Did Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg learn coaching from his sociologist father?

When the Chicago Bulls played a preseason game in Lincoln, Nebraska, the local paper dug up this tidbit about the new coach’s father:

Fred Hoiberg, born in Lincoln, was 2 years old when his father received his doctorate in sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

At that point, Eric Hoiberg had job offers to be a sociology professor at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, and Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

“I’m forever grateful he picked the right one,” Fred Hoiberg said with a grin.

Hoiberg is making the jump from being a college coach to the NBA this year, a difficult transition that many good coaches have had a hard time making. But, what might he have learned from his sociologist father that could help? Hoiberg could have learned how to holistically develop his players as athletes and humans. Perhaps he uses some important piece of sociological theory to help him understand the game of basketball. Maybe he connects better with his players and others in the organization because of his knowledge of the social forces that influence people’s lives.

If I was in the reporter’s scrum at a press conference, I would ask this question. Perhaps no one else would care – Hoiberg has some connection to sociology? – but the answer could provide some insights into how he coaches.

Lack of black offensive playcallers in the NFL

The NFL has only one black offensive coordinator:

“We are very, very conscious of this issue, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization charged with promoting equality of job opportunity in NFL coaching and front office staffs. “We have alluded to it and spoken to it directly, and we feel our only course of action is to push more people up the pipeline.”

Complicating matters for Wooten and the legions of aspiring minority offensive coordinators is that the pipeline is also disproportionately dry…

Right now, the NFL’s sole African-American offensive coordinator is the Buffalo Bills’ Curtis Modkins, who doubles as the team’s running backs coach. However, Bills coach Chan Gailey is the team’s de facto offensive coordinator and primary play-caller. Only two African-Americans, the Houston Texans’ Karl Dorrell and the Minnesota Vikings’ Craig Johnson, are quarterbacks coaches, the position-coach job which most frequently leads to offensive-coordinator opportunities.

“This is the biggest travesty that’s taking place in this league, and every black coach is well aware of it,” said one anonymous African-American assistant for an AFC team. “They don’t promote you from running backs coach or receivers coach to offensive coordinator. When guys do get coordinator titles, they have to be position coaches at the same time, and they don’t get paid as much as other coordinators, because they’re not the play-callers. And in a lot of cases, guys believe they’re really there for locker-room reasons, to ‘take care of’ the minority players.”

A classic example in the sociology of sport of how race plays out in sports is to look at the expectations for and portrayal of black and white quarterbacks: black quarterbacks are expected to be more mobile and use their natural ability while white quarterbacks tend to be viewed as tacticians. I wonder if the same thing is going on here. Defense is said to require more reaction ability and athletic skills while offense is about strategy and throwing off the defense. Offensive playcalling is more of a sacred art that requires an intelligent guru to make things happen. Also, it sounds like this is a social network problem: black playcallers need to be able to have access to lower offensive positions, be able to prove themselves there, and then have the opportunity to move up when jobs become available. Without this chain in place, it could be a very similar issue to what might be behind the unemployment gap between whites and blacks.

The article doesn’t say much about this but the NFL has put policies in place for helping to ensure minority candidates are interviewed for head coaching positions so will something similar happen here?

Ripe for ongoing sociological study: the process of creating Joe Paterno’s legacy

With the news that long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had passed away, I thought about how his legacy will develop in the long-term, say 10, 20, 50 years down the road. This is ripe for sociological study: historical events are simply not reported as facts later on. Instead, are interpreted by society in certain ways based on a variety of factors (sportwriters, fans, political leaders, outcomes in court, historians, advocacy groups, etc.) and Paterno’s legacy will be no different. Here are three scenarios that I consider plausible regarding Paterno’s legacy:

1. Eventually, Paterno’s coaching record wins out and he is primarily remembered for having the most coaching wins in Division I. This record will be hard to pass, particularly in an era when coaching changes are more frequent as more programs expect to win big every year. Plenty of recordholders and winning coaches have unsavory parts of their lives (for example, Bear Bryant wasn’t exactly friendly and Nick Saban is known as repeatedly jumping ship for more money) and Paterno is not the first or the last. Paterno will mostly be remembered positively for having 409 career wins.

2. In contrast, Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky scandal and in other recent matters (some player discipline and arrest issues in recent years) cloud his legacy and people remember his moral failings more than his wins or service to Penn State. Perhaps this will be closely linked to the Sandusky trial; the longer this stays in the news, the more people will remember Paterno’s involvement. More details will emerge and people will continue to wonder why Paterno didn’t act more forcefully. Especially since this is a scandal involving sex and children which tends to stir the American public, Paterno’s legacy is forever tainted.

3. I wonder if there will also be a Penn State/national split that will endure for decades. At Penn State, in Pennsylvania, and among alumni, Paterno will be revered not just for his wins but his way of doing things, his longevity at the school, and his philanthropy. While the scandal is a black mark, this does not outweigh his decades of doing good for Penn State. Nationally, I think there is a lot of head-scratching over the close-knit nature of the Penn State community (there are people who are still that close?) and his legacy will look different in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles than around Penn State.

Now, we only have to wait a few decades to find out what actually happens.

How technology may lessen a team’s chemistry

Technology receives a lot of attention but I haven’t seen this brought up before: technology may be making it more difficult to athletic teams to bond.

Ask many coaches, general managers and older players and you’ll hear a common gripe: chemistry on teams has been altered because of modern technology, and not for the better. The rise of smartphones, with all their instant-communication and entertainment options, have created insular worlds into which distracted players too often retreat instead of bonding with teammates.

