The sport of hockey has a sociology department?

Here is a quick look at recent happenings of sociological import within the sport of hockey:

Hockey’s sociology department is really having a hell of a year. There was the banana thrown at Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, a black player, during a pre-season game in London. Ont.; there was Simmonds caught on camera calling Sean Avery of the New York Rangers a “faggot” a couple days later. If you wanted to go further, there is the visor debate, which boils down to a sort of libertarian approach to personal safety, much as, say, seatbelts did. We all know how that one turned out.

And then Sunday, there was Raffi Torres and Paul Bissonnette. Bissonnette, the Phoenix Coyotes forward who has become a Twitter celebrity as @BizNasty2point0, who has over 150,000 followers, put a picture of his Coyotes teammate and his wife in their Halloween costumes as Jay-Z and Beyoncé. They had coloured their skin to appear black…

Hockey is a closed society, in a lot of ways. Diversity exists – Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs, etc. – but racially, it remains the least diverse major sports league, unless you get into NASCAR, tennis, or golf. That’s demographics as much as anything, and it is slowly changing. Bissonnette’s mother is half-black, but Canada has no notable tradition of blackface, and it is not exactly taught in our schools. For many Canadians, how would we know?…

Some jokes never get funny. Here’s one more chance to learn.

It sounds like some hockey players could benefit from a social education. Also, they might want to discuss what exactly they do in public or voluntarily post online.

I wonder how much all of the major sports do this kind of training. I know some have increased training for rookies and young players in recent years but how much involves social issues such as race, social class, and gender?

More $1 million lottery winners each year than NBA players since 1990 that have career earnings over $1 million

I’ve written before about using the average vs. the median salary in the NBA lockout discussions and here is some more fuel to add to the fire: there are more $1 million lottery winners each year than NBA players who since 1990 have had career earnings of more than $1 million.

I want to call foul on the mainstream media. As I mentioned, a majority of the players in the league make less than $2 million, and yet people like Stephen A. Smith throw around that $5 million figure as gospel. We keep hearing the NBA lockout being described as “millionaires versus billionaires”. But most NBA players won’t become big earners like Kobe and LeBron. Here’s a fun breakdown:

Since the 1990-1991 season 1461 players have entered the NBA and of those:

  • 490 — or 33% — never earned $1 million in career earnings*
  • and that means… 971 have earned at least $1 million in career earnings*
  • 752 have averaged a salary of at least $1 million per year*
  • 643 have earned at least $5 million in career earnings*
  • 165 averaged a salary of at least $5 million per year*

As we can see, less than half of all NBA players in the last 20 years — the period of time where NBA salaries have been at their highest — have hit that $5 million mark over their entire careers. Just over one third — 33% — of all NBA players in the last 20 years have not even hit the $1 million mark in career earnings. And these numbers have been adjusted for inflation!

Here’s a fun comparison: on average, 1600 people win a lottery of at least $1 million every year! That’s right; the lottery has produced almost twice as many millionaires in the last year as the NBA has in the last twenty years!  The popular perception is that once a player enters the NBA they will earn millions and millions of dollars. The truth is that many players don’t hit that high mark.

Both events, winning the big lottery jackpot and becoming a NBA player, are statistically unlikely. However, I suspect that most Americans would say that winning the lottery is much more unlikely. But this blog post points out that even when players do make it to the NBA, a third don’t rake in the big career earnings associated with professional athletes (measured here as $1 million).

This would make for an interesting discussion starter for any professional athlete’s union: should the union be more concerned with allowing a smaller percentage of the athletes maximize their salaries or be more interested in guaranteeing a baseline for the majority of the league that are not stars?

The lottery figures themselves are interesting:

According to the TLC television show, “The Lottery Changed My Life,” more than 1600 new lottery millionaires are created each year. That doesn’t include people that have won jackpots of, say, $100,000 because than the number would be much higher. Still, 1600 is quite a high number.

If 1600 win at least a million in the lotto every year, it means that there are more than 130 each month, more than 30 each week, and more than 4 each day. That’s a lot of winners.

It would be interesting to see more documentation on this.

Has the rise of football harmed male educational attainment?

With data in recent years suggesting that men are falling behind at the college level, Gregg Easterbrook suggests this may be due to football:

Women are taking more of the available slots in college at the same time boys are spending more time playing football. Are these two facts related?

