAT, Beilock’s clear, prescriptive guidance shows how to remain cool under pressure—the key to performing well when everything’s on the line.

Dr. Sian Beilock, an expert on performance and brain science, reveals in Choke the astonishing new science of why we all too often blunder when the stakes are high. What happens in our brain and body when we experience the dreaded performance anxiety? And what are we doing differently when everything magically “clicks” into place and the perfect golf swing, tricky test problem, or high-pressure business pitch becomes easy? In an energetic tour of the latest brain science, with surprising insights on every page, Beilock explains the inescapable links between body and mind; reveals the surprising similarities among the ways performers, students, athletes, and business people choke; and shows how to succeed brilliantly when it matters most.

Read an excerpt from Choke here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Psychologists Discuss Stereotype Threat,” Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Your Group is Bad at Math,” “The Bar Exam Situation,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers.’

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Practice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 17, 2010

From USC News:

Struggling with your chip shot? Constant drills with your wedge may not help much, but mixing in longer drives will, and a new study shows why.

Previous studies have shown that variable practice improves the brain’s memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task. Cognitive neuroscientists at USC and UCLA describe the neural basis for this paradox in a new study in Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers split 59 volunteers into six groups: three groups were asked to practice a challenging arm movement, while the other three groups practiced the movement and related tasks in a variable practice structure.

Volunteers in the variable practice group showed better retention of the skill. The process of consolidating memory of the skill engaged a part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – associated with higher level planning.

The group assigned to constant practice of the arm movement retained the skill to a lesser degree through consolidation that engaged a part of the brain – the primary motor cortex – associated with simple motor learning.

“In the variable practice structure condition, you’re basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don’t have to process it very deeply,” said study senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

“We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity,” Winstein said.

Winstein’s team, led by Shailesh Kantak, a graduate student in biokinesiology at the time of the study, verified the neural circuits involved through harmless magnetic interference applied immediately after practice.

Volunteers in the variable practice group who received magnetic stimulation in the prefrontal cortex failed to retain or “consolidate” the arm movement as well as those in the same group who did not receive magnetic stimulation.

This implied that the prefrontal cortex was necessary for consolidating the memory.

Likewise, constant practice volunteers who received magnetic stimulation in the primary motor cortex failed to retain the arm movement as well as volunteers in the same group who did not receive magnetic stimulation.

“While it may be harder during practice to switch between tasks … you end up remembering the tasks better later than you do if you engage in this drill-like practice,” Winstein said.

“In motor skills training they know this, in educational programs where they’re teaching the kids cursive hand writing, they know this.”

Winstein described the study as “the linking of motor neuroscience to behavioral movement science to better understand the neural substrates that mediate motor learning through optimal practice structures. No one had done this before in this way.”

The magnetic interference tests also helped define the time window for the brain to consolidate skills. For volunteers chosen to receive interference four hours after practice, the procedure had no effect on learning. This suggested the brain already had done its consolidation.

Winstein’s team included first author Kantak, a recent USC Ph.D. graduate on his way to a postdoctoral position at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; fellow biokinesiology faculty Katherine Sullivan (primary adviser to Kantak) and Beth Fisher, director of the Neuroplasticity and Imaging Laboratory where the study was conducted; and Barbara Knowlton, professor of behavioral neuroscience at UCLA.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of ‘Genius’,” Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” Jock or Nerd,” “The Situation of “29″ & the Downside of Goal-Setting,” The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” The Situation of a Baseball Pitch,” The Batting Situation,Team-Interested Decision Making,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Education, Embodied Cognition, Situationist Sports | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Unproductive Situation of Picking Underdogs in the NCAA Tournament

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 20, 2010

Earlier this week, we blogged about the role of implicit attitudes in the selection of teams for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Today we bring your attention to a New York Times piece by Nicholas Bakalar on a study titled, Match Madness: Probability Matching in Prediction of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  The study’s authors, Professors Sean McCrea and Edward Hirt, conclude that while betting on the underdogs may make a fan feel good, the decision often proves regrettable.   We excerpt Bakalar’s piece below.

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Some people think that the way to win the office pool in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament is to pick the promising underdogs to win — and they believe they know which underdogs to pick. But two psychology professors have this advice for them: don’t bet on it.

The problem is that of all the prediction techniques — asking sportswriters, polling coaches, following the Las Vegas odds, and others — none does better than simply predicting that the better-seeded team will win.

“We all feel we can guess right; it’s seductive,” said Edward R. Hirt, a co-author of a study on the subject published in the December issue of The Journal of Applied Social Psychology. “We know that we’re better off just picking the lower-seeded team, but that’s boring.”

A pool involves predicting the winner of each game in the tournament. The person with the most correct picks wins. In the first round, when the No. 1 seeds plays the No. 16s, the outcome is, for all practical purposes, preordained. Although there have been a few close calls, including two 1-point losses, no 16th seed has ever beaten the No. 1 seed since the expansion to 64 teams in 1985.

But the closer the seeding, the more likely an upset becomes. The game between the teams seeded eighth and ninth is virtually a tossup.

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To read the rest, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see Cheering for the Underdog and Jack Bauer and Growing Up Rich.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Subconscious Human Bias in NCAA Tournament Selection

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 17, 2010

Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated has an engaging column on new research identifying subconscious bias in the selection of teams for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (a.k.a. March Madness).  We excerpt it below.

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The study, by Jay Coleman, Mike DuMond and Allen Lynch, looked at selection data from 10 tournaments (1999-2008) and found that when seeding the tournament, membership in one of the six BCS conferences is worth an average of an extra 1.75 seeds. The study also found that having a conference representative on the 10-member selection committee resulted not only in a higher seed but also in a better chance of getting an at-large bid. According to the authors, a true bubble team (one with a 50-50 chance of getting in or being left out) would have a 49 percent better chance of getting in if its athletic director is on the committee, a 41 percent better chance if its conference commissioner was on the committee and a 23 percent better chance if a fellow conference AD is a member of the committee.

According to the researchers, Wake Forest would have beaten out Virginia Tech this year even after removing the controls for selection committee bias. Hokies fans should be angrier about their team’s abysmal out-of-conference schedule, but it probably didn’t escape their notice that Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman is a member of the selection committee.

The study’s authors aren’t accusing Wellman or any other selection committee member of deliberately rigging the process. In fact, they realize Wellman wouldn’t have even been allowed in the room when the committee voted to grant Wake Forest an at-large bid, nor would he have been allowed to offer an opinion on fellow ACC member Virginia Tech. What the authors are suggesting is that the selection process setup allows subconscious biases to creep into the proceedings.

To read the rest, click hereFor related Situationist posts, see “March Madness” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of the “Curveball”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 1, 2009

CurveballFrom U.S. News:

“Physically, there is no such thing as a breaking curveball,” said Zhong-Lin Lu, who holds the William M. Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. “It’s mostly in the hitter’s mind.”

According to Lu, who helped to design a popular Web animation that illustrates the science behind what he calls the curveball illusion, the ball travels relatively straight toward the batter, curving somewhat but not nearly as much as claimed. What causes the perception of the break is a complex interplay between the fast spin of the ball, the contrast between the ball’s red seams and white background, and the batter’s flawed visual perception as the ball nears the plate.

