Why intellectuals should not be afraid to like sports

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, with a focus on the NBA.  Here is one excerpt:

Earlier three-point innovators were called crazy, and maybe they were. The Phoenix Suns tried a fast-break, three-point offense from 2004 to 2010, and they didn’t break through with it. It was persistent foreign competition that finally drove the three points home, when European and other foreign teams, which tended to take more three-point shots, did surprisingly well against U.S. teams in the Olympics. Basketball thus teaches that innovation is not automatic, and it often pays to look abroad for inspiration, even if you are the top performer at any particular moment.

In addition to being a good default conversation topic, sports also keep us in touch with strands of American life that many of us may not encounter otherwise. Following basketball gives me new entry points into rap music, sneaker contracts, college athletics, gifs, the economics of television, even Twitter; it also helped me diagnose an injury a few years ago, when I pulled both of my rotator cuffs and knew immediately how to deal with it. A lot of the American debate over race, and over protest and proper public behavior, has played out through the medium of sports.

By the way, I have no forecasts for the NBA this year other than the trivial.  As for the Lakers and LBJ, I suppose I pick them to come in seventh or so, but to go down in the first round of the playoffs.


I fear being bored-to-death by professional sports; I do not fear liking them.

Seconded. There are reasons to avoid watching sports (professional, college, high school, etc) beyond fear of enjoying them. Boredom is a big one--I have no interest in football, for example, so watching a game is about as fun as a root canal. Ethical considerations are another--the incidents of brain injuries is high enough that I'd question the morality of watching high school football (professionals are another matter; you want to bash your brains in as an adult, that's your choice). Time commitments are a third--many people I know simply don't have 3-4 hours in the middle of the day to watch TV, of any sort.

I question whether fear of liking sports is a major driver in intellectuals not being sports fans. This article seems like it's addressing a non-issue.

"I have to confess to being a Washington Wizards fan, but I maintain that I am quite clear about their weaknesses — a claim I am not sure I can make about my political positions."

The benefit of having a clear, objective scoring system, stated before the game is played.

Wizards? Bring back the Bullets! Big E!

As for sports, I don't like watching others play. In US high school, there were three cliques: nerds (me, though I have a good body), jocks (athletes) and druggies (also music lovers, artists). I did not like athletics since in gym class every time I beat somebody (which was often, since I am good) they would get mad, so I stopped competing. Drugs were out, so I learned not to like music at all. In fact, I thought instrumental music in the 70s was trash (I predicted the rise of electronic dance music, and I was right). To this day I don't listen to music and am proud of it! Nor do I watch much pro sports, except chess. Rap music? It's a modern mistral show. If you cringe at blackface Al Jolson's "Mammy" you should cringe at rap. But blacks embrace rap since it pays them to perform to their largely white audience. Peace!

Bonus trivia: my high school in the DC area gets high marks consistently as one of the best, yet while I was there a kid was murdered during school hours. Routine for Amerikkka.

The nerds vs jocks thing strikes me as an American peculiarity, or at any rate not a universal distinction. I played rugby throughout school and university, always got good grades, and so did many other kids from my (South African) background. The assumption that strong = stupid and smart = skinny is a myth, probably invented by people jealous of strong, smart, humble men like me.

I mean, it's not clear to me that it's really an American thing either, it's just a ... persistent, widely believed American myth? In high school I played three sports, did quiz bowl, band, and was #2 academically in the class. And it wasn't just me, actually -- we had three years in a row where one of the top 3 graduating students by grades was also on the (American football) starting offensive line and was in band and quiz bowl.

Athletic and academic prowess are strongly correlated. However the best athletes are usually not the best academics because "the tails come apart".

I think it's more about specialisation. Smart kids aren't necessarily bad at sports, but they're usually not saliently *good* at sports. Smart and athletic don't go together.

So general gathering and collegia of smart people almost never revolve around anything athletic - excludes too many.

And when smart people they are OK at sports, they're usually not near as good at it as they thinking, and it feels better to do things where you're the best than where you're mediocre.

On top of that, probably a few intellectual advantages, for serious intellectuals, at being obsessed with a subject to the exclusion of other things - salient intellectual overachievers like Terrence Tao and Grigori Perelman do not display their personality phenotype at random.

Old Jay Leno line: "the Washington Bullets are changing their name so they'll no longer be associated with crime. From now on they'll just be the Bullets."

Ha! Excellent.

The delta between the person Ray Lopez pretends he is and the person he actually is always makes me smile.

@msgkings - Yeah, like you would know. You are nothing but a negative person, much hated on this board, so why do you keep coming here? OCD.

Yeah, like you would know. You are nothing but a self-professed troll, and a clown. But I don't need to ask why you keep coming here, you are lonely in your third world exile.

Interesting related post by social science prof Benjamin Mako Hill, who decided to become a football fan: https://mako.cc/copyrighteous/cultivated-disinterest-in-professional-sports

How on Earth did you pull both of your rotator cuffs?

Great question!

NBA is back. I'm way more hyped then I thought I would...

Lotta cool story lines in the NBA this year. And even though the title winner is pretty obvious, plenty can happen injury-wise to make things interesting.

Holding everything else constant, of course.

"This history [of 3-pt shot adoption] is strong proof that markets can take a long time to adjust, and that not all sluggishness is the fault of government."

Counter argument would be to ask "long time" relative to what? Perhaps, it took 4 decades to experiment and gather information about 3-pt strategies. No one should claim that markets (or anything else) can reflect information that doesn't yet exist. In other words, maybe without the benefit of hindsight it wasn't obvious that 3-pt strategies would work.