The main force must be that girls as a group are doing very well in high school, making them attractive candidates for college. But perhaps the rising popularity of football is at the same time decreasing boys’ chances of college admission.

Having ever-more boys being bashed on the head in football, while more play full-pads tackle at young ages, may be causing brain trauma that makes boys as a group somewhat less likely to succeed as students. In the highly competitive race for college admissions, even a small overall medical disadvantage for boys could matter. More important, the increasing amount of time high school boys devote to football may be preventing them from having the GPA and extracurriculars that will earn them regular admission to college when recruiters don’t come calling…

Neurology aside, most likely the largest factor in the possible relationship of rising football popularity to declining male college attendance is that teen boys who play the sport spend too much time on football and not enough time on schoolwork. When they don’t get recruited, many may lack the grades, board scores and extracurriculars for regular college admission.

Easterbrook is suggesting a correlation between two pieces of data: the declining performance of men in school compared to women and a rising interest in football. (To really get at whether this is the case, we would need to undertake an analysis where we can control for other factors.)  He suggests two possible ways in which football might be having an impact: neurological damage and time spent playing and practicing the sport. Out of these, the second sounds more plausible to me.

But I wonder if there isn’t a lot more we could say about this second possible explanation. Why would high school and college males want to spend so much time playing football? Why is it such an attractive option? Perhaps this attraction to football suggests that society doesn’t present too many other attractive options to young males. Perhaps younger males lack good role models in their personal lives or in society who do other things, respectable males who would say that getting an education is an important step in order to participate in today’s society. Do we have cool scientists or academics or do we usually highlight celebrities (particularly those who are famous for being famous) and athletes? Perhaps “manliness” is now defined by football: across the positions, it requires speed (running), violence (hitting), decision-making, and competition. Plus, everyone has been playing this on Madden for years so how hard could this be?

I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too difficult to find some data regarding high school students to see who plays football and perhaps even indicates why they play.

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.

The problem with using averages as illustrated by the average salaries of NBA players

In negotiations between NBA owners and players, the topic of the “average player salary” has come up. This discussion illustrates some of the issues involved with  using averages and medians:

Here is the “average player salary” for each of the major U.S. professional team sports, based on a variety of sources using the most recent data available:

NBA: $5.15 million (2010-11)

MLB: $3.34 million (2010)

NHL: $2.4 million (2010-11)

NFL: $1.9 million (2010)

From the public’s view, these numbers are high in all four sports. But players and agents argue that these averages obscure important distinctions including the value of certain positions over others (the quarterback in the NFL versus the punter) and the size of the roster (fewer NBA players, more NFL players).

One common solution to problems with averages is to instead use a median. Here is how this might change the discussion in the NBA:

“It’s the median salary that’s more important,” NBA agent Bill Duffy said. “Look at the Miami Heat as an analogy here: You’ve got three guys making $17 million and probably six guys making $1.2 [million]. So that’s a little misguided, that average salary.”…

It is not unlike, Duffy said, news stories that cite the “average” U.S. household income as opposed to the median. The latter figure, according to the most recent U.S. census, was $50,233. If you were to average in the dollar amounts pulled down by Wall Street bankers, Ivy League lawyers, certain public-union employees and yes, professional athletes, that number would jump considerably.

Curiously, neither the NBA nor the NBPA seems to make much use of a median player salary.

“We use [average] because it’s the most commonly used measure and best reflects the amount of compensation that the NBA provides to players across the league,” an NBA spokesman said this week. “In addition, it’s the measure that both we and the union agreed upon in the CBA.”

In the NFL, the median salary is approximately $770,000 — about 40 percent of the average.

In the NBA, using USA Today salary figures for the 2009-10 season, the estimated median salary was about $2.33 million. That’s still about 46 times what the median U.S. household earns, but it is less than half what the max-salary-bloated “average” is.

What happens in these sports is this: a small number of star athletes make huge amounts of money, pulling the average for all athletes up. If you use the median instead, where 50% of the players make more and 50% more make less, it suggests that more of the athletes in each sport make less. Particularly in the NFL which has bigger rosters, the difference between the average and the median shows that many players make very little.

