Experience

I am going to make this one a quickie: lots of analysts have pointed to the Giants’ “experience’ to explain their World Series triumph.

As a general rule, discussions of experience in sports are little more than exercises in tail-chasing. Experience matters when it matters, and doesn’t when it doesn’t. The Yankees lost the 2001 and 2003 World Series to less experienced teams for a pretty simple reason – they ran into some dominant starting pitching. I think it’s fair to say that Russell Wilson had less experience heading into last year’s Super Bowl than did Peyton Manning. Other recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, including Eli in 2007, Brees in 2009, Rodgers in 2010 and Flacco in 2012 faced off against teams/and or quarterbacks who’d logged more miles in the playoffs than they had. Similar stories could be told in every sport.

This year, a young team few of whose players had previously appeared in the postseason played a team that had won two of the previous four World Series titles, breaking a recent tendency in which teams with similar postseason mileage had played one another.

To say that the Giants won this year because of that recent success is, I am sorry to say, just silly. They won a seventh and deciding game by one run. Overall, they outscored the Royals 30-27. The two teams played 63 innings across the seven games. In the 21 innings in which Bumgarner pitched, the Giants outscored the Royals 12-1. In the other 42 innings, the Royals outscored the Giants 26-18. Bumgarner pitched in three games. The Giants were 3-0 in those contests. In the four games in which he did not appear, the experienced Giants went 1-3 against the inexperienced Royals. Each team won one close game – 3-2 in both cases.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. There is a very simple explanation for why the Giants won this year. It’s not veteran savvy, or “knowing how to win” or any of that nonsense. They had Madison Bumgarner. The other guys didn’t.

Harrumph.

What is the purpose of the NCAA?

Charles Pierce, with his usual gusto, puts the UNC debacle in the context of the broader problem with big-time college athletics:

Colleges have no business being vehicles for mass entertainment any more than they have business selling widgets or maintaining a fishing fleet. It is no proper part of a university’s mission to provide quality television programming and year-round gambling opportunities for the rest of the country. That this has become the norm in America’s system of higher education is a monstrous accident of history and of academic neglect, but there it is, and it is not going anywhere, and the only way to do it is simply to make an honest business out of it. This is the direction toward which events seem to be pushing the industry at the moment. There’s a kind of blessed relief in that, because the screams of outrage and betrayal never quite drown out the faint echoes of the hoofbeats of horses long ago let out of the barn.

It was a surprise to hear David Glenn, midday sports host on Raleigh’s 99.9 The Fan argue yesterday that it was “ignorant” to assert that the NCAA had a primary responsibility to ensure the academic integrity of its member institutions. Glenn is a generally exceptionally well-informed commentator, particularly on college athletics and even more particularly on how ACC schools fare in applying academic standards to athletes’ admissions. And yet there he was arguing that anyone who argued that the NCAA had to bring the hammer down on UNC following the Wainstein revelations had “no idea what they were talking about.”

Glenn was correct to say that among the NCAA’s primary concerns is hosting inter-collegiate championships and coordinating the execution of inter-collegiate athletics more generally. But it simply cannot be denied what the NCAA itself claims is its raison d’etre. Among its central purposes, as its representatives stated repeatedly at the O’Bannon trial earlier this year, is to ensure the integration of academics and athletics. Indeed, its assertion that it is promoting an “amateur” enterprise, the basis of its tax-exempt, non-profit status, is that its mission is fundamentally an educational one. In that context, “academic integrity” is, according to the NCAA itself, a core mandate.

Furthermore, in the National Labor Relations Board hearing this spring that led to a ruling that football players at Northwestern are employees under US labor law, the university, with the backing of the NCAA, adamantly disagreed, on the grounds that “student-athletes” are simply and indisputably students first.

Indeed, and perhaps most fundamentally, the NCAA *requires* that athletes meet certain academic standards before they are even allowed on the field. Those standards include status as full-time students in any semester in which athletes compete, good enough grades to remain academically eligible and measurable progress toward completion of a degree.

You may well think this is all a farce. I might well agree. But that’s not really relevant to what the NCAA might or should do in the case of UNC. The NCAA *claims* that the education of its student-athletes is of primary importance. It also insists that intercollegiate athletics themselves are vital insofar as they advance the participants’ educational interests. As long as the NCAA says this it what they are about, they are going to face pressure to investigate seriously and sanction meaningfully institutions who’ve subverted minimally plausible standards of academic integrity in order to keep their athletes eligible to play sports.

