Hunters as sportsmen

I’ve never been opposed on principle to hunting or hunters, and back in the day I have dispatched some small game. A squirrel is a small target and doesn’t sit still for long, so it requires marksmanship, but nothing about hunting signals courage when you have a firearm…maybe going after wild hogs the old fashioned way, with a spear. Taking game in the wild requires knowing something about their habits and ecology, and there is such a thing as a sustainable harvest. Deer in suburbs without their predators are a serious problem, maybe worse as the predators (coyotes and mountain lions in CA) follow them in from the woods and acquire a taste for poodles.

Every now and then, though, an episode like this comes out that makes hunters look really bad-it’s so great when a boy learns sportsmanship, honesty, outdoor skills, and character from his dad, right?-and your government is at work to encourage behavior that cannot be called sport or, except for someone with a real pathology, recreation.

A proposed rule published by the National Park Service in the Federal Register would let Alaskan game officials decide whether bear cubs can be killed alongside their mothers, caribou can be shot from a boat while swimming, wolves, including pups, can be hunted in their dens and other animals can be targeted from airplanes and snowmobiles. Animals could also be baited with sweets and killed or poisoned.

The Park Service said its proposal is consistent with an order by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to accede to states’ wishes to expand recreational [sic] hunting. 

Did these people start out pulling the wings off flies? Pouring kerosene on cats and lighting it? Pups and cubs, recreational baiting and poisoning, yup.

Republicans have seriously degraded since Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe a lot of Alaskans have gone through too many long, dark, cold winters.

Governance of associations

Sports are peculiar institutions.  The rules of the games have to come from somewhere and big network externalities encourage everyone to follow them. But the competitive/collaborative associations of profit-making enterprises (teams), players, and leagues have to improvise their governance, often across international legal jurisdictions, and it doesn’t always work right.

Rules sometimes change, for good or ill.  Tennis players used to be obliged to wear white; now anything goes.  Technology keeps motor racing and sailing rules in flux.  Baseball tried to increase scoring and home runs for fan appeal by (ill-conceived) ideas like lowering the pitcher’s mound and the designated hitter, and (better) ideas like speeding up the game by limiting mound visits.  The three-point field goal changed basketball so historical statistics are hard to compare to today’s, but the game is no worse for it, in my inexpert view actually better.  Games with tradition properly have a big flywheel on rule changes, but (i) making the games more fun to watch, (ii) player safety, and, importantly, (iii) high correlation between playing better and winning, are legitimate grounds for tuneups and innovation. [On (ii); college football was substantially revamped a century ago because players were getting killed, and the implications of what we’re learning about concussion risk in football and soccer are still unfolding.]

Now, soccer (outside the US, football). For people who might want to watch the World Cup matches, here is a quick guide, soccer for dummies:  twenty players kick a ball down a large field with lots of passing and possession changes, and many one-to-one duels; eventually one player kicks the ball over, or to the side of the goal (or doesn’t), and everyone runs the other way. Repeat this sequence to the point of stupefaction…except that once during the game (typically) the ball goes in one of the nets.  If it’s not a complete mismatch, this occurs when some cosmic roulette ball lands on a secret number, and has nothing to do with the quality of play overall.

Today, Russia 1-1 Spain, wins by one penalty kick. Croatia 1-1 Denmark, ditto. Four hours of actual play could not establish any team’s superiority on the day by scoring, and all the marbles went to coin-flips (do I jump  left or right? Could we just play scissors/paper/rock instead?) each between 0.9% of each team.

The World Cup results to now are full of 1-0 games and ties. There’s even a famous song (1919) about a 1-0 game .  What we have here is an athletically and strategically excellent, pure, simple, game, played and loved by millions-ruined for serious competition (including medium-to-high-level amateur play) by not enough scoring, a deficiency that could be easily remedied by adding about a yard (maybe two) to the width of the goal.

