Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why the 49ers Need to Keep Both Baalke and Harbaugh

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has written extensively about a phenomenon that he calls the law of group polarization (Sunstein 2003:111–144). It “predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial, for instance, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. Or, if people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war” (Bauerlein 2004:B8). Why? Because there's a lack of dissent in the group. Dissent highlights alternative view points, which in turn tend to moderate the collective opinion of a group.

Not surprisingly, Sunstein has focused primarily interested in how this phenomenon plays itself out in juries, but what is perhaps more interesting is how it can be found at work in a number of surprising settings. Sunstein, for example, notes that social investment clubs (i.e., groups of private individuals who pool and invest their money) that argue, disagree, and so on generally outperform groups do not (i.e., groups that get along). Group contentiousness may not always be pleasant, but it allows a variety of perspectives to be aired, which in the end leads to better investment decisions.

Which brings us to why the 49ers need to keep both General Manager Trent Baalke and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh. The tension that apparently exists between them may not always be that fun to be around, but over the last three years, together they have resurrected the 49er franchise. I seriously doubt that the tension between them is recent, which suggests that one of the reasons why they have been so successful is because their arguing has, in the end, led to some very wise decisions. This is not to suggest that every draft pick has panned out or that every experiment has worked. But, overall, Baalke and Harbaugh work well together, even if they don't get along, which is why owner Jed York needs to do all he can to keep them both.

  • Bauerlein, Mark. "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual." The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12 2004, B6-B10.
  • Sunstein, Cass R. 2003. Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Strength of Weak Ties Explained

I've previously written on Mark Granovetter's classic study, The Strength of Weak Ties ("Weak Ties, Family Ties, and Business Success"). In it he found that found that people were far more likely to have used personal contacts in finding their present job than by other means, and of those personal contacts, most were what he called "weak ties." This led him to conclude that when it comes to finding jobs, our weak ties are often more useful than our strong ties. Why? Because our weak ties (i.e., our acquaintances) are less likely to be socially involved with one another than are our strong ties (i.e., our close friends).

Granovetter was recently awarded the Everett M. Rodgers for Achievement in Entertainment-Education (Rodgers, who died in 2004, was a sociologist who is best known for his book, The Diffusion of Innovations and for introducing the term, "early adopter."). Mark's acceptance speech has been captured on video (see below), and in it, he discusses, with his usual dry humor, some of the history lying behind his study, including Stanley Milgram's small world study. I highly recommend it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Running on Indignation

Back in the Spring, I wrote that some people simply aren't happy unless they have something to complain about ("Theological Liberalism With a Frown"). Although the world's hardly perfect, it's far better than it was decades, centuries, and even millennia ago, but you wouldn't know it listening to some mainline Protestants. The sociologist Peter Berger referred to this phenomenon as "theological liberalism with a frown." I just recently heard an even better description. It comes from the folks of Downton Abbey, in particular from the lips of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Minerva McGonagall for you Harry Potter fans), describing her sometime nemesis, Isobel Crawley:
Some people run on greed, lust, even love. She runs on indignation.
How true. How true.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Obamacare, and Religious Freedom

As many readers know, Hobby Lobby has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for an exemption to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare) requirement that certain for-profit corporations have provide contraception coverage to their workers. More precisely, the nationwide craft store chain is seeking exclusion on religious grounds from the health care law's requirements, maintaining that some contraceptive products, like the morning-after pill, are the same as abortion. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court will be held in late March.

In anticipation of these arguments, Tony Gill and the Research on Religion podcast recently interviewed Matthew Franck, Director of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey ("Matthew Franck on Hobby Lobby & Religious Freedom Jurisprudence"). Here's a brief description of the podcast:
What is the history behind, and issues relevant to, the upcoming Supreme Court Case involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties that will decide whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is consistent with our understandings of religious liberty? Prof. Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute details how this conflict emerged and summarizes the main issues involved and arguments to be made by both sides. He also reviews the relevant case law that sits in the background of this case. This podcast is a great way to beef up your understanding of what is coming down in our judicial system.
As with previous Research on Religion podcasts, this can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Research on Religion website ("Matthew Franck on Hobby Lobby & Religious Freedom Jurisprudence").

Monday, February 17, 2014

Slytherin Salvation Redux: Jamie Coots, R.I.P.

Back in September I wrote about, Snake Salvation, the National Geographic Channel reality show that features two Pentecostal preachers, Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, who practice the 100-year old tradition of handling deadly snakes in church ("Slytherin Salvation"). Snake handlers believe that a poisonous snakebite will not harm them as long as they're anointed by God’s power. They also believe that if they don’t practice snake handling, they're destined for hell.

