High rate of arrests among NFL players?

Going into the Super Bowl, everyone knows about the legal issues Ben Roethlisberger has faced in recent years. But one sociologist has found that behavior that breaks the law is not unknown to NFL players. One website suggests that sociologist Eric Carter found “nearly 35% of all players in the league have been arrested.” Elsewhere, Carter goes into more detail about why so many NFL players are arrested at some point and how religion could help players deal with anomie:

Eric has conducted over 100 interviews with NFL players, some who have led happy and well-adjusted lives but also with many who have not.  We talk about the typical pressures that a professional player faces, coming into sudden fame and fortune.  Prof. Carter brings the research ideas of Emile Durkheim, particulary “social anomie,” to bear on what a number of these athletes face when moving into the professional ranks.  The sudden change in lifestyle combined with intense pressures to perform often leave many of them unhappy, confused and susceptible to all sorts of deviant behavior (some of which makes the news).  We talk then about the role of religion in helping players cope with these changes.  Our discussion looks at what factors might help players make adjustments to their new environments, including: a religious upbringing; the support networks they have access to at college; and religious role models in the locker room.

More details about Carter’s study of NFL players can be found here. Although this is a small sample of 104 players (there are at least 1440 players in the NFL each year – 45 players on 32 rosters), Carter found that 33 of the players had been arrested (31.7%). And Carter wrote a book, Boys Gone Wild, based on his study.

What is interesting about this is that the NFL seems to avoid scrutiny in the public eye about this. Whereas baseball stars are vilified for cheating, NFL players are regularly arrested (if this arrest rate holds true across the NFL – and even if it was really 10-20% lower, it still is a decent number) and the popularity of the NFL has continued to grow. Even with players like Roethlisberger or Rae Carruth or Michael Vick or Ray Lewis or Donte Stallworth or Marvin Harrison getting into trouble, this sort of news gets overwhelmed by the behemoth that is NFL entertainment.

In a more recent interview, Carter talks about how the NFL is able to keep this information out of the public eye:

“We see a lot of what goes on, because of the media,” Carter said. “But I was amazed at how much goes on that isn’t picked up — how powerful the NFL is in combating some of the potential bad media. I couldn’t believe how many guys contemplated suicide or attempted it, or were that unhappy with their lives that they engaged in these self-destructive behaviors.”

Carter found that 32 percent of the players he interviewed had been arrested after they entered the league — and others said they often evaded arrest by dispensing autographs to star-struck police officers — and nearly half described themselves as unhappy people.

“Fifty percent? That’s a big number,” he said, especially when you consider that these are young men who make on average more than $1 million a year to play football, and many of them much more than that.

“It just goes against our contemporary American conceptions of what happiness is. They have it all. They have the wealth, the fame, the power, the status — all of those things that many people equate with a happy life.”

Perhaps the NFL is able to bury these stories or minimize them. Or perhaps the American public doesn’t want to face this kind of information or thinks the athletes are compensated enough and can deal with the problems on their own.

The curveball as optical illusion

It is amazing to me the amount of stories I’ve seen over the years about how the curveball works. According to new research, the “break” the batter sees may just all be an optical illusion:

Yet as the ball nears home plate, the batter observes a sudden jump in its trajectory, the notorious “break.” A new study in PLoS ONE argues that the discrepancy between the physics and the perception of the curveball may be all in the mind — or, more specifically, an optical illusion created by the batter’s eyes and brain.

The human visual system dedicates more of its resources to processing images in the center of our field of view than in our peripheral vision. Larger numbers of photoreceptors and retinal ganglion cells in the fovea — the center part of our eyes — help produce extremely high-res, three-dimensional static images. And as the images processed by our retinas head to the brain, larger numbers of neurons in the visual processing centers (lateral geniculate nucleus and primary visual cortex) are responsible for helping make sense of what we see when looking at something straight on as compared to out of the corner of our eye.

During a very small pilot study, Arthur Shapiro’s team created a computer simulation to determine how the motion of a curveball could create an optical illusion as it skates across our entire visual field. If the observers tracked a spinning gray disc while directly looking at the falling object, it moved as intended. But if people tracked the spinning disc out of the corner of their eye — in their peripheral vision — discs that dropped straight down appeared to fall at an angle, while discs that followed a smooth arc as they descended seemed to plunge straight down.

Fascinating. So how do baseball players hit a curveball – are they able to compensate for this optical illusion and still swing in the right place? Also, could there be players who are less affected by this optical illusion, thus explaining why some are better fastball vs. curveball hitters?