Fixing this can’t be a matter of evolution or coaching, and confronts a minor installed-base problem (all the physical goals all over the world needing to be replaced or modified) plus the aforementioned flywheel (“we’ve always done it this way, all our skills are based on the current goal, etc.”).  It also requires a functional governance structure, and what that would be for a game played from tot to geezer levels, in dozens of countries, with a multi-billion-dollar pro business is very hard to see.  The Swedes switched from left-side to right-side driving, but Sweden is a country with one government. Maybe the fix could start with US colleges, which at least have an NCAA; maybe one of the European leagues could take the plunge. It doesn’t put existing soccer skills at risk of obsolescence, and it would sure improve the game; how you play for an hour and a half ought to have something to do with whether you win. [minor edits and corrections 1/VII/18]


The Serenity of Old Men Shooting Free Throws

The free throw in basketball is one of the oddest inventions in sport. For most of the game, athletes race, leap, twist, and struggle against each other. But then after a foul, the game all but stops so that a solitary player can take an utterly uncreative shot. There are pauses in other sports (e.g., penalty kick in soccer, opening serves in tennis), but in those cases a feisty defender stands ready to respond.

Free throws, unlike other plays, are not a case where a player can put in extra effort in a critical situation; indeed putting in extra effort will make you miss. A free throw is about calmness and doing the same dull thing in the same dull way over and over, and some of the most dominant players in all other phases of the game (e.g., Wilt Chamberlain), never mastered the different set of skills involved in free throws.

Free throw whiz Ted St. Martin
It is no accident that the people who can drain a freakishly large number of free throws in a row are middle age or old. In mid-life, we calm down emotionally and become creatures of routine. What seemed like unbearably dull traditions when we were young becomes our contented existence as we age. Just as some of us in mid-life experience a strange sense of serenity when we get off the same bus for the 1000th time to come back to the same home from the same job, others can find a peaceful flow point where they can hit hundreds or even thousands of free throws in a row.

I played basketball a lot when I was young and I was good. At my current age, I no longer am: I am slower, clumsier, weaker, less creative in my playmaking, get sore more easily, and recover more slowly. Yet there is one thing I do better than ever. Yesterday, I fell behind my fast and energetic sons in a idiosyncratic family-created shooting game and could only come back to win by hitting 9 free throws in a row. To my sons’ shock, I walked calmly up to the line and drained them all.

“How did you do that?” one of my sons asked.

“Same way I go to work every day, buddy - at this point, it’s just another comfortable routine”.

Pacquiao-Horn fight

The Guardian, usually a newspaper with a working conscience, kvells about a recent boxing match:

The good news is that it was a very entertaining fight on the big stage, which is all too rare for boxing of late.

Time to repost some reflections on this ‘sport’ from a few years ago, in case you do not follow boxing and would like to understand it. For those who don’t know, boxing is an exercise that uses two remarkable devices in a very odd way. One of them is a servomanipulator of incredible versatility, delicacy and precision, a gadget that can play a violin or caress a cheek or fix a watch or carry a suitcase. The other is a computer with capacities we still haven’t exhausted. It’s small enough to carry around at all times, and it can write a sonata for the violin, do rocket science and every other kind of science, and give advice to children. Try that with your laptop. Oh yeah; this computer is capable of love…the real thing, not reciting a script.

What’s truly amazing about boxing is how these wonders are used. You might think the computer could be hooked up to instruct the servo to make something incredibly cool, but you would be wrong. In boxing, the game is to take the servomechanism and use it like a hammer to whale on the computer until its little lights go out and it stops working. Usually the computer can be rebooted after this abuse, but it loses something every time and eventually winds up with dementia pugilistica, mumbling and bumping into things, cadging free drinks in cheap bars. If this isn’t substance abuse, I don’t know what is. It’s right up there with using a big Rubens painting as a tarp over your woodpile, but especially blasphemous in its trashing of God’s most remarkable creations.