It is interesting that the NBA spokesman said the two sides had agreed in their Collective Bargaining Agreement that they would use the average salary figure. Was this really a point of contention negotiations or did no one really think about the consequences? What was the thinking behind this for the players? If the union was focused on helping all of their members, perhaps they would focus on the median, suggesting that they are strongest when all of their members are well taken care of. This lower figure might also look more palatable to the public though it is unclear whether public perceptions have any influence on such negotiations. However, if the union was more interested in making sure that individual athletes could receive the biggest possible payouts because of their athletic exploits, then perhaps the average is better.

Two takeaway points:

1. Averages and medians are both measures of central tendency but they are open to different interpretations. People need to be clear about which they are using and which interpretation their number interprets.

2. It will be interesting to see if the new CBA is based on average or median salaries.

Do NBA players really make a difference in their community?

In the course of watching the NBA playoffs, I’ve seen a lot of commercials about how NBA stars are active in their communities. While this might be good PR, do we know anything about whether these efforts have any effect? Perhaps the NBA doesn’t care as long as they portray the image that they desire…but I suspect many of these occasional forays into the neighborhood are just that.

I suppose people could cite particular athletes that are active in the community. They do exist. But on the whole, do these professional sports leagues really care about structural inequalities and the average citizen’s daily fate? Perhaps a more foundational question is to even ask whether they should even as the commercials try to suggest that they do.

Studying the declining use of nicknames in sports

Nicknames for professional athletes are on the decline – and there are academics to prove it:

But most famous athletes are now best known by their given name. The Yankees won generations of championships with men known as Babe, Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, Scooter, Yogi, Catfish and Mr. October. More recently, they won with players named Derek, Mariano and Andy. Alex Rodriguez — A-Rod — has what passes for a nickname these days.

The sociologist James Skipper, author of “Baseball Nicknames: A Dictionary of Origins and Meanings,” found that the use of nicknames peaked before 1920. It has since been in steady decline, dropping quickly in the 1950s.

Using a baseball encyclopedia listing all major league players from 1871 to 1968, Skipper found that 28.1 percent of players had nicknames not derived from their given names. (Lefty, Red and Doc were most popular.) No doubt the percentage has since dipped precipitously.

“The era of the colorful nickname may be over,” Skipper concluded about 30 years ago…

“Their own names now act as brand names,” said Frank Neussel, editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics, and a University of Louisville professor of modern language and linguistics. “Your identity is not your nickname. It’s your stats.”

I’ve always heard old-timers talk about this downturn in sports nicknames and I have found it difficult to understand what the big fuss is about.

Based on what is said here, here is one possible sociological explanation for this trend: athlete’s names have become McDonaldized in the interest of efficiency and marketing. Single given names, like Shaq or Tiger, seem to be best. More whimsical nicknames might detract from what really is important now: endorsements and championships (which also happen to lead to more endorsements).

Perhaps the litmus test for the average sports fan today is what they think of Chris Berman’s insistence on using crazy nicknames. Since I tend to find him bearable, perhaps this indicates I’m not ready just yet to give up on the more joyful side of sports.

And what do the athletes themselves think of this shift?

The morality of going to the gym

The adult life is often made of up little tasks that must be done to live: go to work, prepare and eat meals, do laundry, and various other activities. Perhaps there is another activity that must be added to this list: getting exercise and/or going to the gym.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.

And the pectoral is political. The current president and his predecessor have made ostentatious points of their commitments to fitness routines. Whatever the differences in their ideologies, intellects and work habits, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both let voters know that they carve out time almost daily for cardio or weights or both. And while that devotion could be seen as evidence of distraction (Bush) or vanity (Bush and Obama), each politician safely counted on a sunnier takeaway. In this country, at this time, steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness…

To be unfit is to be unfit: a villain of the culture, indeed.

An interesting commentary. More broadly, these ideas seemed tied to American ideals of youth and health. We like politicians and athletes and movie stars who are physical specimens. We argue that disciplining the body is indicative of discipline in other areas of life. Being healthy is not just being an appropriate weight or eating right or limiting stress: it should include muscles and toning.

Some questions follow:

1. Do other cultures have similar ideas or are we unusual in this regard?

2. When or where did the emphasis on muscles, beyond just “being fit,” arise?

3. For the average American, how much of this judgment regarding exercise and going to the gym comes from people around them versus comparing themselves to media produced images?

4. How much have professional sports contributed to this? If you look at athletes in the 1950s and 1960s, they did not train as much. Today, being an athlete is a full-time, full-year job in order to stay in shape.