Like Cubs fans wanted the reminder: seventh anniversay of Bartman incident

Seven years ago today, the lives of Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs became inextricably linked. It was a sad night, one I remember vividly – in a span of mere minutes, the Cubs went from World Series hopefuls to unlovable losers.

But beyond the emotions (which apparently are still running high), it is interesting to see how this has entered the collective memory of Cubs fans and other sports fans. The media is playing a role:

But fair or not, Bartman’s legacy remains intact, perpetuated by the national media. Fox Sports aired a promo for the 2010 NLCS that featured a freeze-frame shot of Bartman going for the ball. ESPN had scheduled Academy Award winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary on Bartman for their “30-30” series to coincide with the start of the World Series.

But the film, entitled “Catching Hell,” was recently pushed back from Oct. 26 to some time in 2011 at the request of Gibney. No air date has been scheduled, an ESPN spokesman said.

In the narrative of Cubs fandom, Bartman has become an interesting figure, an innocent fan who became a scapegoat for the futility of a popular franchise. Why exactly do Cubs fans need or want a scapegoat? Why is Cubs management (the Ricketts) still even talking about the curse and wanting a manager who understand all of this backstory?

The narrative of sports is almost more important than the events or outcomes themselves.One important event can lead to a long-standing narrative of triumph or defeat. Particularly during the long baseball season, fans are consistently engaged with historical moments and what-ifs. To be a true fan means one truly has the ability to know the narrative and to fully buy into it as a story worth telling and retelling. And narratives between teams can be similar (though never exactly the same – the pain of Cleveland vs. the pain of Chicago Cubs fan is interesting to think about): Gibney is a Red Sox fan who became interested in the Bartman story because he saw similarities with what happened to Bill Buckner.

Even this Chicago Tribune article becomes part of the ritual: we must reconsider what Bartman means.

Assessing the final Cubs home game

My wife and I were in attendance at the Cubs final home game yesterday, an 8-7 loss at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals. Some thoughts on watching a fifth place team on a chilly day in late September:

1. It was still fun to be at Wrigley Field. Despite the chilly weather, there was still a good crowd (though nowhere near the 38,000 announced). The baseball game was interesting as the Cubs rallied late to close within one run but the Cardinals escaped.

1a. Even athletic events with bad teams can be entertaining: we saw lots of walks and runs. One thing that keeps me going through a 162-game baseball season is the possibility of seeing something new/extraordinary/odd.

2. And yet there was a wistfulness in the air: another Cubs season has gone by the wayside. The energy of having new owners has worn off. The buzz from the 2007 and 2008 teams making the playoffs has worn off. The rosters for both teams, particularly the Cubs pitching staff, were full of Triple-A players. In contrast to the optimism of Opening Day and April (where it can also be chilly and grey), there was no optimism here.

2a. I admit that I have not kept up with the Cubs in recent months. Part of this is due to being busy at work but it is mostly due to the team being out of contention for a long time. It was good to reconnect for an afternoon and think about what the 2011 Cubs might look like.

2b. If the 2009 season wasn’t enough to convince people that the Cubs are not a consistent contending team (which was the thought after the 2007 and 2008 season), this 2010 should be proof. The 2011 Cubs will be young and they need to start over agin.

3. There were quite a few Cardinals fans in the stands. I think one side effect of websites like StubHub is it means more fans from more places can buy tickets to games rather than having to make a long drive and hope you can get decent tickets. In games that I have been to this year in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Chicago, there has been a decent amount of fans from the opposing team. (This might also be due to the mobility of the American people – there might legitimately be a decent number of Dodgers fans living in Atlanta these days.) Even though there was some back and forth between the fans (like when Albert Pujols was intentionally walked twice or the Cubs were making a comeback), the Cardinals fans weren’t too energetic as well.

Scouting the personal lives of umpires

The Toronto Blue Jays may be the forerunners of a new trend: including personal information in the scouting of umpires and officials by sports teams. Here is the rationale behind the gathering of personal information:

It’s not meant to curry favor or influence calls but rather to humanize the umpires. In fact, veteran Toronto catcher John Buck, who says he had already gotten to know most of them during his six seasons with the Royals, says he makes a conscious effort to be personable but professional with the umpires…

Of course, what’s most pertinent is the research on each umpire’s tendencies. One such report included a head shot, a short bio with age, education and hometown, and the strike-zone traits for each umpire working a particular series.