Here’s how the curveball phenomenon seems to work, said Lu, a visual motion and perception specialist:

The ball leaves the pitcher’s arm at approximately 75 mph, slower than an average fastball. While it hurtles toward the batter, the ball spins obliquely at around 1,500 rpm (or 25 rotations per second). The ball reaches the plate in about 0.6 seconds.

Because of its unique spin, the ball appears to be moving faster than it really is, causing the batter to overestimate the speed. A slight curving trajectory forces the ball to move somewhat away from the hitter’s frontal view toward his side — or peripheral — vision just before he swings.

It’s during this final shifting of perception from frontal (also known as foveal) to peripheral view that causes the batter to perceive that the ball is dramatically dropping or moving abruptly to the left or right. In fact, the curveball is moving relatively straight, Lu said.

“The greater your eyes move away from the ball, the greater the curve,” he said.

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From EurekaAlert:

Zhong-Lin Lu, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at USC, along with USC alumni Emily Knight and Robert Ennis and Arthur Shapiro, associate professor of psychology at American University, developed a simple visual demo that suggests a curveball’s break is, at least in part, a trick of the eye.

Their demo, viewable at outstanding Illusion Sciences blog (here), won the Best Visual Illusion of the Year prize at the Vision Sciences meeting earlier this year.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Jim Rice and the Situation of Baseball Hall of Fame Voting,”  “Big Papi Magic,” “The Situation of a Baseball Pitch,” The Batting Situation,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.”   To review other Situationist posts containing of discussing illusions, click here.   Finally, to review a collection of similarly fascinating illusions by Arthur Shapiro, go to Illusion Sciences Blog.

Posted in Illusions, Situationist Sports, Video | 2 Comments »

The Situation of College Education: Why Going for the Money Makes Sense for Some Prep Players

Posted by Jason Chung on August 31, 2009

Would you turn down a multi-million dollar contract in order to play for free? How about an education? This athlete did.

Meet 17-year-old Enes Kanter. For any basketball fan, the scouting report on this Swiss-born Turkish basketball player is enticing: a physical specimen at 6’9″-6’10” who possesses superior positioning and is a “clever defender.” A few months ago, at an age when most of his peers are working part-time jobs in the service industry or on a factory floor, Kanter played in the Euroleague (widely touted to be the world’s second-best professional league) against grown men and recorded 5 points, 3 rebounds and a steal in a mere 10 minutes of game time. Expectations are that the precocious Kanter will grow a few inches, improve on his already advanced offensive game, and bulk up nicely over the next few years.

Needless to say, professional scouts on both sides of the Atlantic have been tracking Kanter for some time as sweet-shooting, defensively oriented 7-footers are rare. Indeed, this is a sport where players such as Pavel Podkolzin and Nikoloz Tskitishvili were considered worthy of first-round NBA draft status based on little more than their height and alleged coordination (which, sadly, did not translate into professional production).

Hailing from Europe, Kanter enjoys various professional options to exploit his physical attributes. Since players in the European leagues do not have to enter an entry draft with an age floor and can technically sign with any team, Kanter could opt to play professionally straight away for an impressive salary. Indeed, according to Evan Daniels of and, Kanter has two solid offers right now – Greek superclub Olympiakos is offering $2 million per year for two seasons and an unspecified Turkish club is offering a five-year, $6 million offer.

Enes Kanter has listened to the offers and is doing the almost inconceivable. He is turning them down, and is opting to play for free.  Instead of honing his craft as a highly paid professional in the European leagues, Kanter has chosen to enroll at Findlay Prep and play against American high school players with an eye to entering college in 2010. Why? According to Kanter, he wants a quality education.

Predictably, Kanter’s decision has been hailed by some as a triumph against materialism and as an example of maturity. In Daniels’ story, he quotes Findlay assistant coach Todd Simon who had this to say:

“He’s a pioneer in his decision-making to turn down a lot of money to make a mature decision for a just-turned-17-year old. He put his education ahead of the instant gratification of wealth and even more, fame in his own country.”

In stark contrast lies the case of Brandon Jennings. In 2008, Jennings opted to be the first highly ranked prep school player to spurn an elite-level college scholarship in order to play as a professional abroad. As noted by Adrian Wojnarowski many questioned Jennings and rooted for him to fail.  Most were concerned that Jennings’ decision would shatter the altogether too-cozy relationship between the NCAA and NBA (which Situationist contributor Michael McCann argues is evidenced by the establishment of the NBA age floor) by creating an exodus of talent to Europe. Others, however, adopted a more paternalistic approach by chiding Jennings for setting a bad example by forsaking “a good education.” According to critics such as former NBA star Jalen Rose, it would have been preferable for Jennings to get an education while working on his game.

Though it is true that education is an admirable goal, those who laud Kanter and choose to question Jennings for their educational choices may be making a fundamental error – they neglect to consider the external circumstances driving the decisions of these two young men. That is, they neglect the situation in which these two very different athletes found themselves.

Consider Kanter’s situation. As noted by reporters such as Daniels and Ismael Senol, Kanter comes from what can only be described as a privileged upbringing. Kanter’s father is a well-known professor and doctor and through interaction with his father Kanter appears to have “inherited an analytical mind.” Kanter is apparently a model student, has a stable home life, and can count on his parents for both financial and emotional support when making his move abroad. Given those advantages, Kanter’s decision to go to college seems the right choice for his future.

Kanter’s case is not unique – there are other recent cases which seemingly suggest that affluence plays a large role in pursuing or continuing educational opportunities.  Let us first look at the situation of Joakim Noah.  As noted by Michael McCann in 2006, Noah gave up the virtual certainty of being a top-two pick in a weak 2006 NBA Draft in favour of returning to the University of Florida as a junior.  Noah claimed that he loved university life and wanted a chance to repeat as NCAA champion.

Noah’s decision was a risky one for three key reasons.  First, there was the risk of injury.  As shown multiple times throughout sports history, a sudden injury can either weaken or eliminate a prospect’s draft chances.  For instance, in the most recent NBA Draft, the University of Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair dropped from a possible lottery pick to a second-round selection due to health concerns which resurfaced when he re-aggravated a pre-existing knee injury during his draft year.  The drop cost Blair a guaranteed roster spot and millions of dollars.  Second, the 2007 NBA Draft contained a much deeper pool of prospects – several of which were more highly-touted than the workmanlike Noah.  Any drop in draft status entails severe economic implications for draftees in the NBA.  As highlighted by McCann, a drop of several spots at the top of the draft translates into a loss of millions of dollars over the course of a guaranteed three-year contract.  Finally, a compelling reason for Noah to leave for the NBA rested in the fact that older college stars tend to be less desirable in the NBA Draft.  A phenomenon noted by several draft experts and sports columnists, many NBA teams draft on potential rather than actual production which skews the top of the draft in favour of underclassmen.

Noah, then, had a multitude of excellent reasons to declare for the NBA Draft in 2006 but didn’t.  Why?  Well, simply put Noah was in a situation where he could afford the risks — his father is former French tennis star and multi-millionaire Yannick Noah.  Clearly, the safety net provided by having a rich, celebrity father gave Noah an obvious advantage over his peers — the luxury of being able to snub guaranteed millions and not have it affect the lifestyle to which he was accustomed.

The socioeconomic advantages enjoyed by Noah over the average prep or college player are, to be fair, extreme.  However, another case shows that affluence need not be measured in absolute terms.  Relative familial financial security allows young players to pursue education as well.

