Odds and Ends

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(The photo is of Alfonso Soriano, not because he’s got anything do with what I am writing about today. It’s just that there’s been so little to get excited about as a Yankee fan this season, and Soriano’s past four games – he has tied a major league record for most RBI in a four game span with 18 – have been fun. So there).

A couple of items worth mentioning.

1) Sports economist Dave Berri, founder of the Wages of Wins network, has a piece at Time.com today about paying college players. Contra Colin Cowherd’s recent claims, Berri thinks paying players would improve competitive balance:

Kentucky’s recruiting class in 2013 suggest that high school stars are looking at whether or not their college team will win in choosing which school to attend. This choice doesn’t simply reflect a preference for winning over losing. In the NBA Draft, academic research shows that players from Final Four teams are chosen about 10 choices higher than players who did not advance to the Final Four.  How does a player increase the odds he can get to the Final Four? Go to teams that recruit other top talents. And who recruits top talents? Teams that historically went to the Final Four. It’s a vicious cycle that helps the top schools remain on top year after year.

If players were paid, market forces would work against this tendency. The University of Kentucky would offer top money to a few recruits, but only five can take the court at any one time.  As Kentucky tries to keep adding top talent, the value of each additional player to Kentucky must decline.  And consequently, another school – even one with less money – will be able to make an offer that will top what Kentucky would be willing to pay.

The dynamics might be somewhat different for college football than they are for men’s basketball, because the marginal return of adding additional players declines so quickly in basketball after a very small number of players is recruited. But at a minimum, Berri’s logic seems sound to me concerning basketball.

To be clear, I don’t think you need a competitive balance argument to justify paying college players. If they are generating that much money for the schools, they deserve something on that basis alone. But Berri’s point is correct – the competitive balance argument is often used to justify maintaining the status quo. And as I suggested last week, it’s just as likely to improve in a system where there is some monetary compensation.

2) I have been reading Jonathan Mahler’s great book, Ladies and Gentleman: The Bronx is Burning, about the 1977 Yankees and the insanity that was New York City at that time. I grew up in New York in the 1970s, so the book is, in addition to being an entertaining and often riveting history of that period in the city’s history, a really fun trip down memory lane. The book’s focus is not on sports media, but it certainly is germane to the subject matter: the 1977 New York Yankees are among the most high-profile teams of all time, as much for their off-the-field antics as their on-field success (enough so that ESPN ran a dramatic 8-part miniseries about that team, adapted from Mahler’s book).

The central off-field drama on that team was the volatile relationship between Manager Billy Martin and newly signed free agent slugger Reggie Jackson. This is an old story that has been rehashed many times, so I won’t bore you with one more account. But here’s what I was thinking about last night: in the internet age, among the most common laments among sports journalists (and journalists more broadly) is how the internet has contributed to declining standards. The premise is that nowadays, any idiot can start a blog (don’t I know it) and spout off about whatever he or she wants. With no standards and no respect for the former authority of traditional journalism, the public square is now a cacophonous free-for-all, where “truth” is no longer the prized value. Instead, all that matters are “hits,” drawing attention to yourself and making noise for the sake of the noise – the internet troll being the embodiment of this new zeitgeist. Obviously, every major media enterprise long ago migrated to the internet. But the complaint about “bloggers in their mother’s basement” and all that implies still permeates sports and news discourse, leading to routine complaints about the Deadspins of the world for their shameless self-promotion.

What got me thinking about this was Mahler’s recounting of one of the most iconic controversies of the 1977 season – when Reggie Jackson, just weeks into his Yankee career, was quoted as bashing Yankee captain and New York hero Thurman Munson. MOst famously, Reggie said about that he was the “straw that stirs the drink,” and that Munson “can only stir it bad.” The quote was part of a longer interview he gave to Robert Ward of Sport Magazine.

As Mahler tells the story, Jackson and Ward are sitting in a bar in Florida during spring training and Reggie, after initial reticence, begins to unload, including on Munson. As Reggie began to fulminate in earnest, Mahler writes, “‘Thank you, God,’ was all Ward could think.” And a little bit later, Mahler says, “it was the sort of scene that magazine writers fantasize about…” And Mahler goes on to note that when the interview finally appeared in the June issue, Sport Magazine’s phones were ringing off the hook (and the already-simmering animosity between Munson and Reggie boiled over).

So how, I am curious, is this episode any different from that which today’s media gatekeepers constantly lament about when it comes to the excesses of the internet? There’s no baseball content in Ward’s story. No larger insight into the game, or the human condition. What larger truth was revealed by Ward? That Reggie Jackson had a big ego? Or that elite entertainers, athletes included, are easily given to petty jealousies? Stop the presses!

It would be foolish to say that nothing about the culture of journalism has changed since the advent of the Web. There’s a riot of information and opinions out there, and it’s hard to keep up, let alone police for accuracy every rumor or personal attack that gets tweeted out or blogged about.

But as Paul Krugman pointed out recently, in lots of ways, those who defend the traditional structures of journalism against what they perceive as the barbarians at the gate, are subject to much greater accountability than they used to be, with enormously positive benefits for the quality of commentary now available to ordinary readers. Beyond that benefit, it does seem to me that the incentives for journalistic enterprises haven’t changed all that much. Sport Magazine was interested in drawing attention to itself. It got the desired traction by running what was essentially a gossipy story that had little or nothing to do with baseball. I fail to see how, in its basic DNA, this story was all that different from what one would find on TMZ, or on Deadspin (and Deadspin, of course, does some top-notch journalism).

The “kids today” lament applies not only to the timeless dynamic whereby the second most recent generation of athletes complains about the most recent one. It didn’t take the internet for those who cover people for living to discover the “virtues” of petty gossip-mongering, trolling and singular obsession with “hits.”

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