A century ago the guy swinging the servo had to be careful not to break it on the computer case, but not enough lights got put out for good business, so we now wrap it up in padding that allows super-destructive, full-force whacks, and everyone watching has a good chance of seeing some real damage.

Should this be legal? Probably; the boxers are grownups and have to be allowed to manage their own lives. What I can’t understand is how this savagery can even be discussed by people who claim to be civilized, much less sold for money and treated like a sport. I know, people get hurt in all sorts of sports, but this is the one where the whole point is to hurt people, and not just arms and legs but the part that makes us human. Sure, there’s lots of cant about the science of defense and tactical blows to the body, but it’s the KO that sells the tickets. See the camera linger over Rocky Balboa’s bloody, blind, weaving face in the movie: sport? skill? Give me a break.

Fight fans, you raise a troubling problem for a free society: what should we do about bad behavior that doesn’t justify being made illegal? Our habit lately is to want to outlaw anything offensive or immoral, but this is a letoff. Boxing should have its lights put out by social disgrace, the way we taught each other that lighting a cigarette in someone else’s house or a bus is uncivilized and disgusting. The next time you think you want to watch a fight, think about your kids watching you at the moment the blood sprays and the brain slaps the inside of the skull. The next time you walk into a water-cooler conversation on the fine points of this sick behavior, try walking away the way you’d leave a conversation about setting cats on fire.

Every March Madness player should receive a lifetime annuity

Last night at the gym, I pedeled furiously on the exercise bike watching the tail end of a pretty bad national championship game. UNC emerged victorious, which is somewhat embarrassing for college hoops, given revelations of fake classes and other academic misconduct involving UNC’s football and basketball programs. As Michael Kinsley would say, the real scandal is what’s legal. These players should be paid.

Last year, the NCAA received about $1 billion in revenue from various March Madness media rights, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and more. The elite players who create this product receive college scholarships, but they are not paid anything near the economic value they create for others, most especially including their own coaching staffs. About 100 players per year from around the world enter the NBA every year, usually for a brief stint. Most high school and college basketball stars never make it. Some use their scholarships and college connections to do well in life. Others are chewed up and spit out by the college athletic industrial complex without enough to show for the experience and physical toll these physical games can take.

There are several ways to address this problem. I’m intrigued by the radical possibility some court will simply rule that the NCAA has no authority to regulate player compensation. The NCAA should be entitled to ensure that athletes are bona fide students. Athletes’ financial arrangements should be set in a competitive market. After initial chaos, some equilibrium would emerge. Who knows what that would be.

A less radical solution would include greater revenue sharing between the NCAA and college players. The NCAA might, for example, set aside $100 million each year to buy a simple annuity for each athlete in the top 64top 16 teams-pardon the error.  That would provide each athlete with a lifetime income of about $22,000 per year.

That wouldn’t make these athletes rich. It would provide a platform of basic economic security for these 832 208 young people, and provide them with the resources they might need to pursue further education once their athletic careers are done. The money is there, and they’ve earned it.

Sports and other treachery

I was a Dodger fan in youth, the only acceptable choice for a New York red-diaper kid. I didn’t know any Giants fans.  One day I sat down to breakfast and opened a paper newspaper and learned that the team was going to Los Angeles; might as well have said “moon to move to new galaxy”.  In fact that move was not the cynical greedy play it appeared to be, more the result of Robert Moses and New York political leaders flubbing the job (on the Giants’ side, not so much, having more to do with fan indifference). But the disillusionment was extreme, and put me off baseball for decades…living in Boston for twenty-five years, I entered a serious flirtation with the Red Sox, but still gingerly.

Parents advise their kids, “don’t fall in love with someone who just wants your money.” Duh. OK, a professional team isn’t a charity for the benefit of fans (though the municipal/nonprofit Green Bay Packers are a notable exception). But the departure of the Raiders from Oakland for a much less promising fan base and market, entirely because Nevada pols are willing to dip into their citizens’ pockets* to line Mark Davis’ while the admirable mayor of Oakland put her foot down and would not be rolled, is a good lesson for all.  Sort of like the same lesson currently on offer from Donald Trump, as we see the only thing he actually wants to do is put his marks/voters’ money in the pocket of his rich pals, Russian and other.