Consider Myron Rolle.  A starting safety at the famed Florida State University football program, Rolle was considered a strong first-round possibility in the 2009 NFL Draft by several scouting agencies.  However, Rolle took the 2009-2010 year off in order to something unexpected (and laudable) – become a Rhodes Scholar.

Rolle’s choice for education over an immediate payday is remarkable by any measure but more so when considering that his family is not rich but instead are Bahamian immigrants to the U.S. who hold solidly middle-income employment.  The immediate financial security, then, afforded by almost certainly becoming a multi-million dollar first-round pick in the NFL Draft surely means comparatively more to Rolle than to Noah.  In addition, Rolle certainly faces similar considerations to Noah while delaying his entry into his professional draft – one accident during his stay in England could conceivably end his time as a highly-touted pro football propect.  However, similarly to the case of the upper middle-class Kanter, Rolle’s relatively secure family and financial situation affords him the choice of possibly jeopardizing one dream, that of an NFL payday, in order to fulfill his educational ambition.

Now, one may (rightfully) argue that the prestige conferred by a Rhodes scholarship may also lead to financial stability for Rolle should he choose continue along his desired academic path.  This observation is true enough – a Rhodes scholarship has traditionally been a gateway to further socioeconomic and academic success.  However, this consideration should not overshadow one central and incontrovertible fact – Myron Rolle had the liberty of taking time and risking guaranteed money to pursue an academic endeavour.

Given the above examples, it would seem that the absolute stability afforded by Noah’s privileged upbringing as well as the relative stability afforded by Kanter and Rolle’s socioeconomic situation allowed these young men to make the decision to continue their status as students and student-athletes.  But what if one’s situation isn’t so fortunate?

Take the case of Brandon Jennings – a young man from a different reality. Born and raised in Compton, California (a locale so notorious that it was the titular place name in the song “Straight Outta Compton” – one of anthems of the anti-police gangsta rap era), Jennings’ father committed suicide when he was 8 years old. From that point on, “It was hard for the Jennings family to stay in one place and they ended up going from home to home throughout Los Angeles, sometimes even all 3 of them staying in a one-bedroom apartment.” Consequently when Jennings reached college age, he was faced with a choice between being a one-and-done freshman student-athlete (provided that he was even academically eligible) or playing for money in Europe – Jennings’ circumstances simply made any risk of injury while playing for a prolonged period as a student-athlete too great.

Advised by basketball legend Sonny Vaccaro, Jennings chose the road less traveled and for his troubles he earned a seven-figure salary ($1.2 million), sponsorship money from Under Armour, learned how to conduct himself as a professional athlete and gained an appreciation for those living abroad amongst different cultures (“It’s tough man… It can break you.”). Best of all for Jennings, his gambit seemed to pay off and he was drafted No. 10 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2009 NBA Draft. In short, Jennings helped his family secure their finances by forsaking his college eligibility. It is hard to argue, given Jennings’ circumstances, that he didn’t make the more difficult and arguably more mature decision for himself and his family.

Given that all these young athletes made seemingly informed, mature personal decisions, why is that Jennings has been ostracized by some quarters while the others have largely escaped such scrutiny? The answer may lie in the fact that our moral reasoning does not rest in an evidentiary basis. As Jonathan Haidt notes, “Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions.” As long as their point of view “makes sense” there is little reason to question their knee-jerk reaction.

Jennings’ position – that of rejecting a college athletic scholarship – unquestionably evokes a stronger negative reaction in the American psyche. In America, those with higher education are often better employed, possess higher earning power, and are considered a better fit for the modern economy than those without such an advantage. It is drilled into the minds of most Americans that higher education is the way to go in order to attain professional and personal success. In addition, for student-athletes, playing in the NCAA is viewed as the traditional way in which to interest NBA teams and to raise your draft profile. Jennings bucked conventional wisdom and the resulting immediate reaction on the part of some of the public and NBA analysts like Rose was to question the motivations, financial and otherwise, behind this decision.

This initial reaction is simply not supported by facts. As compellingly argued by Michael McCann, players who entered the league with no college experience between 1995 and 2003 enjoyed, on average, more professional success and greater financial security than those who attended college (prior to the institution of the age floor, these would primarily be prep-to-pro players). In addition, McCann found that modern student-athletes spend a disproportionate amount of time on team-related matters rather than concentrating on their studies and most NBA draftees leave college before they graduate. In short, the current NCAA system is primarily designed not to produce scholar student-athletes but to produce athletes – unpaid athletes at that. In light of these findings, a reasoned look at the particular details surrounding Jennings’ decision presents a more sympathetic picture.  As McCann discusses in a new essay, these facts may give rise to a legal challenge against the NBA’s age limit.  He and famed sports attorney Alan Milstein, who was lead counsel for Maurice Clarett in Clarett v. NFL, hinted at a prospective litigation while speaking at a law symposium earlier this year.

The reaction against Jennings’ decision may also be the result of implicit bias. As Situationist contributor John Jost et al. argue in their recent paper, “The Existence of Implicit Bias is Beyond Reasonable Doubt:  A Refutation of Ideological and Methodological Objections and Executive Summary of Ten Studies that No Manager Should Ignore,” unstated and subconscious biases held by people along racial lines can influence the immediate reactions, stereotypes and attitudes that one has towards out-groups.

Sports Business Management Professor Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida seemingly agrees with this assertion.  In 2006, Lapchick noted that there is often an assumption on the part of some fans and coaches that elite black student-athletes will invariably leave school as early as possible in order to go for the money.  A sizeable segment of the population believes, then, that black student-athletes value education less than their white counterparts.  Hence, when a young black basketball player chooses to ‘go for the money’ a commonly held stereotype is reinforced and perpetuated.

This type of assumption would most likely not stand up to scrutiny if people simply took the time to examine the situations of young black student-athletes like Jennings who choose to forgo college or leave college early.  As argued by Lapchick, there are numerous situational reasons why black student-athletes leave school at a higher clip than their white counterparts.

Like Jennings, many of these athletes come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds – certainly more in proportional terms than their white counterparts.  Given their socioeconomic handicapped situations, some leave early because they find the support and social structure at predominantly white educational institutions to be alien to them.  Others flunk out due to the fact that their educational background made them ill-prepared to study at the university level and many universities show little interest in helping their student-athletes catch up.  Yet others, like Jennings, are faced with the real consideration of immediate and extended families to support and feed.  These situations, then, serve to limit the educational choices of many black student-athletes.

Kanter Jennings

Extricate black student-athletes from these situations, as in the cases of black athletes like Noah and Rolle, and the educational outcomes may very well be different.  Unfortunately, many passively accept an unfair generalization regarding blacks and education because, as noted by Haidt, the stereotype satisfies the “makes sense” postulate and acceptance, simply put, is the path of least resistance.

The considerations raised by the above article is not to suggest that Kanter won’t be a stellar college student. Indeed, given the reports about Kanter’s maturity and dedication to his studies, there is little reason to doubt that his transition from European athlete to American college student-athlete will go anything short of swimmingly. Instead, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to the circumstances and situation which Kanter enjoys when making a seemingly high-minded decision to forsake dollars for school.