Coaches and managers are particularly frustrated at the paradox of players fraternizing less with their own teammates, and more with the “enemy.” Players from opposing teams, they say, too often get each other’s cellphone numbers and start calling or texting back and forth, often griping about playing time and occassionally giving up little secrets about their teams…

Major League Baseball is one sport where the chemistry effects of smartphones, iPads, iPods and other handheld devices might be thought to be minimal, because of the longer workdays and more enclosed environs (dugouts, bullpens, clubhouses). Not necessarily so, according to Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy. When the game is over, he says, players quickly rejoin their private, smartphone worlds…

Some NFL teams are said to be contemplating outright bans on smartphones during any “team time” activities, and some coaches have spoken with exasperation at competing with phones for players’ attention. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, for instance, told ESPN 101 radio in St. Louis the difficulties of dealing with phone-obsessed players such as former Washington tackle Albert Haynesworth.

I’m tempted to argue that this is simply the outcome of having multiple generations in the clubhouse or locker room: an older generation, particularly coaches and managers, had a particular experience in the past and younger players have a different way of going about things. Perhaps it would be more interesting to talk to younger coaches who are more into technology themselves and ask how they try to build team chemistry. Of course, the topic of team chemistry is open for debate. To me, it seems like it is only really an issue when a team is losing and people are looking for reasons why.

The article does suggest that at least a few veteran athletes have adopted informal/player-directed guidelines for technology use in the clubhouse. I wonder if they have encountered some resistance or whether the spirit of such actions, to “help the team,” is reason enough for other players to comply.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. This could also be interpreted as an indicator of the professionalization of athletes. While athletes in the past might have enjoyed the camaraderie of interacting before and after games, today’s athletes have more personal leeway as most work all-year round and make big money. What matters most (or at all) is their performance on the field/court/ice.

2. The article also hints at how technology has changed how players prepare for games. It is now easy and common for athletes to be able to watch lots of video on their own, theoretically giving them some advantages.

Racism the reason for the lack of black soccer managers

Two English academics examined an issue that is reminiscent of similar issues in the United States: what explains the relatively low proportion of black soccer managers in England?

More than half the respondents to an online poll of 1,000 soccer fans including current and former players believe racism is the reason for the lack of black managers in English soccer…

“The number of black and minority ethnic managers in English professional soccer has been stable for nearly 10 years,” Cashmore and Cleland wrote.

“There are usually between two and four (out of a possible 92). Yet black players regularly make up more than a quarter of professional club squad.

“The findings indicate 56 percent of respondents believe racism operates at the executive levels of football, i.e. the boardroom.

“While some accuse club owners of directors of deliberate discrimination, most suspect a form of unwitting or institutional racism in which assumptions about black people’s capacities are not analysed and challenged and continue to circulate.”

Soccer has tried to combat racism throughout the game for years – see the ever-present slogan “Say No to Racism” in the new FIFA commercials playing during the Women’s World Cup and my FIFA 2010 video game. But negative stories pop up from games time to time and I imagine that this study doesn’t please those in charge. Even if racism is not present at matches, the perception is that it is still in the sport.

I was intrigued to see that these conclusions are drawn from a web survey. Here is some of the methodology for the study:

This method did not suffer from the kind of sampling error that can bias more traditional sampling: participation was completely voluntary and confidential. It was self-selecting. The only possible bias would be a skew toward those with access to the internet. We believed this was an acceptable bias in the circumstances. To elicit the necessary data, both authors engaged in club fans’ forums across the United Kingdom (from the Premier League down to non-league). A large number of forum editors were formally contacted by email and in those forums where permission was granted (over fifty), a paragraph about the research and a link directing fans to complete the survey was included. As the research was anonymous, at the end of the survey the participants were reminded that by clicking submit they were consenting for their views to be used in the research.

This study doesn’t have the “kind of sample error that can bias more traditional sampling”? Self-selection is an issue with web surveys. This may not matter as much here if the authors were most interested in obtaining the opinion of ardent fans. But it might even be more powerful if the average citizen held these opinions.

The NFL: where having a really smart QB may be a bad thing

Part of the NFL scouting combine circus is the Wonderlic test. Alabama’s Greg McElroy, scored 48 out of 50, quite a high score. There is one commentator who suggests this may be a bad thing:

McElroy’s brainpower still has the potential be taken as a negative around the league, as explained by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio:

That said, scoring too high can be as much of a problem as scoring too low.  Football coaches want to command the locker room. Being smarter than the individual players makes that easier. Having a guy in the locker room who may be smarter than every member of the coaching staff can be viewed as a problem — or at a minimum as a threat to the egos of the men who hope to be able when necessary to outsmart the players, especially when trying in some way to manipulate them.

So while McElroy, who was unable to work out due to injury, may be really smart, he perhaps would have been wise to tank a few of the answers.

Wikipedia’s entry on this has a listing of average Wonderlic scores by NFL position according to a longtime NFL scribe. The average score for a quarterback is 24. It appears that McElroy’s score ranks amongst the highest known scores.

Football is known as having players who are warriors or gladiators. Even so, having a smart quarterback seems to me to be a good thing, rather than a negative because it might challenge the supremacy of the coach. With the complexity of offensive systems these days, particularly with the check-downs and need to read defensive coverages, a smart quarterback might help. This seems like a weird issue of masculinity: in a relatively violent sport, who gets to be smartest in the locker room?

There would be a way to possibly figure out whether this issue with the coach is real (granted that enough Wonderlic data is out there): how do Wonderlic scores compare with the number of coaches a quarterback has (and controlling for a bunch of other factors)? And more broadly, do higher Wonderlic scores translate into more victories?