Now, the Raiders are going to be here for two more years, and tens of thousands of fans have bought season tickets. I wonder if there’s a nice class action lawsuit here: “I bought tickets to see my home team, ; now it’s just a bunch of guys in black uniforms. Refund!” Update 28/III: the Raiders are refunding season tix. Good for them.

*Technical note: the Las Vegas subsidy comes mostly from a tax on tourists. Well, if tourists can be gouged for those hundreds of millions without damaging the local economy, they can just as well be gouged for schools, streets, and the like (Clark County schools are seriously hurting), so in the end it’s the locals’ money being shoveled to Davis.

Another Cal athletics moment

With our intercollegiate athletics department’s typical management finesse, we extended our football coach’s contract about a year ago…and fired him this week. He walks away with about $6m in severance, but that’s OK because we’re just finishing up the zillion-dollar severance payments for the previous coach, and the AD who is now at Penn State, so there’s lots of money just lying around that would otherwise be wasted on fixing classrooms, or scholarships for non-athlete students who just play sports for fun and don’t put any eyeballs on TV commercials. The intercollegiate athletics program at Cal costs about $30m a year (net), a sixth of a $180m campus deficit; a task force of alums, faculty, and staff is working on proposals to fix this.

The athletic director shares a set of insights that deserve attention, and translation:

We are continuously evaluating our program and looking for ways to make it better - whether that’s through additional academic support, recruiting, facilities, staffing, culture, leadership or anything else that can help our football program succeed. [1] Primarily, we want what’s best for our student-athletes [2] and have a head coach in place who is fully committed to our program  and our university [3].

….Our objective is long-term financial sustainability for our department. In order to do this, we understand that investing in football is critical [1]. We believe that this change will reinvigorate the program, stimulate lagging ticket sales and renewals, and energize our donor base. [4]

….We want to win championships. The success of our football program is vital to both our department and our university community [5], and its influence can be felt well beyond Berkeley.

1: Almost everything in this list costs money, and we intend to keep spending it no matter what that task force says, or what weird mission the outgoing or incoming chancellor thinks a university has.  It’s our tradition of a decade here at Cal to keep throwing money at a mediocre football program, and we take our traditions seriously. Sooner or later, maybe as little as $6m later, inshallah, the larger forces of big-time college sports will abate, the bleeding will stop, and we will reach some sort of equilibrium, right?

2: To be clear; we retain the services of the conditioning coach who killed one football player, sent another to the hospital, and cost us $5m in a liability settlement. We certainly aren’t going to rein in practice times so they can sit around in classrooms or labs, or do a bunch of wussy problem sets. “What’s best for our student-athletes” is not what people outside the cult might think the phrase means.

3: This is just sports PR blather, of course, the language of press conferences and after-game interviews; $3m college coaches are fully committed to their careers and if anything, expect their employers to be committed to them with limitless staff, facilities, money, and perks. Pete Carroll’s effortless leap to the Seahawks from the shambles he left at USC is instructive.

4: Chronicle reporting is occasionally sloppy, and in this case we are not informed whether Williams clicked his heels together three times and closed his eyes as he said this last.  Nor whether the “we” actually includes any living person on earth with a three-digit IQ.

5: This combines a statement of fact with a religious utterance based on faith. No, it’s not vital to the community, not even close, though its ruinous cost certainly inflicts a lot pain on the rest of us. My department just completed a faculty search and not one of the candidates asked about the prospects of the football team or even knew our record. We lost a prof to Stanford a few years ago, and in all our discussions of his move he never once brought up Stanford/Cal football. I have talked to dozens of undergraduates and grad students over the years and not found one who came to Cal because our football (or men’s basketball) teams were better than those at other schools to which they were applying. I have been here semester after semester, talking to colleagues in social science, humanities, and hard science across that university community, and the salience of football in our socialization, community spirit, and plain water-cooler schmoose is similar to the salience of pro wrestling. Big-time sports may be ‘vital’ for Clemson or Florida State, but not for us.