Unfortunately, Jamie Coots died this past Saturday from a poisonous snake bite ("Jamie Coots, well-known Middlesboro preacher, dies from snakebite"). Apparently, he refused medical attention after being bitten in his church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and he died later in his home. Here's what National Geographic posted regarding Coots's death:
National Geographic joins his family, friends and community in mourning the loss of Pastor Jamie Coots. In following Pastor Coots for our series Snake Salvation, we were constantly struck by his devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced. Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith. We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.
I just hope that those whom Coots left behind don't think that he died because he was lacking in faith. His faith may have been misguided, but it certainly appears to have been genuine.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why I Dislike Richard Sherman (But Am Open to Changing My Mind)

At least 3 years before I turned pro, I began to learn the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. And if I (or one of my teammates when I was at bat) crossed that line (i.e., if we broke one of baseball's spoken or unspoken rules), then the next pitch would be thrown at my head (or, on occasion, my knees). And you haven't lived until you've had a 90 to 95 mph fastball thrown at your head. It has a way of teaching you right from wrong, what is just and unjust, what is professional an unprofessional. That's why I have little patience with any professional athlete who behaves unprofessionally. They should know better. If I could learn how do to it when I was a collegiate athlete, they should be able to do so as professionals, especially when they're getting paid millions of dollars a year.

Breaking the unspoken rules of baseball is probably the reason why A-Rod is disliked by other professional baseball players. It isn't because he took PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) and lied about it; indeed, there was a time when somewhere between 50-75 percent of major league players were using PEDs and lying about it. Rather, it's because  he continually broke the unspoken rules of baseball, like when he ran across the mound when the A's Dennis Braden was pitching ("The Dallas Braden/Alex Rodriguez Feud Continues"). As Braden noted,
The Yankees are an extremely classy organization with guys who always tend to do the right thing every time; it’s kind of disheartening to see that not show through or be reflected by somebody of (Rodriguez’s) status... He’s a tremendous player and a tremendous talent, and I don’t care if I’m Cy Young or the 25th man on a roster; if I’ve got the ball in my hand and I’m out there on that mound, that’s not your mound. You want to run across the mound? Go run laps in the bullpen. That’s my mound.
The widespread dislike of snowboarder Shaun White by his fellow snowboarders makes me wonder if something similar has occurred in his case. I don't think his and A-Rod's cases are entirely comparable. A-Rod is just one of many superstars in baseball whereas Shaun White is and has been the premier snowboarder in the world for several years now, which is why I can't help but think that some of the animosity is rooted in jealousy. Nevertheless, where there's smoke, there's usually (but not always) fire, which suggests that the widespread dislike of White has some basis in reality.

My dislike of unprofessionalism extends beyond athletes. There was a time when the Seattle Seahawks was my second favorite professional NFL team and Pete Carroll was my favorite college football coach. But when Carroll left USC holding the bag with numerous recruiting violations that occurred under his watch for a $6.7 million contract with the Seahawks, I stopped being a Carroll (and a Seahawks) fan ("What was Pete Carroll's part in the USC scandal?"). He's clearly a great football coach, and players love to play for him, but I just can't root for a guy who takes the money and runs just as the NCAA sanctions the college football program he oversaw. It's unprofessional. It's unethical. But apparently, I'm in the minority in this regard. Nevertheless, when he steps down as coach, I'll start rooting for the Seahawks again.

Which brings me to Richard Sherman. I disliked Sherman long before his post game rant after this year's NFC Championship game. A certain amount of showmanship and trash talk is to be expected and is fine, but there's a point where it crosses the line and becomes unacceptable. For instance, when Terrell Owens was playing for the 49ers and after scoring a touchdown, he pulled a Sharpie from out of his sock, signed the football, and handed to a fan, I thought that was funny. But when after the Niners beat the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas, and he ran to midfield and placed the football on the 50 yard line, he crossed the line (and I stopped being a fan). And I think Sherman has crossed the line multiple times, not just against the Niners but against other teams as well (e.g., "Tom Brady slams Richard Sherman for taunting Michael Crabtree").

The "good news" is that just like professional baseball, professional football has its "means" for enforcing appropriate behavior. I'm fairly confident that if Sherman doesn't dial it back, his career will be far shorter than it should be. He'll become the victim of an "accidental" crack-back block (or something similar) that will end his career prematurely.