The NCAA – particularly its “collegiate model” – is facing unprecedented legal, legislative and public pressure. Until such time as it acknowledges that it does *not* consider “student-athletes” to be “students first” and that academic integrity is plainly secondary to sustaining the multi-billion dollar entertainment complex with which it is associated, the association will, at a minimum, have to feign real concern when principles of academic integrity are so plainly violated to meet the demands of collegiate athletics.

In this context, the NCAA will be hard pressed not to come down very hard on UNC.

I’m not gonna lie…

albert-einstein-hd-wallpaper-iphone

…I do get a kick out of the never-ending conversation among football analysts about why Jay Cutler isn’t playing better. I wrote several times last year that Cutler was, quite obviously, a mediocre quarterback. But having nothing to do with his performance on the field, the Bears gave Cutler a massive contract this off-season. The Peter Kings of the world deemed him worth it. Brian Billick picked him to be league MVP in 2014.

Now the Bears are 3-5 and, to seemingly everyone’s shock, Jay Cutler is playing like Jay Cutler. His stats look superficially good this year. His passer rating is 95.8 so far, impressive for a guy who’s never finished above 90 in a full season. But that figure leaves him 13th in the NFL, right in line with how he’s played year after year. Cutler is tied for sixth in interceptions. Combined with his league-leading four lost fumbles, he’s top three in the league in turnovers.  He’s tied for third at being sacked. In other words, when it comes to negative plays – sacks and turnovers – Cutler is especially bad. Cutler is also 22nd in yards per attempt, a more important statistic than completion percentage, in which Cutler has fared well. This is the profile of a middling quarterback.

As Albert Einstein once said about Cutler, the definition of insanity is insisting over and over again that greatness is just around the corner for the Bears’ QB, even as nothing about his performance changes. Or was it Nietzsche who said that?

Weekend Update (more UNC)

There’s been a blizzard of commentary since the Wainstein report dropped on Wednesday.

Flagging a few:

1) Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, says UNC should lose its accreditation:

I have read many responses to the report of corruption at Chapel Hill. Some argue that those at the center of the activities were simply trying to help at-risk students, to which my response is that awarding credits and grades without providing instruction is not “help” in any sense that I can accept. In the case of student athletes, I see it as closer to exploitation for the benefit of the university. Some argue that this behavior is widespread among institutions with highly visible Division I sports programs and therefore should provoke no particular surprise or outrage.

I hope that this last claim is untrue. If it is, however, the only way to alter such behavior is to respond with force and clarity when it is uncovered. Reducing the number of athletic scholarships at Chapel Hill, or vacating wins, or banning teams from postseason competition, is in each case a punishment wholly unsuitable to the crime. The crime involves fundamental academic integrity. The response, regardless of the visibility or reputation or wealth of the institution, should be to suspend accredited status until there is evidence that an appropriate level of integrity is both culturally and structurally in place.

Anything less would be dismissive of the many institutions whose transcripts actually have meaning.

There are a couple of things to quibble with here. One, the fact remains that the vast majority of UNC graduates have transcripts that do have meaning. Two, the university has taken institutional steps to ensure that this kind of thing could not repeat itself. Nevertheless, It’s noteworthy that this is coming from a college president and, it seems safe to assume, is a fairly widely shared sentiment. Incidentally, this is a context in which it certainly *is* appropriate to emphasize that this scandal has meaning beyond athletics. Rosenberg is obviously not trying to rationalize the conduct of beloved teams. Instead, he’s taking aim at the larger institutional taint that the corrupting temptations of big time sports can engender.

2) Luke Decock, the excellent columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer, uses a light touch to raise pressing questions about what Roy Williams knew and when he knew it.

According to the report, Williams and assistant coach Joe Holladay were concerned about clustering in a single major and the coaches wanted to make sure players were free to choose their own majors and weren’t being steered toward African and Afro-American Studies – an explanation Williams repeated Friday night.

