As some of our loyal readership are no doubt aware, I have a nephew who is the sum of all things precocious and adorable. On occasion, when people fawn over his impish grin and dazzling deep blue eyes, they suggest that he takes after his uncle, which is how I discovered what being flattered feels like, that sense of being praised or honored beyond one's merit. That's rare for me, because no one thinks higher of me than I do.
Flattery feels great, by the way, like being surprised by awesomeness you didn't know you had. It's intoxicating to watch the little bundle of delight charm entire rooms with his winsome ease, and then think that I might have in some way contributed to that. Having met both of his remarkable parents, though, I think it's both more likely and more fortunate that he is the harmonious blend of their distinct brilliance. Without feeling the need to claim responsibility, there is a particular trait that my nephew and I share which I would like to discuss today.
We are both obsessed with counting things.
I don't think we're alone in that regard. As a culture, we seem to have become enraptured with the quantification of quality.
I'm sure there are a number of societal factors that have combined to produce our collective addiction to numerical representations and comparisons - our capitalist financial system that translates value, a quality, into currency, a quantity, for example. I'm going to resist my native impulse to explore the roots of that particular sociological phenomenon, at the moment, and focus on some of the specific iterations that have been nipping and tugging at my mind like an eager puppy these last few weeks.
The whole concept of sport is built around this idea of quantifying quality. I claim my collection of athletes is 'better' than another collection of athletes, and the matter is contested on the pitch with the score as arbiter. In this regard the basic function of sport is to translate our arguments into points, which most non-politicians agree was a huge upgrade over translating our arguments into death. As our various games evolved over the ages, so did our quantification methods, beginning with the oldest engagement intensifier in the book: gambling. Gambling, for those of you who may be unaware, is the translating of your confidence into currency, and is not to be confused with gamboling - a cavorting frolic - no matter how often the two may coincide.
We will return to gambling in a moment, but first let's examine our most recent collective foray into quantification. That's right, fantasy sports, or, the reason footishball usurped baseball as our national sport. I imagine the rising dominance of the Caribbean nations on the diamond had some influence, as well. I fear we may lack the refinement of the English, who maintain their fidelity to football and cricket despite being pipped in both sports.
Fantasy football has even less to do with feet than its gridiron counterpart, but it allows a broader range of people, namely those like myself who suffer from mere mortal athleticism, a deeper cathartic connection with these contests without putting ourselves at risk for immediate death at the hands of people like this:
Where the structure of sport converts our assertions into points, and gambling converts our confidence into currency, fantasy sports convert our confidence into a separate contest layered over the physical game in the technosocial space, which we can then intensify again by gambling on this new contest. Isn't recursion fun?
As I think I have mentioned, I am fascinated by the intersections between sports and society. This year I am playing around with which quantification system I use to deepen my engagement with a particular sport, or league. I'm very excited about the only fantasy football league in which I'm competing this year, a PAC12 league with extra-conference guest players, though I hope next year we can expand to having an 8 team PAC12 league and an 8 team SEC league, with some inter-conference games during the year and separate conference champions playing our own one-off for the overall title.
I'm also bringing back the One Parlay to Rule Them All, a $1 - 12 team parlay every week that would pay $2-3K, depending on the book. To translate that for my non-gambling readership: Every week I try to predict the outcome of twelve games, and bet a dollar that I will get them all right. If I win, I get lots of money, but if I am wrong on even one of the games, I lose my dollar. I love the way the spread, or the predicted difference in the final score, can make even some of the most lopsided games compelling all the way until the final whistle. And, yes, I know that sports gambling isn't legal in most places in America, which seems a little ridiculous to me.
One of the popular arguments seems to be that gambling will undermine the integrity of the game. I can understand the fear, that the hyper-competitive millionaires playing these games will be unable to resist the allure of intensifying their engagement in the contest in the same manner that we passive participants do. I also hear people worried about athletes fixing games, or shaving points.
Here's the thing: most of these arguments fall victim to the Halo Effect, or our tendency to associate positive traits with things we like and negative traits with things we don't. I have yet to read any empirical study linking the amount of betting on a given contest to the likelihood of cheating occurring during that contest (I'm looking at you, Nate Silver). Boxing, as a sport that has embraced gambling, seems to have a lower incidence of cheating than, say, competitive cycling, which lends some weight to the idea that gambling as an interaction mechanism is neither a necessary, nor sufficient condition for cheating. Athletes are going to cheat when their perceived reward outweighs their perceived risk.
I hate to break it to everyone, but the gambling is going to happen, regardless of legality. Keeping gambling illegal just sharpens the curve on the risk-reward analysis, the same way Prohibition turned bar owners into billionaires. Of course, the idea of legalizing and then codifying a reasonable system of consequences for gambling infractions would make things easier, but that runs us right into our real problem.
In the midst of our collective infatuation with the quantification of quality, we are increasingly trying to push our efforts into defining negative quality. No longer content to qualify between right and wrong, we strive to quantify how wrong. I am not suggesting that trying to distinguish between the degrees of wrong is new phenomenon. Our entire governmental system is the result of centuries of refinement in that exact pursuit, with our legal system translating our qualitative wrongs into quantitative punishments.
What troubles me is that those centuries of refining a procedural means of applying a contextual, flexible, yet uniform standard of conduct to a diverse and variable populace have almost no weight in our contemporary sports society, where the judgements are not processed through the rigorous layers of informed accountability of our legislative system, but rather by the intuitive (read: heuristically flawed) tyranny of our masses.
I am not, however, just concerned that our sports leagues operate under both tax and regulatory exemptions previously reserved for religious institutions.
I am not just concerned that Adrian Peterson is being perceived as guilty until proven innocent.
I am not just concerned that Ray Rice is being punished both for the act of his crime and the publication of it.
I am concerned that this is being billed as the "Worst PR Week in NFL History", when I suspect that the people running the league are secretly viewing it as the opposite.
In the constant information inundation of our 24-hour news cycle, the success of an enterprise is directly tied to the visibility of the enterprise. As my favorite writer once said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I wouldn't be surprised if the NFL got more free visibility, across every conceivable media platform, over the last week than any other week in the history of the league, and the television ratings keep rising.
Life is difficult and complicated, and it takes all of us a while to work out how to share it with each other, despite the fact that the world keeps speeding up around us. I think we are all realizing that the primary task of the age is to figure out how to respect all of the people in our society at the same time, which would be an unprecedented victory for our species, but none of us know exactly how to get there from where we are.
I do know that negative reinforcement is a terrible way to train behavior, because focusing attention on the wrong answers is a terrible way to find the right answer, and one of the first quantification idioms I learned was that what gets measured gets managed. It is easy and tempting to point out problems. Finding the path to our solution is difficult, and maybe in this jumbled mess of a world there is no path to be found, but rather we make the path by walking.
I guess, I just think that we are unlikely to find justice or equality through our hyper-vigilant search for injustice and inequality, and with the internet as our collective glass house, we could maybe dial back on our enthusiasm for throwing rocks.
Thoughts on culture, community, and development.