As I’ve argued here, those quick to contrast Kanter and Jennings either favorably or unfavorably should be careful to examine the diverse challenges encountered by these dissimilar athletes.  To suggest that the decision taken by one of these two young men is intrinsically morally superior would be needlessly broad and unfair.

Maybe the best perspective on the Kanter-Jennings debate has been voiced by Gary Parrish of, “[European play] was the perfect set-up for Jennings. But not for Kanter. He’s a different dude with different goals.”

And a different situation as well.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Jim Rice and the Situation of Baseball Hall of Fame Voting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 31, 2009

Jim RiceLast week, former Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Rice was voted into the Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility: a retired player is given a 15-year window and Rice was first eligible in 1995.  Hall of Fame voters, who are selected baseball writers, vote each year and a player needs to accumulate a sufficient percentage of votes.  From 1995 to 2008, Rice had come close every year.

So why would Rice become Hall of Fame worthy in 2009 after 14 years of falling short?  Telly Halkias of the Advocate suggests it had little to do with Rice and much more to do with the situation of baseball, steroids, and inflated numbers across the league in the period of time following Rice’s retirement.

Though impressive by any measure, Rice’s career numbers, which were amassed between 1974 and 1989, seemed less special during the mid 90s and most of the current decade as juiced-up players belted home runs at unprecedented rates.   As steroids now wane from the game, however, home runs and other offensive statistics are declining and Rice’s accomplishments seem more impressive again, both for their values and the fact that they were compiled “without cheating.”  We excerpt Halkias’ piece below.

* * *

Jim Rice can thank steroids for his recent induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s quite possible that had there been no era of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, we would not be toasting Big Jim today . . .

He retired in 1989 and became eligible for induction in 1995. Those five years saw the greatest sea change in the game’s history in how it was played, and thus in its statistics . . . Baseball, the sport judged by numbers more than any other, went skyrocketing out of control. In the early 1990s, balls started flying out of Major League parks at unprecedented rates.

The commissioner’s office explained that the baseball had changed, that it was wound tighter. South American producers of the official game ball were setting the internal gut rope with a higher tension, creating a denser core. This physical change was enough to give extra length to any hit, thus the surge in home runs and extra-base hits.

But that wasn’t all. This also coincided with an era of new retro ballparks, which began in 1992 with Camden Yards in Baltimore and hasn’t ended. The new baseball-only facilities have been generally smaller in dimension than the former cookie cutter mausoleums of the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, expansion happened. In 1998, baseball added franchises in Tampa and Arizona, and this had the immediate effect of diluting the quality of Major League pitching. Hurlers who should have been in the minor leagues for additional seasoning were rushed up to the majors, serving up even more gopher balls to juiced-up hitters.

The net result? Monstrous offensive numbers, just as Rice began serving his penance for being a grouch with the beat writers. As the 1990s progressed, Rice’s career numbers, which hover around the 50th percentile in terms of Hall of Fame inductees, suddenly looked unimpressive.

This was regrettable, particularly since Rice’s home media, the New England Sports Network, offered him a position as commentator and game analyst so that he could make amends with the fourth estate, essentially by becoming a member himself.

When the steroids scandals finally broke in this century, and the public, as well as the press, began to realize how deep the statistical inflation had run during the period of Rice’s retirement, his achievements got serious reconsideration – just in time for his 15th and final year of Hall eligibility.

* * *

To read the rest of the piece, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see Steroid-Enhancing Situations, Thomas Nadelhoffer’s The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating, and Goutam Jois’s Cheating Doesn’t Pay . . . So Why So Much of It?

Posted in Situationist Sports | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

O’Bannon v. NCAA: The Situation of Signing Forms

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 23, 2009

xboxSituationist contributor Michael McCann has a column on concerning a new lawsuit brought against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) over whether former student-athletes should be compensated for the NCAA’s use of their images and identities in such products as DVDs and video games.

The case, O’Bannon v. NCAA, centers on forms freshmen student-athletes must sign in order to be eligible to play sports and receive their college scholarships. The forms require the student-athletes to relinquish many of their legal rights.  The plaintiff claims that these student-athletes, some of whom are 17 years old, are situationally pressured into signing the forms.

We excerpt the column below.

* * *

Should athletes whose college days are long behind them be paid when the NCAA licenses their images and likenesses? Should they be able to negotiate their own licensing deals with television networks, video game companies and various businesses that use those same images and likenesses?

According to former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and a class of thousands of other former men’s basketball and football players, the answer to both questions is yes.

* * *

O’Bannon v. NCAA stems from a series of documents Division I student-athletes are required to sign as part of their participation in college sports. Form 08-3a (the “Student-Athlete” statement) is one such document. Among other conditions, it specifies, “You authorize the NCAA . . . to use your name or picture to generally promote NCAA championships or other NCAA events, activities or programs.” By signing the statement, student-athletes relinquish in perpetuity all future rights in the NCAA’s licensing of their images and likenesses. O’Bannon claims that student-athletes — some of whom are younger than 18 — effectively have no choice but to sign, since they would otherwise be deemed ineligible to play and would risk losing their athletic scholarships.

In the NCAA’s view, however, these documents promote the NCAA’s core mission: the integration of intercollegiate athletics into higher education and the promotion of student-athletes’ educational experiences. Along those lines, as a voluntary organization comprised primarily of colleges and universities, the NCAA tends to frown upon professional and other remunerative endeavors pursued by student-athletes.

Indeed, if student-athletes were paid salaries or received income through endorsement or licensing deals, they may begin to resemble professional athletes more than college students. The professionalization of student-athletes would frustrate the NCAA’s focus on amateurism, possibly making it more difficult for schools to comply with Title IX, a federal law that commands gender equity in sports. Professionalization could also create economic divisions among student-athletes on the basis of their commercial appeal. Student-athletes’ exposure to professional opportunities might also lead to exploitation by unsavory businesspersons, whom colleges and universities not want on their campuses or near their student bodies.

Some commentators do not find the NCAA’s concerns persuasive. Attorney Alan Milstein of Sherman, Silverstein, Kohl, Rose & Podolsky argues, “If the NCAA genuinely wanted to keep the college game pure, it wouldn’t sell any images or likenesses. Plus, compare how the NCAA treats student-athletes with how colleges and universities treat students who are professional actors or musicians — they, unlike student-athletes, can keep their earnings without jeopardizing their scholarships. It is completely unfair for student-athletes to be treated differently.”

* * *

In assessing O’Bannon’s claims, a court will consider the extent to which student-athletes possess a real “choice” when presented with the Student-Athlete statement and similar documents. On that front, O’Bannon appears emboldened by NCAA policies on student-athletes’ access to legal counsel. According to O’Bannon, neither NCAA officials nor college athletic officials advise student-athletes that they can seek legal advice in connection with the release of future compensation rights. Particularly given the lack of “life experience” of most incoming student-athletes, such a policy may be viewed as arguably exploitative and also one that creates a disparity in bargaining power.

* * *

To read the rest, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see The Changing Situation of the NBA’s Age limit, March Madness, and Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.

Posted in Choice Myth, Situationist Contributors, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of “Genius”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2009

Child Genius -  flickrDavid Brooks had a worthwhile, situationist op-ed in the New York Times on sources of “genius.”  Here are some excerpts.

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Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

* * *

The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

The recent research has been conducted by people like K. Anders Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others. It’s been summarized in two enjoyable new books: “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.