But in 2012, when Williams was asked about the decline in enrollments, he said players may have decided on their own not to take them. Since the logic Williams offered in the Wainstein Report and again Friday night was perfectly reasonable, why not be more forthcoming in 2012?

Williams argued Friday that his arguments were materially the same – “It’s all the same answer, we let kids choose what they want to choose” – but that’s an oversimplification at best.

Then there’s the case of Walden, the academic adviser Williams brought from Kansas after he decided longtime basketball adviser Burgess McSwain had become too close to the athletes. McSwain had been funneling players to Crowder’s phony classes and Walden would eventually do the same, as noted in the report, over time becoming aware some of the classes were not legitimate.

Williams said again Friday that Walden never passed that knowledge along to Williams or Holladay, but the question will linger of how Williams’ hand-picked academic adviser could know about the scam without passing that info along.

As I’ve written before, Williams also said in 2012 that he and his staff were on top of his players’ academics “every day,” a far cry from what Williams has asserted repeatedly in the past few months. Decock is playing it more subtly here, but for the columnist of what is, in essence, the hometown paper to be raising these questions is significant.

3) The more I read, the more I am inclined to think that the NCAA is going to come down hard. As I wrote on Thursday, the question of what authority the NCAA *should* have merits debate, but only as a matter of principle. Not because one wants to see one’s own school avoid sanction. Regardless, I don’t think the NCAA is going to close up shop in the next six months. And the pressure on the organization to impose serious penalties on UNC will be significant. The NCAA has punished schools for academic improprieties before. And Gerald Gurney, who has studied the history of academic misconduct in collegiate athletics, says UNC’s transgressions are the Wayne Gretzky of such misdeeds – the school has smashed all previous records.

That’s going to be hard to ignore.

4) Tacking this on – from John Infante, an expert on NCAA enforcement issues. Infante says that linking specific athletes to academic fraud may be complicated and that this is relevant for the NCAA’s efforts to impose punishments on UNC.

However, on the all-important question of institutional control, Infante says there is no ambiguity:

For a charge of lack of institutional control however, the degree of athletic department involvement is vital. Imagine an alternate reality where the UNC athletic department was completely unaware of the true nature and purpose of the paper courses.2 That this was nothing more than academic advisors suggesting easy courses to athletes. In that case, an charge of lack of institution control would be tantamount to saying the athletic department is responsible for exercising institutional control over an academic unit.

That is exactly what happened though and why a charge of lack of institutional control is so clear cut. Because of the poor oversight, athletics staff members were able to exert far too much influence over the AFAM department. Specific instances include the emails requesting certain grades, the special course arrangement for athletes, the refusal to enroll some athletes in the paper courses without a referral from an academic advisor and, most egregious, the continuation of the paper courses after Crowder’s retirement at the instance of the football academic advisors.

This is such a slam dunk case of lack of institutional control that I believe it does not even need the underlying academic fraud violation. Such a case is essentially unprecedented save the Penn State case and that was exceptional in many other ways. But it is warranted here. The NCAA cannot allow an athletic department to have the type of sway over the academic functions of the university that UNC’s did.

(my bold)

Infante says that new rules on repeat offenders (a status that would not apply to UNC) and the fact that UNC has not been guilty of any such violations since these rules went into effect in 2012, would likely result in UNC receiving lesser penalties (in other words, not some version of the so-called “death penalty.” But those penalties, according to Infante, could still include, among other things: lengthy probation, loss of scholarships and vacating of records. Regarding the latter, this could bear directly on the 2005 men’s national championship basketball team. In some ways, taking a banner down, though it’s symbolic in one sense, might be the harshest blow of all. First, because no previous NCAA Division I basketball champion has ever before had to take down a banner. And second because, as anyone who has ever been to a UNC basketball game knows, the school’s basketball championships are an undeniable part of its mythology and identity.

Wainstein follow-up

Still digesting some of the implications of the report. Here are a few more items of interest: 1) the report states that both John Bunting, head football coach from 2001-2006, and Butch Davis, head football coach from 2007-2010, knew about the paper classes. From the report:

“Coach Bunting also candidly told us that he knew about the AFAM paper classes, and fully understood that they could be satisfied by submitting a paper without any class attendance. He knew that they yielded consistently high grades for his players, and was told by ASPSA counselor Cynthia Reynolds that they were a key element of her strategy for keeping some players eligible. He had not realized, however, that an office administrator was managing the classes without any faculty involvement. In short, Coach Bunting knew the irregular courses were available and knew they were being used to help keep some players eligible, but believed that they were worthwhile classes.”

