Friday, January 30, 2015

Who Cheats? Who Doesn't?

Although I think the flap over deflate-gate (or Ballghazi) is a bit overblown ("The Ethics of Tom Brady's Balls"), recent studies have identified five attitudes, factors, or practices that contribute to cheating in sports:

1. Winning is everything: Those who were passionate and had a level of self-worth that transcended wins and losses were more likely to obey the rules and display good sportsmanship. Athletes who displayed an obsessive passion leading to a sense of arrogance and self-importance were more likely to cheat if they thought it would help them win.

2. Everyone else is doing it: A study analyzing major violations of NCAA rules by big-time college football programs from 1981 to 2011 found conference affiliation and the interaction among rivals are important to the decision to cheat.

3. Star-crossed coaching: Youngsters playing for coaches who reward and separate out the best athletes are more likely to say they would cheat if it would help them win, according to a yearlong study of British adolescents competing in regional sports leagues.

4. Skills vs. competition: Placing an emphasis on mastering skills as opposed to beating others may create more ethical organizations. “To reduce cheating behaviours … coaches should encourage their athletes to improve their personal bests rather than overemphasize competition with others,” researchers suggested.

5. Deviant stars are made, not born: Interviews of 104 former or current NFL players found that it is a culture in which many athletes begin to believe they can do no wrong off the field.

All this is summarized in more detail in David Briggs's most recent Ahead of the Trend post: "When the Game Doesn't Stand Tall," a regular feature of the Association of Religion Data Archive (ARDA).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why Reporters Shouldn't Debate Richard Sherman (Hint: He's Smarter Than They Are)

When Jon Gruden bolted the Oakland Raiders for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2001 season, Raider fullback Jon Ritchie remarked, "It was a little shocking, the alacrity with which he departed." Ritchie's remark reportedly sent several journalists scrambling because they didn't know what "alacrity" meant. Turns out, Ritchie graduated from from Stanford, and much to the chagrin of the assembled reporters, he might have been the smartest guy in the room.

This does not mean that all Stanford athletes are smart (although most of those I got to know while working as a teaching assistant at Stanford during my graduate school days were quite bright) or that athletes from other schools are not. It does suggest, however, that when interacting with former Stanford students a good working hypothesis is that they probably aren't stupid.

That is why I was surprised to learn that on Super Bowl media day that a reporter got into a debate with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who attended Stanford as an undergraduate. Whatever one might think of Sherman (and I'm not one of his biggest fans), one thing is for certain: he's very bright, so why a reporter thought she could go toe-to-toe with him is beyond me. Some of his remarks to her are classic:
It's difficult to have a discussion with someone who has no information. You don't have any information. I have all the research. I'm doing your job for you... I wish this would be a better debate, but ... the levels aren't there for us.
I suspect they weren't (on the same level that is) or that she had done her research (I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn the Sherman had done his). My guess is that most reporters think they're smarter than the players they cover, but I doubt they always are. They might have more education, but that doesn't mean they're smarter. Not by a long shot. In fact, I'd be willing to be they'd trade places in a heart beat. I know I would.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why's the NFL So Hung Up on Marshawn Lynch?

Is it just me, or does the NFL seem to get more upset with the antics of Marshawn Lynch than the fact that Ray Rice beat up his fiancé? Rice was eventually suspended, but that wasn't until after public opinion forced the issue. One gets the sense that the NFL didn't think it that big of a deal. But boy does it get its knickers in a twist over Marshawn Lynch, whether he threatens to wear gold cleats, grab his crotch, or refuse to answer questions at media day during the Super Bowl week ("Lynch: 'I'm here so I won't get fined'"). I think its time for the the NFL to take a step back and get its priorities straight. Quirky players are good for football. Wife beaters are not.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Be careful what you wish for. Trent Baalke won the power struggle with Jim Harbaugh but then discovered that most top coaches don't want to work for someone who isn't going to give them some control over the operation. Instead, they hired Jim Tomsula, who everyone in the 49er organization, including the players, apparently likes. But likability doesn't necessarily translate into wins. Almost everybody loved Mike Singletary, and most 49er fans wanted him to succeed (including me), but he turned out to be a terrible head coach. Owner Jed York reportedly said that it helps having everybody (i.e., York, Baalke, Tomsula) on the same page, that it helps that everyone is like-minded, but as I pointed out almost a year ago ("Why the 49ers Need to Keep Both Baalke and Harbaugh"), that often isn't the case. Tension, disagreements, and heated arguments often lead to better outcomes, not worse.

This is not to say that Tomsula will not succeed. In fact, I hope he does, and I won't be surprised if next season the Niners do better than they did this past season. But that will most likely have nothing to do with superior coaching. Instead, it will have more to do with the fact that in 2014 the Niners suffered numerous injuries and that in close games the breaks didn't go their way ("Regression to the Mean and the 49ers Next Head Coach").

