February 5, 2015

Sports Seem To Be Our Ultimate Passion

The Super Bowl is over, but the intensity of discussion about it and its key participants will continue for a while.  Several things have intrigued me specifically about an event like this and, more generally, about the contrast between our obsession with, and passion for, spectator sports, and the indifference with which many Americans approach their primary jobs and careers, family and community relationships, and vital political issues.

Over the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, the media were able to fill 336 hours with content about the Super Bowl.  Listeners and viewers spent an inordinate amount of time offering unsolicited comments on the “Deflategate” football issue, even to the point of giving it a significance that evoked the most serious political scandal in American history, “Watergate.”  They also focused on the unwillingness of the Seattle running back, Marshawn Lynch, to talk to the media.

While I am listening to, watching, or reading about the broader sports scene, several bigger questions have grabbed me:

  • Why do we focus so much passion on sports, compared with everything else that matters far more to our future?

In theory, sports is a form of recreation or escape from reality, but so many Americans invest a game like the Super Bowl or a series of games, like the World Series or the NBA Championship, with outsized importance.  Somebody who would have tuned out everything to do with their work or would be asleep at 5 pm is calling sports talk radio station at that time highly animated about a relatively unimportant subject.

Large organizations try to engage employees to give their discretionary effort to the organization, but, in many cases, they fail miserably.  To some degree, it may be that what the employees are doing has not been made all that much fun, but, more likely, they are stressed out or disengaged because their immediate supervisor or their employer does not treat them with respect.

Decades ago, the great baseball player Pete Rose stepped up to home plate, turned to the catcher, and said: “I can’t believe they pay us to do this.”  He enjoyed baseball so much that he would have played for much less.  How many people would ever say that about their job?

I particularly think about this issue today because many people stay home from work or school whenever there is significant snow and ice on the roads.  Had they been able to go to an important sporting event in the same weather, they not only would have braved the snow and ice to go, but they would have paid admission to sit in a freezing cold stadium for three hours.

For those of us who lead organizations, we need to figure out what works so well to get engagement in sports and what fails so miserably in other arenas of life.

  • Why are we unable to make other walks of life a meritocracy to the degree that sports operates as one?

Professional sports, especially those like professional football in which there are only 16 games a year, are brutal meritocracies.  Non-performers are gone after one game or are released within a season or between seasons.  Professional teams simply do not carry non-performers or even good performers that are not as good as others available to do the job.

Teams do not worry about the effect of releasing an athlete on his psyche or on his ability to support his family.  They do what’s right for the organization, and life usually goes on for the athlete, although not always.  In fact, in professional football, the toll the sport takes on athletes, who survive an average of 3.2 years at the professional level, is horrific.

However, even putting that aside, fans calmly watch a team release someone who may very well be a wonderful human being, but who is deemed inadequate for a professional position.  The suddenness and the seeming heartlessness of these decisions not only does not trouble fans, but we are urging the teams to make these moves, because we want the team for which we root to be as good as it can be.

In non-sports settings, we want people to get inordinate levels of protection against arbitrary personnel actions.  We even believe that organizations should carry non-performers on their payroll for a period of time to help them cope with the life transition.  To some degree, union collective bargaining agreements protect obviously incompetent or underperforming government employees, some of whom should not be protected, such as K-12 teachers who are protected by tenure provisions that were designed to protect free speech at the university.  However, we tolerate retaining incompetent people in vital jobs that we would never tolerate as a professional sports fan.

  • Why do parents devote so much time, money, and emotional energy to drive their children into sports and to keep them there?

One of the sadder things I often saw when my son James played town and, briefly, high school baseball was the seriousness with which so many parents took their children’s sports participation, prowess and standing.  Even in a highly genteel town like Darien, Connecticut, I observed some highly dysfunctional parental behavior.

The saddest case was one in which a father who coached a team on which his son played insisted that his son be the starting pitcher to the maximum extent allowed by league rules.  Not only was the son a relatively untalented pitcher, but it was obvious that he knew it and was not even performing up to his limited abilities because he was stressed out trying to please his father.

I realize that this sometimes happen with family businesses, but, even in those cases, parents who own businesses are forced to take a cold-blooded look at whether their children are up to the job of operating the business.  In sports, parents seem to lose perspective, even though the odds of ultimate sports success are far lower than the odds of business success.

  • Why do we demand a level of precision and comprehensiveness in performance data for sports that we do not demand for education, health, government performance, or even business performance?

Sports of all kinds, largely because of the combination of needs of those buying and managing teams, those negotiating their salaries, and, although no one will admit this, gamblers, have developed far more elaborate statistical performance analyses.  The biggest single change in sports since the 1970’s is the transformation in statistical analysis of the basic components of the games.  Baseball secured the most publicity about this because of the combination of Bill James’ work in the 1970’s and 1980’s and the Michael Lewis book Moneyball, but all sports have developed far more sophisticated statistical analyses that they had three decades ago.

The combination of more high-speed photography and data analytics has particularly revolutionized the evaluation of components of each sport that defied previous analyses, such as fielding in baseball, the performance of linemen in football, and the skills of ice hockey players.

In the days before precise photography and analytics, most talent evaluators could only guess on most of these components, based on viewing a sampling of plays, but did not have the statistical compilations or analyses to get precise, long-term, and complete results.

Yet, when we try to evaluate our doctors, our teachers, our elected officials, and many other service providers, we do not demand the same level of statistical precision, and we do not understand the metrics that are available to us.  It is not a stretch to say that most sports fanatics know more about the statistical performance of the star athletes than they know about their own vital health statistics.

Public companies have elaborate statistical and financial reporting, but they operate within a framework regulated by the government securities regulators and the accounting standards setting bodies.  These reporting systems are getting progressively more divorced from the realities understandable by the average investor.  Investors struggle to get the same level of precise granular data from publicly traded entities that they can easily get from sports teams, yet a lot more money is at stake with public securities than with athletic teams in all the major sports combined.