I could see this catching on – as the Blue Jays suggest, this is an information age and it would be easy to compile reports about all officials.

However, baseball umpires have always held positions very distinct from players and coaches. How would they respond to these efforts by teams to humanize them? For officials in all sports, couldn’t this humanization be seen as a threat to their partiality?

The sociology of baseball fandom

In the beginning of a series about the Baltimore Orioles at Southern Maryland Online (somd.com), two sociologists contrast what die-hard and casual fans expect to get out of watching a baseball game.

First, the perspective on diehard fans:

George Wilson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Miami, said that when sports teams in Miami are losing, people just shrug and go to the beach. But it’s different in Baltimore.

“Baltimore is a working-class town and they identify with the sports teams through thick or thin,” Wilson said. “I think there’s some identification with the team that’s pretty strong and I think when the Orioles don’t do well, it does have an impact on the city. I think the city does feel that sense of disappointment.”

This is an argument you would find in many cities: the diehard fans (and much of the city) base their mood on the wins and loses of the local sports teams.

In contrast, the view of the casual fan:

But Merrill Melnick, a SUNY-Brockport professor who specializes in sports sociology, said that’s OK. He said the peripheral entertainment at the stadium — postgame fireworks, singles nights, fans running on the field for longer than should be humanly possible — are often more important to the casual fan than whether the team wins or loses.

One outcome of these differing perspectives is that the diehards can get angry with the casual fans for taking things too lightly. It is common on sports radio to hear diehard fans complain about the bandwagon fans and those who haven’t cared as long as they do. These arguments from the diehard fans seem to be made to show that they should be respected or admired for being the real fans, the ones who stubbornly follow their teams through thick and thin.

Sometimes, I wonder if sports fandom becomes like something of a job for many who feel obligated to watch or follow their team. If they don’t, they are being irresponsible and showing they don’t care. Being a fan then becomes sometime to compete about rather than just a diversion or a hobby.

Quick Review: Turner Field and Busch Stadium

In the last three weeks, I visited two baseball stadiums for the first time: Turner Field in Atlanta and Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Both stadiums are relatively new (Turner Field opened for baseball in 1997, Busch Stadium in 2006) and I’ll compare them.

1. Both have some similar features that characterize baseball stadiums built after Camden Yards in Baltimore. They feature wide concourses, particularly on the bottom level. There are unique spots in each stadium such as special vantage points, named sections, food options, and restaurants in the bleachers. The seating is pretty close to the field though skyboxes and suites are given prime positions. Home plate faces the downtown and the outfield seats are constructed so that the buildings can be seen from the seats. I would have to say Busch Stadium was nicer: it featured a lot more red brick (while Turner Field had a lot of dark blue) and a better location.

2. The locations differ. Busch Stadium is at the south end of the downtown with its southern edge bordering Interstate 64 while Turner Field is a few miles south of downtown along Interstate 75. There really is nothing to see or do around Turner Field while one can easily walk from Busch Stadium to the Gateway Arch. Even with these options in St. Louis, more could be done to surround the stadium with fan-friendly areas instead of open space.

3. The two games offered some fun moments. The best part of the Atlanta game was watching the home team come from behind to win in the bottom of the 9th. The best part of the St. Louis game was to watch Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds. In his third big league appearance, Chapman threw multiple pitches over 100 miles per hour, peaking at 103 mph. Chapman also faced Albert Pujols with one on and one out in the bottom of the 8th – Chapman induced an inning-ending double-play groundout.

4. It is a little hard to compare crowds since I was at Turner Field on a Monday night and at Busch Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon during a key series with the first-place Cincinnati Reds. However: Atlanta had a pitiful crowd considering the team was in first place and playing well. The St. Louis crowd was enthusiastic throughout, even with their team down 4 and 5 runs in the last two innings. I felt bad for the Atlanta players as they deserved a better crowd.

5. One feature I strongly disliked in both stadiums: they both had people speaking to the crowd between innings. While this is probably done to keep fans attentive, I found it annoying. This is the sort of thing I would associate with minor league parks where the baseball quality is lower so fans need to be entertained in other ways. Fans at major league games should find plenty to do without needing to be entertained all the time by special entertainers.

6. A final thing I noticed: both teams prominently featured their past accomplishments. The Cardinals’ scoreboard consistently included the line “ten-time world champions.” The Braves set of pennants in the outfield commemorating their incredible playoff streak from the 1990s through the 2000s was impressive.