I hope I'm wrong on this count. I really hope Tomsula turns out to be a genius, that he hires a great offensive coordinator, and that next year the Niners reach the Super Bowl (since it's going to be held at Levi's Stadium). I'm not holding my breath, however. The 49ers' most glaring weakness this past season was their offense, but the brain trust of York and Baalke decided to hire a defensive coach rather than an offensive one (they did this with plenty of great offensive minds willing and available -- Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, Josh McDaniels), and now they are scrambling to find an offensive coordinator who wants to work for them (oh, that's right, for Tomsula...). What a surprise.

If I'm right that the Niners are in trouble, I'm torn as to what I'd like to see happen. I've been a fan for too long to root against them, but there's a part of me that can't help but wonder what would happen if the Niners fall flat on their face over the next couple of years. Would Jed York finally wake up, smell the coffee, and realize whom he really needs to get rid of (hint: Trent Baalke)? If so, a couple of years  of the Niners in the tank might be worth it in the long run.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Gospel and Russell Wilson

Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson is, by all appearances, a class act. He is an active volunteer in the Seattle community. During the NFL season, he makes weekly visits to the Seattle Children's Hospital, and in the offseason he hosts the Russell Wilson Passing Academy, a youth football camp that's held in several cities, the proceeds from which went to the Charles Ray III Diabetes Association. And he's one of the few players on the Seahawks that most 49er fans like.

Still, I have to take exception to his claim that the Seahawks come from behind win over the Green Bay Packers in last week's NFC Championship game was set up by God:
That's God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special. I've been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs. It's what's led me to this day.
It may have been dramatic and rewarding and special for Wilson, but it wasn't terribly dramatic and rewarding and special for Brandon Bostick, the Green Bay Packer who botched the on-side kick that gave the Seahawks the chance they needed to win. Does Wilson really believe that God set things up so that Bostick will be haunted for the foreseeable future (and possibly the rest of his life)? I know I don't. I'm guessing (hoping) that deep down he doesn't either. More broadly, I agree with Packer quarterback (and unwitting theologian) Aaron Rodgers that God probably doesn't care a whole lot about who wins football games (baseball might be a different story, though J).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Ethics of Tom Brady's Doctored Balls

The world of professional football is in a tizzy over deflate-gate, the controversy regarding allegations that the New England Patriots intentionally used deflated footballs during AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts (and perhaps before). Evidently, Patriot quarterback Tom Brady prefers slightly deflated footballs because they are easier to throw and catch, especially in cold weather (Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers prefers his footballs to be overinflated--not sure about his receivers). Brady, along with the Patriots organization and head coach Bill Belichick, have been labeled cheaters, and many have called for the NFL to let the Baltimore Colts play in the Super Bowl and ban Brady and Belichick from the Hall of Fame.

Football's reaction is interesting because it is so at odds with how baseball reacts to when pitchers alter baseballs to make them move and, consequently, harder to hit. Like in football, baseball's rules precisely define the dimensions and weight of baseballs, and it's illegal to alter them. However, unlike football, when a pitcher's caught altering a baseball (scratching it, covering it in grease), the baseball world doesn't rise up in protest and call for games to be forfeited or pitchers be banned from the Hall of Fame. Indeed, Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry made a career of throwing spitters (a particularly effective way of doctoring a baseball). He even wrote a book about it (Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession), and no one is calling for his ouster from the Hall of Fame.

So what gives? Is baseball less ethical than football? Not at all. In fact, baseball became far more incensed about players using PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) than football ever did. Instead, there's a bit of arbitrariness to the ethical systems of different institutions, whether their sports-related or not. And they're rooted in the stories that they tell about themselves and how they define what ultimately is good and just and right. And that is why a particular individual can get all up in arms about Tom Brady doctoring his balls but not about Gaylord Perry doctoring his.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Short Stories By Jesus

It is not unusual to find the authors of commentaries on Jesus's parables spending a considerable amount of time reconstructing the original wording of the parables. Scholars often seek to accomplish this by comparing how a particular parable differs across gospels (at least for those parables that appear in multiple gospels), typically giving greater credence to earlier gospels (e.g., Mark) over later ones (e.g., Matthew) (e.g., see Bernard Brandon Scott's, Hear Then The Parable). Traces of this approach can also be found in the Jesus Seminar's quest for the authentic sayings of Jesus, in particular, in its attempts to separate the "red" from the "pink" sayings.

Such an approach has long struck me as wrongheaded. It implicitly assumes either that (1) Jesus only uttered a parable once, or (2) that each time he told them, he told them in exactly the same way. Either option strikes me as highly implausible, which is why Amy-Jill Levine's recent commentary on Jesus's parables (Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi) are a breath of fresh air:
When we turn to Jesus's parables, we do well to hear them as the people who first heard them, Jews in the Galilee and Judea, did and thus to recover as best as we can the original provocation. To do so requires several leaps of faith. The first leap concerns what Jesus himself said, for we do not know with certainty if Jesus actually told the parables recorded in the Gospels. Second, even if he did tell them, we know with certainty neither the composition of the audience nor their reaction. Third, it is unlikely, were he to have composed these parables, that he only used them on one occasion or told them exactly the same way each time (p. 10, emphasis added).
(You can see why I like her. She makes me feel smart!) Rather than devote endless pages to the parables' original wording, she begins each chapter with a "fairly literal translation of a short story by Jesus" (p. 23). She follows this by locating each parable in its historical and literary context and then offers her take on what the parable might have meant to its earliest listeners.