About Davis, the report stated:

“he certainly knew by the time of the November 2009 presentation from Beth Bridger that football players in these courses “didn’t go to class… didn’t take notes… didn’t have to meet with professors… [and] didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”

It’s striking that Bunting, in particular, had a level of awareness of the paper class system, when he led a program comprising over 100 players at any one time, that the head basketball coach, with about fifteen players at any one time, apparently lacked. 2) one very significant area of difference between the 2012 Martin report and the Wainstein report is this:

“Governor Martin found that ‘[t]he percentage of student-athletes enrolled in anomalous course sections was consistent with the percentage of student-athletes enrolled in all courses offered  by the Department.’ After a comprehensive examination of the Registrar records, we came up with a very different statistical picture. We found that student-athletes accounted for 48% of all enrollments in the irregular classes, but only 8.3% of the enrollments in the regular AFAM  courses. Accordingly, unlike Governor Martin, we found that student-athletes were far more represented in paper classes than they were in other courses offered by the department.”

The Martin narrative suggested that student-athletes were drawn to AFAM in part because it was a generally easy major and that it was something of an added bonus that the department offered a particularly accommodating route for players to complete their work. By contrast, the Wainstein report suggests that the attraction of student-athletes to AFAM wasn’t primarily because it was a slide major in general. Indeed, the gap in GPA between the paper classes and regular AFAM courses was substantial. The clustering in AFAM among athletes, it seems clear, resulted specifically from the introduction and extension of a parallel curriculum comprising bogus classes. At UNC, that bogus curriculum happened to be housed in AFAM. In other similar scandals, like those at Auburn and the University of Michigan, key offending departments were sociology and psychology, respectively. But the existence of the parallel curriculum in AFAM at UNC really had little to nothing to do with the nature and rigor of AFAM generally. 3) Two additional pieces of data from the report struck me: a) Per Wainstein: “Of 154 students who enrolled in five or more [non-independent study paper classes], 109 (70.8%) were student-athletes.” This cohort didn’t merely rely on paper classes for the occasional breather. Instead, paper classes were essential to their ability to graduate or, at a minimum, maintain eligibility. b) of the 3,900+ student enrollments in the paper classes, about 47% were athletes, when athletes make up about four percent of the student body. Even more disproportionate, football and basketball players accounted for nearly 25% of paper class enrollments. Their proportion of the student body – about seven-tenths of one percent.

The Wainstein Report

(A quick note on comments. I welcome disagreement. But I won’t publish stupid personal attacks on certain individuals. Carry on).

Before I jump in, I want to note that one or more people I know are losing their jobs over this. I am not going to weigh in on whether they should or not. But it’s all pretty sobering.

Some thoughts:

1) the first conclusion in the 2012 Martin report, for which UNC paid a minimum of half a million dollars reads: “This was not an athletic scandal. Sadly, it was clearly an academic scandal; but an isolated one within this one department.”

That conclusion is now no longer credible (not that it ever was, but it stood, in some respects, as the university’s official line, until yesterday).

That’s a good thing.

2) the emphasis on the fact that a large number of non-athletes also took the paper classes serves as something of a red herring in analysis of this scandal. First, because there is simply no denying that the shadow curriculum was launched and sustained primarily to benefit athletes and second because the eventual substantial presence of non-athletes in the fake classes is not relevant to questions of athletic eligibility per NCAA rules. If you’re trying to grasp how corruption and denial persist at an institution, understanding the full scope of the scandal, *including* the large numbers of non-athletes who found their way into those classes, is important. But if you’re trying somehow to rationalize or explain away the indisputable fact that the system operated as a critical eligibility life line for athletes, especially in football and, until 2007 or so, basketball, save your breath.

Among the most damning elements of the Wainstein report was the revelation that counselors in Academic Support Programs for Student Athletes (ASPSA) put together a powerpoint presentation essentially warning of the impending disaster that would attend Debbie Crowder’s retirement in 2009.