7. Final thought: I enjoyed visiting both stadiums and seeing some good baseball.

Baseball as primitive religious ritual

One common means that sociologists use to gain perspective on social phenomena is to consider what an alien might observe and conclude if they happened to see human social life. Hampton Stevens takes a similar tack at theAtlantic.com to report on baseball as a primitive religious ritual:

Essentially, the religion of baseball is based on the hurling of a small, white orb that represents the sins of believers, and the attempt to expiate those sins by the ritualized touching of three small white squares. Two bands of warrior-priests wage an intricate, highly symbolic battle to see who can cleanse the most of their followers’ sins.

Each sect has a high priest. He stands elevated atop a circular mound at the very heart of the temple, the sanctum sanctorum of, beneath which are buried his ancestors and martyrs to the faith. Hurling the white sphere, he thus symbolically accuses the entire community of some great wrongdoing, challenging them to defend themselves and their sacred honor.

A cleric from the opposing clan does just that. He holds a weapon, offering a defense by trying to strike the orb in the hopes of being allowed to progress through the series of small white squares and therefore disprove the accusation.

While this may seem like a silly essay, it has value:

1. It is always useful to be reminded how others view practices that we think of as “normal.” Whether the others are aliens or people from different cultures, it is a reminder that what is obvious to us may not be obvious to others. Indeed, social life is made of up of norms and rules that one must learn starting at a young age.

2. Sporting events can be thought of on religious terms. While I have joked that being a Cubs fan is almost like having another religion because of the amount of faith it requires, sports in American society can be analyzed as “functional religion.” Particularly with an event like the Super Bowl, the amount of attention, time, and money spent on sports is astounding. We gather in stadiums/”hallowed grounds” to lustily cheer on our “good” team versus the “evil” team from another place. We might even go so far as to suggest that it may be possible that more Americans pay more attention to sports than they do to religion.

Baseball training now including cultural assimilation

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen recently made comments suggesting Latin American baseball players are not treated as well as Asian players. While reading an article about this on ESPN.com, I was interested to find that major league teams have stepped up efforts to help players assimilate to American culture:

[M]any teams are doing what Guillen has suggested. Although they aren’t hiring specific interpreters, many organizations have intensified their English and cultural assimilation classes at the minor league level. This is a recent development, which is why Guillen hasn’t seen its impact at the major league level.

Teams recognize that a player’s path to success depends on how quickly he can assimilate into the American culture. It’s not nearly enough to be able to throw 95 mph or to hit a ball 450 feet. Pity the teams that lag behind in realizing this. It’s to a team’s benefit to have its players focused on baseball and not on whether they can order dinner, pay their rent or call for a taxi. Teams should do this not for altruistic reasons but for simple economic reasons. It’s a sound fiscal decision to put your employees in the best position to succeed.

Take the case of star Cleveland Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana. Although he had been bashing Triple-A pitching for most of this year, one of the reasons Cleveland waited until the middle of the season to call him up to the majors was because the team wanted him to focus on language training.

The writer portrays this as a sound business decision but surely there are more dimensions to the story than this. What is the responsibility of a sports team (or any business) to its employees? Helping players adjust to a new culture or helping players complete an education (an issue in baseball, football, and basketball) or navigate a new world of fame and money is an important consideration. Not only might it be a sound economic decision and boost on-field performance but it also suggests teams might also be interested in the human potential (and not just athletic potential) of their players.

The beauty (and pain) of baseball in a single play

One of my uncles once said he likes baseball because it is so unpredictable. On any day the worst team can beat the best, the best hitters fail about 70% of the time, and the best teams rarely win more than 60% of their games.

This was exemplified today in one play in the Cubs-Phillies game. In the top of the 9th inning, the Phillies trailed 1-0 with a runner on second with two outs. On a ball hit to left field, the rookie right-fielder threw home as the runner tried to tie the game. The throw bounced to the catcher, who had just enough time to catch it and tag the runner. Except the catcher dropped the ball, the run scored, and the Phillies tacked on three more runs to win it. (Watch the replay here from MLB.com.)

This is one big reason to watch sports: it can be hard to predict how a single play might alter the course of the game.

And on a related note, not completing a play like this seems like one that happens to teams that are not very good. A better team would make the out to end the game. In baseball, it is very interesting how good teams always seem to get the breaks – most of which they probably make for themselves.