This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

* * *

The entire op-ed is here.   For some related Situationist posts, see “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Jock or Nerd,” “First Person or Third,”The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” and The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.”

Posted in Book, Education, Situationist Sports, Video | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Deterring Divorce through Major League Baseball?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 23, 2009

fenway-parkBusinessWeek has an engaging piece on a new study from the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies which finds that cities with major league baseball teams have a 28% lower divorce rate than other cities.  We excerpt the piece below.

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The family unit is society’s fundamental unit—95 percentage of US citizens marry by age 55. A marriage breakdown is one of the most stressful life events possible, yet more than one in three will experience the trauma of divorce. Not surprisingly, the dynamics of relationships are increasingly the focus of ever more research. The University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies in particular is constantly shedding new light on the institution of marriage with recent research findings establishing that the quality of the relationship with parents-in-law is directly connected to marital satisfaction, and more recently, that 90 percent of couples experience a decrease in marital satisfaction once their first child is born.

A new study from the centre looking at divorce rates before and after cities got Major League Baseball teams is fascinating in its implications. The study showed that cities with major league baseball teams had a 28 percent lower divorce rate than cities that wanted major league baseball teams. Can marital harmony really be this simple?

* * *

University of Denver (DU) director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies, psychology professor Howard Markman also studied divorce rates in other cities that welcomed a major league team and found a 30 percent decline in divorces in Phoenix, a 30 percent drop in Miami and a 17 percent drop in Tampa Bay area. While there could be many explanations for this significant difference, Markman stresses the importance of fun and friendship in a healthy marriage. Going to baseball games is one way couples can have fun together and talk as friends.

* * *

For the rest of the piece, click here.  For related Situationist posts on the apparent power of Major League Baseball, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s Attributing Blame: From the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror and The Competitive Situation of Youth Baseball and Softball.

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Being Stephon Marbury: The Situation of Having “Baggage”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 4, 2009

stephon-marburyJulian Benbow of the Boston Globe has an interesting story on the newest Boston Celtic:  32-year-old Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star point guard who was recently released by the New York Knicks.

Marbury is considered a very talented player, but during a 13-year in which he has consistently played for losing teams, he’s developed a reputation for being a “malcontent” and generally being difficult to be around.

Benbow examines whether Marbury will be viewed differently now that he has joined the World Champion Boston Celtics, which have strong leaders in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.  Will the situation change Marbury or is Marbury stuck in his ways?  We excerpt the piece below.

* * *

Certain players just fit the type, according to [former Boston Celtics coach and current TV announcer Tommy] Heinsohn.

“They’re usually smart guys,” he said. “They’ve got something to prove. I think they understand that this is their shot to win a title and be a special player and reclaim their heritage to the game.”

New England has been good to those kinds of players recently. Randy Moss mooned Packers fans in Green Bay, nudged a traffic officer with his car in Minneapolis, then went to a Super Bowl in his first season as a Patriot.

Corey Dillon went from Cincinnati malcontent to Super Bowl champion.

Stephon Marbury is the latest to come to Boston with baggage, and the constant question around his impending arrival was whether he’d be toxic to team chemistry.

But there’s something reclaimable about Marbury, because of the situation he’s walking into – a veteran locker room with a championship-tested formula – and he wouldn’t be the first player to thrive with the Celtics after being labeled damaged goods.

“Every new guy that came to Boston, they wanted to make sure we kept winning,” said Tom “Satch” Sanders, who won eight rings in Green. “They didn’t want people to say, ‘What was the reason the Celtics didn’t win? It must be that new guy.’ ”

“They’re tired of being the reason why,” Heinsohn said. “Tired of being the scapegoat. They wanted to prove that they were really a terrific player. And they want to be on a winning team.”

Ups and downs

Dennis Johnson had the “problem” classification before he came to Boston. His temper torched college coaches, and Lenny Wilkens spent three years butting heads with him in Seattle. Fed up in 1980, Wilkens told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “You can’t get rid of the body, but you can cut out the cancer.”

The Sonics dealt Johnson to Phoenix, and three years later he ended up in Boston. K.C. Jones, the Celtics’ new coach, paid Johnson’s rep no mind.

“When he came, I knew he had a reputation,” Jones said. “I heard things about him, that he was difficult. When he came in, I wanted to see how he played and if he did his job. When he got to the Celtics, he got out there and he played, and nothing came up because none of it showed.”

Johnson won two rings in Boston.

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To read the rest of the piece, click here.  For a related post, see The Situation of the NBA Draft.

Posted in Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Refereeing – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 1, 2009

soccer-refereeVincenzo Scoppa has posted an intrguing article, “Are Subjective Evaluations Biased by Social Factors or Connections? An Econometric Analysis of Soccer Referee Decisions” (35 Empirical Economics (2008)) on SSRN.

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Many incentive contracts are based on subjective evaluations and contractual disputes depend on judges’ decisions. However, subjective evaluations raise risks of favouritism and distortions. Sport contests are a fruitful field for testing empirically theories of incentives. In this paper the behaviour of the referees in the Italian soccer (football) league (“Serie A”) is analyzed. Using data on injury (or extra) time subjectively assigned by the referee at the end of the match and controlling for factors which may influence it (players substitutions, yellow and red cards, penalty kicks, etc.), we show that referees are biased in favour of home team, in that injury time is significantly greater if home teams are losing. The refereeing bias increases greatly when there is no running track in the stadium and the crowd is close to the pitch. Following the 2006 “Serie A” scandal we test whether favouritism emerges towards teams suspected of connections with referees finding that these teams obtain favourable decisions. Social pressure by the crowd attending the match however appears to be the main cause of favouritism.

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To download the article for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see ” I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” “Unlevel Playing Fields: From Baseball Diamonds to Emergency Rooms,” and ” What’s Eating David Ortiz?”  To review the collection of posts on “situationist sports,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Changing Situation of the NBA’s Age Limit

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 4, 2008

Situationist contributor Michael McCann was interviewed for a story in Sunday’s New York Times on high school basketball phenom Renardo Sidney and how the NBA’s age limit–which requires that a player be at least 19-years-old and at least one-year removed from high school before he can play in the NBA–affects his life and those around him.  The story, titled “The Next Big Thing” and authored by Tommy Craggs, also examines the relationship between the NBA and the NCAA, as well as developing opportunities for players shut out by the NBA’s age limit to instead go to Europe for a year and earn a six-or-seven figure salary.

Here is an excerpt:

* * *

That this comes from the same groups that in 2005 cheered the adoption of the N.B.A.’s minimum-age rule, effectively forcing high-school stars to spend one year playing college basketball pro bono rather than leap directly to the N.B.A., is more than a little rich. The partnership was announced at the Final Four this year, and it was noted in passing that both Brand and the N.B.A.’s commissioner, David Stern, would prefer that the age rule be raised from 19 to 20, meaning most players would have to remain in college for two years. Colleges benefit tremendously from keeping the best players in apprenticeship for two years; the N.B.A., in turn, gets marketable commodities who’ve spent more time in the college star-making machinery, as well as proven players who aren’t being drafted purely on their potential.