That would be a shame because he's such a talented athlete. I don't think that's what he wants, which is why I believe he'll probably tone things down from here on out. At least I hope so. Indeed, the fact that he recognized that his behavior after the NFC Championship game was inappropriate (he apologized -- which was refreshing, unlike several of his defenders who tried to rationalize it away) gives me hope that he'll enjoy a long career in the NFL.

He wouldn't be the first to do so. I remember how when Niner tight end, Vernon Davis, first came into the league, he was as big of jerk as Sherman. But the Niner coach at the time, Mike Singletary, shamed Davis by sending him to the locker room midway through a game, and since that time Davis has been a completely different player. Singletary appears to have worked similar magic (although I'm not sure how) with Michael Crabtree who was a spoiled brat when he first arrived in the NFL (although I think the jury's still out on him). Thus, I have hope for Richard Sherman. If I (and Vernon Davis) can learn what the right thing to do is, so can Sherman.

P.S. As an aside, Mike Singletary may not have been a good head coach, but he was (and is) a great assistant coach. A consummate professional when he was a player, he appears to know how to turn talented brats into talented professionals.

P.S.S. I have less hope for Richie Incognito, who appears to be entirely unrepentant of his treatment of teammate Jonathan Martin. This isn't the first time Incognito has had disciplinary problems. He had several when playing at Nebraska where he was suspended for multiple "anger management" incidents, and after transferring to the University of Oregon, he only lasted a week before he was kicked off the team. And in 2013, he was selected as the NFL's dirtiest player ("NFL's Dirty Dozen"), which is not the first time he has made the list.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Was the Seahawks and Niners Game Fixed? Nah.

There's a video making its rounds (see below) that documents all of the questionable calls made by the officials during the Seahawks vs. Niners game. It does more than document the calls, however. It makes the claim that the game was fixed by the NFL (not by the players or the coaches). Was the game fixed? Nah. It is amazing how many calls went Seattle's way, but winning an NFL championship requires a certain amount of luck. Not only do teams need to be good, but they need to have a season relatively free of injuries and have most of the close calls go their way. That's a fairly good description of the Seahawks 2013-2014 season. We Niner fans are just hoping that the Seahawks luck is about to run out.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Losing: You Don't Have to Like It

It is curious that in a world where denying someone's feelings is considered a sin, we often dismiss our kids' feelings of disappointment when they lose a sporting event, trying to convince them that winning and losing doesn't matter, essentially implying that their feelings in this case are inappropriate. No doubt, much of this is rooted in the collective horror that many of us feel when we witness people (usually parents) taking youth competitions far too seriously, a topic that I've written about before ("Little League Dads Behaving Badly," "Dancing Moms Behaving Badly," "Good News on Bad News Parents").

That said, there's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Losing is a part of life. Not every job that we interview for, we get. Not every school we apply to, accepts us. Not every person we have a crush on, returns our affection. So learning how to live with losing is a life lesson worth learning, and sports can help us do that. That doesn't mean we have to like it, though. as "Garth" from Indian Jones and the Last Crusade reminded us many years ago, there's a big difference between learning how to live with life's disappointments and liking it:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Franz Klammer: Greatest Olympic Downhill Ever?

The Winter Olympics are upon us, Last night I was watching trial runs of this year's Olympic downhill, and I couldn't help but think back to Franz Klammer's incredible downhill run at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

Watching it in retrospect, knowing the outcome, takes away, somewhat, from what an amazing run it was. And although video quality in 1976 wasn't what it is today, even with the grainy resolution, I still think it's the most electrifying run I've ever seen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

It Helps to Be Pretty, Even if You're an NFL Quarterback

A recent study by sports economist, Dave Berri, found that good looking quarterbacks get paid more than poor looking ones, all else being equal. It's not the biggest factor: arm strength, accuracy, the ability to run, winning lots of games are all more important, but if you take two quarterbacks of equal ability, the better looking one almost always makes more money. According to Berri, an increase in a quarterback's facial symmetry scores (one measure of looks) of 3.2 translates to $378,000 in additional pay. Not a huge bump in pay (at least not for an NFL quarterback), but it's nothing to sneeze at either.

Unfortunately, the beauty bonus plays out in almost all walks of life. Attractive people are, on average, happier, wealthier, more popular, and so on. One would hope that this wasn't so, but a wealth of studies suggest that it is. The beauty bonus is the subject of the latest Freakonomics podcast ("Reasons to Not Be Ugly"). In addition to David Berri, you'll hear from Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas and author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. You’ll hear from Erdal Tekin, an economist at Georgia State University and co-author, with Naci Mocan, of a paper called “Ugly Criminals,” which ties a person’s looks to their propensity for crime. As always, you can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Freakonomics website ("Reasons to Not Be Ugly").