Specifically, as reported by the News and Observer:

ASPSA football counseling staff explained (1) that the AFAM paper classes had played a large role in keeping under-prepared and/or unmotivated football player eligible to play and (2) that these classes no longer existed. To emphasize those points, the counselors used the following slide in their presentation to the football coaches:

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This particularly damning revelation would, one presumes, be of interest to the NCAA in its ongoing investigation. Remember that the NCAA has punished schools in the past for academic fraud that bore on player eligibility, notably stripping Florida State and Bobby Bowden of all wins in 2006 and 2007, after major academic violations were uncovered there.

Whether the NCAA ought to have the authority to monitor academic processes and procedures and whether there is utility in expunging wins from records years after the fact are matters for debate. But the precedent appears relevant and the Wainstein report would seem to have provided plenty of fodder for applying that precedent in this case.

3) Much of the reporting since yesterday has focused on Roy Williams. Specifically, Williams has been characterized as having expressed “concern” about how many of his players were majoring in AFAM. He also apparently preferred that his players take traditional lecture-style classes, rather than independent studies. His anxiety about the situation, according to the Wainstein report, resulted in the basketball program weaning itself off of paper classes by 2007 or 2008. By contrast, football continued to exploit the shadow curriculum until it was snuffed out in 2011.

These facts have led numerous commentators – and many relieved fans – to conclude that Williams was something of a stand up guy in all this. But the Wainstein report itself is not quite as forgiving as this narrative suggests. First, according to data compiled by Wainstein, here are the numbers of player enrollments in paper classes, by coaching era at UNC:

“During the Dean Smith era (1961-1997), there were 54  basketball player enrollments in AFAM independent studies. In the three years of Coach Bill Guthridge’s tenure (1997-2000), there were 17 basketball enrollments in paper classes. There were  42 enrollments in paper classes under Coach Matt Doherty (2000-2003) and 167 under Coach Roy Williams (2003-present).”

If, as Wainstein reports, the basketball program essentially stopped allowing players to use paper classes by 2008, those 167 enrollments were mostly compiled in the first five or so years of Williams’ tenure at Chapel Hill. This would, of course, include the 2005 championship team, which has been widely reported to have exploited the paper class system to the hilt. How proud should Williams and his defenders be of this record?

This raises a second area in which the report actually undercuts the pro-Williams narrative. In June, Rashad McCants, one of the stars of the 2005 championship team, told ESPN that when he was a student at UNC, his academic career was essentially a joke. He took many paper classes, tutors wrote his and other teammates’ papers and the only priority for his “education” at UNC was to keep him academically eligible. When asked whether Williams knew about the paper class system, McCants said, in essence, yes, of course, he had to know.

Williams angrily refuted that charge and the university assembled many of his former players to back him up in an interview with Jay Bilas shortly after McCants made his allegations.

As I explained at the time, Williams’ insistence since the beginning of this year that the academic side of his players’ college experience is “not my world” and that he essentially knows nothing of what they do academically was implausible. It both contradicted fundamentally statements Williams has made in the past and is obviously at odds with what he undoubtedly tells parents when he’s recruiting their kids.

The report makes clear that Williams was aware of his players’ schedules, the types of classes they were taking and, at least in broad terms, the nature of the classes they were taking. Had he not been, how could he have been so concerned about their clustering in AFAM? How could he have directed his staff to steer them away from independent study style classes to traditional lecture classes? Williams told Wainstein that he knew McCants’ schedule in his final semester at UNC, the spring of 2005, included several AFAM courses. That doesn’t prove that Williams knew they were all paper classes. And Wainstein does conclude that Coach Williams didn’t know that the paper classes themselves were as fraudulent as they’ve been revealed to be. Williams’ handpicked academic coordinator, Wayne Walden, who followed the coach from Kansas to UNC in 2003, did acknowledge awareness of the depth of the improprieties in those classes. But when Wainstein asked him whether he informed Coach Williams, Walden told Wainstein he couldn’t recall having done so.

While these facts let Williams off the hook of the more serious charges, they also demonstrate clearly that he was being untruthful when he said earlier this year that he was essentially in the dark on academic matters.