The traditional justification is that colleges produce better, more well-rounded citizens, though in fact one study has suggested that the opposite may be true. In 2005, Michael McCann, then a professor at Mississippi College School of Law [and now a visiting professor at Boston College Law School], looked at 84 recent N.B.A. player arrests. He found that 57 percent of the players arrested spent four years in college; only 4.8 percent had never gone to college, significantly less than the league-wide share of prep-to-pro players (8.3 percent). In fact, one might infer from the study that the less time a player spent in college, the less likely he was to get arrested.

“The N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. are entertainment vehicles. One pays you, one doesn’t,” says John (Sonny) Vaccaro, the 69-year-old godfather of summer basketball and the man who, in the employ of first Nike, then Adidas, then Reebok, rained shoe money on the basketball world and in so doing acquired so much clout that he is set to be portrayed by James Gandolfini — the guy who played Tony Soprano — in an HBO movie. Vaccaro walked away from Reebok in 2007 with two years left on his contract and now wanders the country as basketball’s angry prophet, barnstorming noisily against the N.C.A.A.’s tax-exempt status and the N.B.A.’s age rule. “One thing is constant,” he says. “One thing. The performers. The players. Without the players, neither of these entities can be multibillion-dollar businesses.”

* * *

This summer, Vaccaro was instrumental in the decision by the prized point-guard recruit Brandon Jennings to spurn Arizona — he had not yet qualified academically — and instead play professionally overseas, sidestepping the N.B.A. entirely and making Jennings a wealthy man. (He was reportedly inspired after he and his mother heard Vaccaro on the radio discussing Europe as a viable option for newly minted high-school grads.) Playing in Italy for Lottomatica Virtus Roma, Jennings will earn $1.2 million this season in salary and endorsements. If all goes well, he will be a top-10 pick in next year’s N.B.A. draft.

To see Jennings draw a paycheck in euros at an age when he’d normally be running suicides for [University of Arizona men’s basketball coach] Lute Olson, is to see the players gaining the leverage that probably should have been theirs in the first place.

* * *

For the rest of the story, click here.  To read McCann’s study mentioned in the story, check outNBA Players That Get in Trouble with the Law: Do Age and Education Level Matter?”  For a related law review article, check out “Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft.”

Posted in Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Seeing Michael Phelps’s Gold Medal Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 19, 2008

Sam Sommers has another excellent (situationist) post, titled “The Greatest Ever? Not So Fast . . .” over at Psychology Today Blog. Sommers’s post is worth reading in its entirety (here), but here are a few particularly situationist excerpts.

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U.S. Swimmer Michael Phelps just won his 8th gold medal of the Beijing Olympics tonight, the 14th gold of his career. These are feats that have never been accomplished before, and it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that his is the greatest Olympic performance of all time. Some in the sporting world (and beyond) are also calling Phelps the greatest athlete of all time. But not so fast—a number of psychological considerations suggest that the pundits (and public) are likely getting a bit carried away.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear for the record. What Phelps has done is extraordinary and unprecedented. . . .

* * *

But why would I suggest that Phelps might not truly be the “greatest athlete” ever . . . ? . . . . I can think of at least three relevant psychological issues:

First, there’s good reason to believe that a variation of the availability heuristic is at play here. This just happened. . . .

So if I ask you to name great athletes, whose name is readily available to you at the moment? Phelps, of course. More generally, even beyond the domain of sports, I’d argue that people are typically lousy at judging “the greatest ever” in any area, due to the availability heuristic among other factors. . . .

Second, in addition to availability, there’s also a self-motivated reason for us to see Phelps deemed the greatest ever. Because we were able to watch Phelps’ triumph and because we’ll have stories to tell about what we saw in these Olympics, we’re able to perceive a personal connection to what he’s done that goes so far as to make us feel good about ourselves.

* * *

Finally, I think there’s also a compelling argument to be made that those who would call Phelps the greatest ever are doing what we humans often do in perceiving the world, namely not giving sufficient weight to the situational factors at play. . . .

[T]his debate is being pitched in largely dispositional terms (i.e., is he the greatest *athlete* ever, as opposed to is this the greatest athletic *performance* ever). And what I really mean to suggest is along the lines of the argument I made in a previous post, namely that important aspects of situations in daily life often escape our attention. In the case of Phelps, he has certainly had a terrific Olympics (now, that might be the greatest understatement of the century). But he also competes in a sport that presents its elite competitors with the opportunity to rack up multiple medals. Swimmers can compete in races of varying distances. There are races in 4 different strokes, as well as individual medleys combining strokes. Then there are relays as well. Is Mark Spitz the second-greatest athlete of all time?

The greatest of basketball and water polo players have a chance at 1 medal in an Olympics. Same with boxers and wrestlers. Track and field stars have more, but still not as many as swimmers. Consider Carl Lewis’ 1984 performance, when he won gold in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay, and long jump. Was Phelps’ 2008 demonstrably better than that? It’s hard to say. I’m quite sure this last argument will annoy the swimming fans out there, but what if Lewis had been afforded the same opportunities as Phelps to cover different distances in different ways? Swimmers have races in backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle; how many medals could Lewis have won if he could’ve entered the 100m gallop, the 100m skip, and the 100m crabwalk?

OK, so you might resist that last analogy. But the crabwalk would be pretty fun to watch, wouldn’t it? And the bigger point is that Phelps’ historical milestone was attributable to a number of factors: his phenomenal training regimen, his unsurpassed drive to win, his genetic gifts, and more. But he also owes at least part of his title as greatest Olympian ever to the current set-up of the Games, which affords swimmers more opportunities to medal than most other athletes. To ignore this fact and crown Phelps greater than Lewis, Jesse Owens, Eric Heiden, Sonja Henie, Al Oerter, and others seems impulsive. Not to mention, of course, all the non-Olympic athletes who certainly merit consideration for the title of greatest ever.

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To read the entire post, which may well be the greatest post ever, click here.

For a sample related posts discussing the tendency to dispositionalize accomplishments that are largely situational, see “Promoting Dispostionism through Entertainment – Part III,” “Randomness, Luck, and other Situational Sources of Success and Failure,” ““Situation” Trumps “Disposition”- Part II,” “What’s Eating David Ortiz?,” and “David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, and Now John Edwards: The Disposition Is Weaker than the Situation.”

For archives of all situationist sports posts, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Blogroll, Choice Myth, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part II

Posted by Jason Chung on August 15, 2008

In Part I of this multi-part Situationist series, I assessed the oft-repeated assertion that sport can help reconcile groups after a period of intra-state or inter-state conflict. In this section, I will discuss the scholarly literature in favor of this assertion.

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Current Theoretical Background on Sport Participation as Reconciliation

The idea of employing sport as a means of addressing group conflict has been gaining traction in academia. U.K. education scholar Richard Bailey of Roehampton University, for instance, points to the fact that student participation in sports may mitigate the risk of student social alienation and enhance a sense of social inclusion (Bailey, 2002).

Sociologist Fred Coalter of the University of Stirling similarly observes that participation in sport has increasingly been used by the state to promote societal integration and social cohesion. As Coalter observes, the British government has poured considerable resources into related sport participation programs, including grassroots campaigns and sporting facilities used by the British public (pp. 538-539).