What can we expect in the near future?  The new coach will need to do some really desperate recruiting of defense players at the least, and develop a quarterback (unless he decides to bring in a graduate transfer ringer as Dykes did this year).  The program will be even less attractive to high school stars, however, so I have probability of about 0.3 that we will be reading about recruiting violations of the type fictionalized in the memorable movie Blue Chips, or recruiting and oversight failures of the type that recently humiliated Baylor. Meanwhile, ticket sales will keep going down, the athletics deficit will grow, and the new chancellor will find his feet stuck in the big muddy from his first day.

Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics at a[nother] Crossroads

With proper accounting for facilities operation and maintenance, Berkeley’s Division I Intercollegiate Athletics program costs the campus about $30m per year.  As the school is facing a very sobering $180m structural deficit, this has finally attracted the serious attention of our administration, and the chancellor has appointed a task force to suggest ways to get it under control.  I have been a regular critic of this operation for several years (search “athletics” on this blog for examples) and the task force was gracious enough to ask me for input on their project.  Special for Cal faculty: the task force has scheduled a Town Hall listening session Mon., December 5, 2 to 4 PM in Sibley Auditorium.

Here is a compilation of the rather bleak recommendations I provided to the TFIA when I met with them:

Continue reading “Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics at a[nother] Crossroads”

The new Berkeley Aquatic Center

At least every few months, the Intercollegiate Athletics (IA) enterprise at my school gives us something new to be ashamed of.  This fall, it’s the opening of a new aquatic center, for about 120 letter athletes only, that commits a whole catalog of the typical sins of that firm [sic: it has it’s own .com website], and the injuries it inflicts on the university.

To start with, it’s in the wrong place, a large lot on a corner close to downtown that badly needs street activation, across the street from land uses (a track stadium and the existing aquatic center) that also don’t generate any foot traffic. The city fathers are furious that the university used this valuable lot for something that could have gone anywhere. For more on the location mistake, see Sam Davis’ takedown.

It has been touted, at a time when the cost of the IA program is attracting serious criticism, as being completely funded (about $15m) by the generous donors, and here we confront one of the most persistent qualities of IA, which is its insouciant, arrogant, mendacity, especially about money.  A building like this needs to be cleaned, heated, repaired and maintained.  It is actually rather expensive to keep a great big pool of water warm enough to swim in, outdoors in the climate of the Bay Area, and there are light bulbs to change, etc. A rule of thumb some institutions use for planning this is that maintaining a building requires an endowment approximately equal to the cost of the building itself.  At 5% return on such an endowment,  the new pool will cost the campus about $750K per year to keep the lights on and the doors open, or about four full professors.  Those light bulbs and gas bills will be paid for with real money.  You might think IA would pay for this, but that operation is already costing us about $30m a year in net subsidy, so even the part they might pay for directly just comes right back to the campus.

Completely funded by the donors? Let’s look at this again:

Donors gift (thank you)                           $7.5m

State and federal funds*                            7.5m

Campus gift of land                                     (10m)

Operation and maintenance                      (15m)

Total net                                                           ( $10m)

So “completely funded” actually means “paid less than a fifth of the cost, reached into our pocket and the taxpayers’ for about $17.5 million, and put a $750k/year tapeworm in our lunch.” Talk about leverage! Don’t you wish you could muscle your public agencies to house your hobbies at better than 5:1?

Just to add insult to injury, IA is going to give about a third of their exclusive time at our existing pool back to the other 40,000 citizens of the university for recreational use and physical education.

*the gift is a charitable deduction against state and federal income, and the donors are certainly in top brackets.