4) So, what now? The university has spent more than three years and countless hours investigating allegations, convening committees, drawing up new policies, implementing new processes and procedures, reforming its admissions processes and more. All of this has been done to ensure that a school with rigorous academic standards can continue to maintain an elite athletics program, including in the revenue-generating giants – football and men’s basketball. And to do so while ensuring that every student it admits has a real opportunity to receive a high quality college education.

Can this be done? Should it be a goal? Or is it time to give up the ghost and acknowledge that big time sports on college campuses will always tend to create pressures and conflicts of interest that make corruption and scandal likely, if not inevitable?

I know that last question in particular sounds rhetorical, but actually it’s not. My personal preference is that we acknowledge the reality that big time collegiate athletics is a financial behemoth, that the primary goal of bringing elite athletes in the profit sports is to fuel that behemoth and that remuneration should accord with that fact. If athletes have the desire and motivation to take advantage of the educational opportunities that a university affords while playing for that school – fantastic. If not, they don’t have to. The academic preparedness of athletes varies dramatically. Many are ready, willing and able to succeed in the classroom. Others aren’t. If some of the latter want to try, the university should make available to them the resources necessary for them to give it a go. But it wouldn’t require them to take a full load while they are still struggling to master the basic functions necessary to succeed in college. And maintaining academic eligibility wouldn’t be the entry visa necessary to get on the field.

Is this a perfect solution? No. That’s why I mean it when I say that the question above is not rhetorical. Very far from it. It raises its own very serious questions. The scandal at UNC might never have happened, certainly not for the length of time and in the form it did, were it not for the action of several key individuals. But the institutional pressure that big-time athletics exerts puts all institutions of higher education in compromising circumstances. That real people, some with understandable and even sympathetic motives, were central to the scandal in Chapel Hill should not be allowed to obscure the larger dilemma.

The Upside of Mediocrity

Dave Cameron has a really nice piece on the Royals, who open tonight’s World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Like a lot of analysts, Cameron was critical of the Royals’ 2013 trade for starter James Shields, which required giving up super-prospect Wil Myers. Shields has anchored a pitching staff that has led the Royals’ on an improbable run through the AL playoffs, positioning KC for a chance to capture its first World Series title since 1985.

Cameron asks himself where he went wrong in evaluating the Royals’ decision-making:

The playoffs—like most short tournaments between competitors of mostly equal stature—are mostly random, with the outcomes swinging wildly on things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in advance.

There’s a decent chance that the Royals don’t even make it out of the wild-card game if Geovany Soto doesn’t get injured on a play that began when Billy Butler screwed up a stolen base attempt. The Royals’ postseason run has been amazing, but it was also six outs away from not happening, and we don’t want to treat results that could have legitimately gone the other way as evidence that this was a probable outcome. Sometimes, the answer really is just that an unlikely event occurred.

But that can also be a cop-out. We can’t take every example of our expectations not being met as an unlikely event occurring without at least asking if we got the odds wrong. If we just write off all unexpected outcomes as randomness, we’ll create a bubble in which a false sense of our own understanding thrives without being challenged. The Royals’ World Series run doesn’t inherently mean that we should have all seen this coming and my analysis of their team over the last two years has been entirely wrong, but it’d be folly to not at least consider that possibility. Maybe this was randomness shining on the Royals, or maybe I missed something.

What Cameron thinks he missed, more than any specific guesses about individual player performance, was the degree to which it makes sense in baseball to build a just-good-enough team, in a sport in which just-good-enough might be barely better than average:

In other sports, where the value of a top draft pick is so much higher than it is in MLB, the correct decision is often to either be great or terrible, with mediocrity as the awful middle ground. Perhaps too much of that sentiment crept into my own thinking about the upside of building an 85-win team, because in today’s baseball world, 85 wins and a little bit of luck can turn a franchise around. I’ve argued against losing on purpose, but perhaps I’ve argued too strongly for wins in the 88 to 95 range and not strongly enough for wins in the 80 to 88 range. The win curve is a real thing, and some wins are more valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve correctly evaluated the marginal benefit of pushing yourself from 82 to 86 wins.

The economic upside of making a serious run now, both through better TV ratings and by engendering future fan interest and loyalty may well outweigh whatever short term payroll savings delayed gratification might confer. All of which suggests that more middling teams might make the kinds of moves the Royals have. And it appears they wouldn’t be crazy to do so.