University of Amsterdam communications researchers Floris Muller, Liesbiet van Zoonen and Laurens de Roode argue that those views are taking root in academic, civic, and political circles: “Countless soccer leagues, matches and tournaments have been organized around the world with the explicit goal of challenging violence, racism, social exclusion and even environmental issues.” (2008)

Such sporting initiatives can be found in seemingly dissimilar countries, such as the Netherlands and Ghana.  In the Netherlands, the City of Amsterdam organizes the WK Amsterdam in which immigrants from various ethnic communities compete in a mock “World Cup.” This exercise is intended to promote inter-group unity and communication in Amsterdam.  Likewise, in Ghana, the non-governmental organization Right to Play is working with Ghanaian officials in order to improve the “[p]romotion of healthy development of communities through a coaching-based approach . . . ” (Right to Play, 2001).

The Netherlands and Ghana are obviously two very different countries. A quick look at the Human Development Index shows that the Netherlands is considered a top 10 highly developed country while Ghana lags well behind at #139. The fact that both use sport and sport participation suggests that sport participation can be an effective tool of local and intra-state social development and bridge-building.

UN for Sport and Development and Peace

UN for Sport and Development and Peace

“Sports as panacea” can also be detected in an international context. In a recent paper, Ingrid Beutler of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace states that the international community draws lessons from humanitarians working at local and intra-state levels. Beutler posits that sports have the capacity to increase inter-state interaction.  She evidences the point by noting that the United Nations has established the post of Special-Adviser to the Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace in Geneva and New York. The Special-Adviser is entrusted with fostering international cooperation through sport (Beutler, 2008, 11:4).

This model has also gained traction in the United States. A perusal of the U.S. Department of State’s website uncovers the SportsUnited program. The program is designed to aid youth, ages 7-17, in discovering how success in athletics can be translated into the development of life and educational skills. The program provides Americans the opportunity to learn about foreign cultures and the challenges facing young people from overseas (U.S. Department of State, 2006).

Modern scholarship appears to recognize the value of sport and sport participation in creating peaceable inter-group relations both within and between states. In addition, many governments have accepted the theoretical benefits offered by sport and resorted to using sport and sport participation as a method to build positive inter-group relations. Thus, from an educational, sociological, political science and communications perspective, sport as a tool for inter-group reconciliation seems to be alive and well.

Part III of this series will pick up there.

Works Cited

Bailey, R. (2002, August 31). Challenging Disaffection: Best Practice & the Management of Disaffection. Retrieved May 18, 2008, from ESRC Society Today.

Bailey, R. (2005). Evaluating the relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion. Educational Review, Volume 57, Number 1 , 71-90.

Beutler, I. (2008, 11:4). Sport serving development and peace: Achieving the goals of the United Nations through sport. Sport in Society , 359-269.

Coalter, F. (2007). Sports Clubs, Social Capital and Social Regeneration: ‘ill-defined interventions with hard to follow outcomes’? Sport in Society, 10:4 , 537 — 559.

Muller, F., van Zoonen, L., & de Roode, L. (2008). The social integrative powers of sport: An analysis of the imagined and real effects of sport events for multicultural integration. Sociology of Sport Journal , (Forthcoming).

Right to Play. (2001, November). Ghana SportHealth. Retrieved April 23, 2008, from Right to Play.

U.S. Department of State. (2006, November 9). Remarks With Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and Public Diplomacy Envoy Michelle Kwan. Retrieved March 6, 2008, from U.S. Department of State.

Posted in Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on July 25, 2008

The Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain and the Red Sox’s Kevin Youkilis are at it again. Joba, who showed no sign of control problems, nonetheless launched a pitch at Kevin’s head in tonight’s pitchers’ dual. The big question, of course, is whether Joba’s head-ward pitch was intentional or inadvertent. With that question in mind, we thought this an opportune moment to reprise a post we initially published in September.

Sox Yankees Brawl

Whenever we witness something harmful or unexpected, we humans look to make attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame. Social psychologists have been studying the way we make those attributions for the last half century. Part of that research, known as attribution theory, focuses on how we draw inferences about how much control people exert over their behavior: the more control they appear to exert, the more we hold them responsible or blameworthy for the consequences of their actions. To assess control, we draw inferences about, among other things, whether the person acted volitionally or intentionally and about the person’s motivation. When we think an injurer acted intentionally and maliciously we attribute blame — which is accompanied by a desire to punish the injurer and to compensate the victim.

This naive psychology of blame attributions is fairly automatic and depends on more or less instantaneous impressions. And although our attributions result from inferences of, among other things, intent and motive, we are hampered by the fact that we cannot directly access someone else’s motives or intentions (in fact, we’re not very good at ascertaining our own). And, often, the individuals who we are judging have an interest in presenting themselves as innocent — regardless of the truth of the matter. In making attributions about another person’s harm-causing actions, therefore, we are often forced to rely on imperfect external cues. Conflict between individuals and groups often emerges precisely because attributional ambiguity leads to divergent interpretations and reactions. What a victim might perceive as outrageous, an injurer might construe as merely unfortunate or even richly deserved. The legal system is caught up in these attributional contests every day. For instance, most of tort law — in doctrine and in practice — is devoted to the question of resolving competing attributional accounts for the same personal injury.

One important cue regarding someone’s intentions and motives is the number of times that they engaged in the sort of behavior that caused the harm. If a person engages in harm-causing conduct one time, we may, absent other indicia of intent, call that “an accident.” The harm elicits some emotion, but it is rarely one of intense anger toward the injurer or sympathy for the victim. If that person engages in the very same conduct a second time — particularly if the acts are temporally proximate — then automatically and instantaneously, our attributions and emotions change. In an instant, in response to behavior that is otherwise identical, we can go from relatively indifferent to indignant.

This week’s final inning in the three-game rivalry-hyped series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. View the (five-minute) video below to see what we mean.

Two identical pitches. Two very different reactions on the part of the umpire, the batter, the fans, and some of the players. One fastball thrown at the batter’s head may have been an accident. But two, one after the other, seems pretty clearly intentional and maliciously motivated. Sports writer Ian O’Connor summarized his reaction as follows:

Joba Chamberlain did it on purpose. Two nuclear-powered fastballs, back-to-back, raging over the head belonging to Kevin Youkilis were indeed thrown with vile intentions. The first one, clocked at 98 mph, sounded like this: See you at Fenway in two weeks. The second one, clocked at 99 mph, sounded like this: See you in the ALCS after that.

Though never explicit in his wording, Youkilis made similar attributions after the game:

Two balls go at your head and the guy has a zero ERA and he’s around the strike zone pretty good, any man is going to go out there and think that the balls were intended to hit him in the head. I didn’t see any other pitches going that far out of the strike zone.

Of course, we can’t be completely sure if the pitcher, Joba Chamberlain, was truly head hunting. If one accident is possible, then so is two; plus we really don’t know what was happening inside Chamberlain’s head. So we look at the circumstances: “could he have been exacting revenge for something earlier in the game? What other motives did he have one way or the other?” And, in the hope of gleaning more about the interior of the black box of his mind, reporters ask the obvious questions: “did you do that on purpose?,” “what were you thinking?” and so on. To view Chamberlain’s responses to those sorts of questions watch the three-minute video below.

Did you find him convincing? Major League Baseball didn’t, at least not completely. They concluded Chamberlain was sufficiently culpable to warrant an official penalty. Much like our legal system might, the League punished Chamberlain, suspending him two games and fining him $1,000 for “inappropriate actions.” Of course, had Chamberlain menacingly pointed at his temple between the two pitches, the League would have seen more unambiguously into the black box regarding his actual intent and would therefore have imposed a much harsher punishment.