For those unfamiliar with Levine, she is a New Testament scholar who attends an Orthodox synagogue. She is one of a growing number of Jewish scholars who have turned their analytical skills to the New Testament, and have challenged numerous assumptions that New Testament scholars have held for years (e.g., see my post on Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin's analysis of the Gospels -- "A Jewish Christ"). Levine is probably best known for her book on the historical Jesus, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. As in that book, in Short Stories of Jesus, Levine challenges traditional interpretations that set Jesus over against what first century Jews supposedly believed:
Thus, the Prodigal Son teaches that God loves sinners, when "the Jews" thought God only loved the righteous and didn't give a damn about sinners. Such a reading should make no sense to anyone who has read in the scriptures of Israel the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and David, and indeed the nation of Israel... Jews knew that God cared about the sinful; were that not the case, there'd be no reason to send prophets to Israel, or Jonah to Ninevah. For other Christian readers ill-informed about early Judaism, the parable of the Yeast and the parable of the Mustard Seed become teachings that reject Jewish purity laws and even Jewish identity, as if Jews somehow eschewed baked bread and spices, and should therefore thank Jesus for allowing us to have a hot dog, on a bun, with mustard (p. 21).
But I've gone on far too long. Amy-Jill's book is wonderful. If you're interested in a "fresh" reading of Jesus's parables from one of the New Testament's top scholars, pick up her book. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Marcus Mariota Better Hope He Falls Like Aaron Rodgers

Although Marcus Mariota is almost certainly disappointed about not winning the national championship, losing might help his draft prospects, but not in the way in which most people think. After the game, there was the predictable criticism of his performance (24 of 37 for 333 yards -- "terrible") and some (e.g., Mel Kiper, Trent Dilfer) have argued that he's not "NFL-ready" (then again, neither were Joe Montana nor Tom Brady). Mariota can only hope that NFL scouts think Kiper and Dilfer are right and that he falls far enough in the draft so that he's chosen by a team with a decent offensive line so that he doesn't get beaten to a pulp like Jimmy Plunkett did in his first few years playing for the New England Patriots.

In other words, he needs to fall in the draft like Aaron Rogers did. No doubt, Rogers's ego would have been massaged if the 49ers had drafted him instead of Alex Smith. But if they had, it's unlikely that Rogers would be as good as he is today. He would've spent his first few seasons on the run and landing on the injured reserve list far too often. Instead, he ended up playing behind a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Brett Favre) and for a great team. Marcus Mariota can only hope he is just as lucky. Chip Kelly, are you listening?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Unsurprising Drop in San Jose's Murder Rate

In 2012 San Jose witnessed a spike in its murder rate, which many blamed on cuts in the SJ Police Department's budget. As I argued back then ("The 'Cause' of San Jose's Spike in Violence"), however, the spike was more likely due to the natural variance than any other "cause":
All types of phenomena, whether its home runs, traffic accidents, PhDs granted, cancer, and so on vary in number from year to year (and place to place). That is, the number of home runs hit by the Yankees, the rate of traffic accidents in California, the number of PhD awarded by Stanford's Sociology Department, and the incidents of kidney cancer is not constant from year to year.
Moreover, the level of variance is greater with small numbers of events than with large numbers. To illustrate why this is true imagine a large urn that contains 1,000 marbles, 500 that are red and 500 that are white. If you repeatedly take 5 marbles out of the urn until it is empty, most of the time you will get a mix of red and white marbles, but every so often you'll remove 5 marbles all of the same color. However, if you repeatedly take 50 marbles out of the urn each time, you'll seldom, if ever pull out 50 marbles of the same color. This may all seem obvious, but it illustrates why with small numbers of events (in this case, the number of marbles pulled) you are more likely to experience an extreme event (in this case, drawing marbles of the same color) than you are with large numbers of events. That is why surveys that interview 1,200 people are usually more accurate than those that interview 600.

Which brings us back to the drop in San Jose's murder rate. The average number of murders in San Jose is relatively small (33), which means that extreme outcomes (i.e., extreme spikes and drops in the murder rate) will be the norm, not the exception. Moreover, after a wide swing in one direction, it is quite common for rates to move back toward the average, a phenomenon I discussed in my previous post ("Regression to the Mean and the 49ers' Next Coach"). This means that the spike in the murder rate in 2012 was likely to be followed by a drop in the rate close to the average. I expected the drop to occur in 2013, but it didn't happen until 2014 when it fell to 32 (see the chart below), just below its historical average. And as I argued back then, this drop probably has more to do with the natural variation of rare events than it does with the efforts of the San Jose Police Department.