The League’s response may do little to influence the likely payback that is to follow when the Red Sox host the Yankees later this month. Throwing fastballs at the head is a serious attack, one that Red Sox pitchers will want to avenge. Still, the League has intervened in part to prevent the sort of escalating conflicts that, history proves, often occur when attributions of blame between teams or other groups fester. The fact that two sides of a conflict make their attributions in group-affirming ways is a major source of the escalation. Both sides tend to agree on one thing: “They are to blame; we are not.”

Common-law historians tell us that a primary reason for the creation and success of the common law, particularly criminal and tort law, was to serve as a substitute for the “self-help” option when one person’s acts harmed another, and divergent attributions led to escalations of violence between individuals and groups. The common law provided a relatively neutral third party — be it a judge or jury of one’s peers — who could hear the conflicting accounts and reach a fair apportionment of damages or penalty based on perceived culpability. Assuming the institution remained credible, parties tended to live with those decisions and to be less eager to resort to self-help.

The same sorts of automatic attributional tendencies and dynamics that influence how we feel about a particular player on a particular team, or even how we decide to punish tort or criminal defendants can be found in all of our interactions — small and big. They even lie at the heart of many international and global conflicts.

Indeed, the attributional inferences drawn in responses to Chamberlain’s two head-oriented pitches were surprisingly similar to the attributional inferences drawn by most Americans in response to the World Trade Center Bombings on 9/11.

When the first plane hit the first tower, there was a strong sense of sadness for the victims, but the incident was automatically presumed by most to have been an unfortunate accident. It was developing into a tragic story, but not different in kind from other large accidents. The second plane crashing into the second tower completely changed all that in an unthinking instant. An accident, over which a pilot exercised little control, turned into an intentional, deliberate, purposeful, hateful attack by terrorists on “us.” To see what we mean, view the (nine- minute) video below of news coverage of the event as it unfolded.

Two identical explosions. Two very different reactions.

It was the power of the second set of reactions that fueled, not only the national urge to rescue and assist victims, but also the widespread craving to punish the evildoers. Consider the varying reactions of President Bush to the first and second crash, as later told to Dan Balz and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post:

Bush remembers senior adviser Karl Rove bringing him the news, saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane. In fact it was American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 out of Boston’s Logan International Airport. Based on what he was told, Bush assumed it was an accident. “This is pilot error,” the president recalled saying. “It’s unbelievable that somebody would do this.” Conferring with Andrew H. Card Jr., his White House chief of staff, Bush said, “The guy must have had a heart attack.”

. . . At 9:05 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, smashed into the South Tower of the trade center. Bush was seated on a stool in the classroom when Card whispered the news: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Bush remembers exactly what he thought: “They had declared war on us, and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war.”

No doubt, our assessments of the intentions and motives of the evildoers were correct: TheColin Powell UN bombings were intentional and maliciously motivated. Still, there may be lessons to be learned from the Major League or from our domestic legal system. When America insisted on going to war with Iraq without meaningfully engaging the world community or taking seriously the concerns of even its allies, it was short-circuiting its best hope for avoiding regret. Maybe our leaders should be obligated to seek and defer to the judgment of relatively neutral third parties, precisely because history shows that the self-help option is as attractive as it is counterproductive. Sometimes we wisely build institutions to limit our options precisely because we know that our desire to take certain options in the future will lead to tragedy. Sometimes we wisely alter our situation because we cannot trust our disposition.

* * *

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here. For a list of posts discussing how people attribute causation, responsibility, and blame, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Can Sports Save the World? (& what must be done beforehand) – Part I

Posted by Jason Chung on July 21, 2008

Author’s note: This post is the first of a multi-part series examining the relationship between politics and sport and what political prerequisites must exist before sport can have a deeper reconciliatory effect among peoples within states and between states. These works are part of the author’s Masters thesis.

With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games fast approaching, there has been much speculation as to how the Olympics will impact China’s socio-political development. On one hand, Western international news organizations such as CNN and the BBC predict the Olympics could become highly politicized with human rights protests. The Chinese news agency Xinhua, however, espouses the Chinese state’s upbeat view that these Olympics will help “integrate itself into the world.” Interestingly, a core assumption regarding sport may be driving this debate: sports play a crucial role in defining how a state’s populace views itself and how it interacts with other states.

Indeed, the perception that sport has a role to play in the social, ethnic, and political relations which define dynamics within and between states has spread to various world elites and social actors. Thus far, most of the attention that sport has received has been positive. World opinion leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, note that

[s]port has the power to unite people in a way little else can. Sport can create hope where there was once only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.

At a cursory glance, the links between sport and inter-state reconciliation seem abundant. Some pundits credit Ping-Pong Diplomacy with facilitating the subsequent thaw of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Others point to Table Tennis Diplomacy and the attempted Olympic Diplomacy as effective difference-bridges between the two Koreas in the latter decades of the 20th century. More generally, there has been a widely held sense that sports, in Jeremy Goldberg‘s words, serve as “a ‘safe’ way to ease a country out of isolation, acting as a first step of engagement, if not the first step.”

This transformation of conflict-laden bonds is not limited to inter-state rivalries. In 2007, following the apparent success of the Côte d’Ivoire’s national men’s football team in rallying the country and ending a five-year long civil war between Northern rebels and the government-controlled South, a spokesman for the Minister for Sport in Côte d’Ivoire, Geoffrey Baillet, had this to say:

We, the politicians, we went to the best universities; we’re the intellectuals, the supposed leaders of the country. But when it came to making peace, we failed. It’s a group of soccer players that brought us together. [Ivorian football star] Didier Drogba came from nothing. Now he’s a worldwide star and a hero for us. He’s done a great thing for his country.

Hence, sport appears to possess a quality which promotes not only inter-state reconciliation but also intra-state reconciliation. Judging from both the aforementioned Ivorian example and the images of a celebrating multi-ethnic Iraq following that country’s victory in the Asian Football Confederation Championship, it would seem that sport has at least a temporary ability to create intra-state linkages between conflicting factions.

National-level sporting events are therefore perceived to offer reconciliatory powers and diplomatic significance by members of society and powerful elites. In both countries experiencing either “cold” (potential) or “hot” (open and violent) inter-state and intra-state conflicts, there have been concrete examples in which at least a segment of those involved point to sport as a significant factor in obtaining reconciliation. For one reason or another, sport seems to have a unique ability to transcend common social cleavages such as class, nationality, and race and create bonds between sides in conflict.

It remains to be seen, however, how much of this sentiment can be attributed to mere platitudes versus how much influence sport has as a tool of political and social reconciliation between and within states.

* * *

In the coming months on The Situationist, I will draw from various theoretical backgrounds – including social psychology and political science – to explore the relationship between sport and politics. I will conclude this series by advancing a general framework for gauging the effectiveness of sport in resolving long-standing social and political issues.

Comments and observations are most welcome and may very well be incorporated within future posts. If you currently hold an academic or professional affiliation, and consent to being quoted by the author, please sign your posts with your title and institutional affiliation. I look forward to a candid discussion regarding sport and politics!

Posted in Conflict, History, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

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