To be fair, the NBA does have the "institutional rigidity" of limited entry. The number of coaches that can experiment with 3-pt strategies is limited by the government of the NBA. The stock market would also be much less efficient if only 30 traders could trade stock at any given time.

Low IQ people (jocks) who play sports are driven by fads. For example, because it does not look "cool", they refuse to shoot Rick Barry style, underhand, at the free throw line. Also they insist on shooting "one handed", palming the ball in the shooting hand and using your wrist to shoot, rather than two hands (they way I shot in high school, and I was deadly), which depending on your hand size (Trump?) is inefficient, though I personally shoot two-handed and can palm the ball. Poor stupid jocks and their supporters. And what's this with wearing your favorite player's number and name on your back? You his b itch? Stupid fans.

Bonus trivia: I have a relative who played on an internationally known Greek basketball team. Filipinos also like basketball but they don't yet have the height to do well.

One of the missing pieces of the three point revolution was the understanding that 3 point shoots vastly upped the variance of which team would get the rebound. In other words 3 point shots lead to more offensive rebounds than do 3 point shots becuse the ball bounces with more variance the longer it travels. This is counter intuitive because a three point unlike a layup is almost never rebounded by the shooter.

It was obvious without the benefit of hindsight, and there are parallels in other sports (the slow-but-continuing development of coaches going for it on fourth down in the NFL, for example). The problem was always much more with principals accepting that math applies to sports than with the math itself being in question.

Former Laker coach Paul Westhead implemented a high speed, 3-point shooting offense at little Loyola Marymount in the late 1980s, making it to the 4th round of the NCAA tournament in 1990, including a memorable 145-115 destruction of defending national champ Michigan. He got hired to coach the Denver Nuggets in 1991, and the Nuggets led the NBA with 120 points per game. But they gave up 131 points per game and Westhead was out after a couple of years.

The 1990s in the NBA were generally pretty grim in terms of low scoring and declining free throw shooting percentages. Fortunately, the NBA has gotten more fun over the last 15 years and generally puts out a quality product today.

That Jordan guy was pretty fun to watch.

Especially when he was wandering around as a light-hitting right fielder for the Birmingham Barons in A ball.

This is barely on topic, but Grinnell College developed a run-and-gun system based on Paul Westhead's system. They've led the nation in scoring 17 of the last 19 seasons, and won far more games than they did before the system's implementation.

It's a fun story and lots has been written about it. If I remember correctly, I think that statistics students were involved in developing the strategies that ended up being called "the Grinnell System." A victory for applied math.

I really like this comment Steve because you are doing what Donald Trump does passing up the alliterative/ clever name - it’s the elite eight Steve not the fourth round.

Even before Westhead coached them, the Nuggets played a very fast paced game under Doug Moe, supposedly to try to tire the other team out in the high altitude.

This led to rather absurd, but fun, box scores like this game where the Suns and Nuggets combined for 316 points despite the teams scoring exactly 2 3-pointers between them: https://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/199011100PHO.html

Well shoot, I misremembered and Doug Moe left the Nuggets right before that season.

There were absurd games under Moe, of course: https://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/198401110DEN.html

Wasn't it the NBA's adjustment to the hand-checking rules that changed this and opened up offenses? I remember the 90s Knicks were extremely aggressive on defense; a lot of what Charles Oakley did would be clear fouls now. Sort of analogous to the NFL's deadball era in the late 60s/70s.

That a subset of Americans watch Rosanne, that it may be water cooler chatter, and indeed that she was trending on Twitter... and even if a b-plot in one episode taught you to diagnose an injury, wouldn't make the content of the show intelectual or something intellectuals should ipso facto find stimulating or valuable. If you really want to connect with the common folk, consuming media they also consume seems a particularly erudite and distant approach. And as far as life lessons, while sports may hold a few, I would hope a classical education offers more and deeper?

This is correct. I surprisingly learn a lot more about what people are thinking when I sit and eat breakfast at a fast food joint in the early morning and see and hear retired folks, Latino workers, regular high school students, and older Asians chatting around me.

Came here to make this point.

This article seems to me more an argument that a smart person can rationalize anything that they already like, no matter how terrible.

Albert Camus: thinker,


How did Wittgenstein end up playing for Germany? Didn't Austria have a team?

Same way Hitler did?

Conservatives hate kneeling NFL players. Trump hates NBA players like LBJ and Steph Curry. The anti-science, anti-intellectual right need to learn not to hate competitive sports. Especially when athletes commit the "thoughtcrime" of having a different opinion.

Sincerely, Tim Tebow

People should start caring about sports so they can shut up about all of the bullshit they think they know.

This seems like a strawman. I can't think of anyone, intellectual or not, who wants to like sports but is afraid to.

Yes. This is hastily written, and written for no reason.

Now, if he substituted "NASCAR" for "sports," he'd be onto something. But he'd also probably get fired.

The proper number of auto races and sports games to watch full-length on television each year is the same. Less than say 5.

It's more important to get out there yourself and do something.

I take it all back. NASCAR is kinda stupid. Only ignorant people watch such things.

NASCAR is stupid.

It would be kind of cool to go to a race once though, like the Kentucky Derby.

...unless TC is desperate to appear as a tweed wearing, pipe-smoking, monocle sporting, wine-sipping, opera-going "intellectual" and is just talking to himself. Nah, what are the chances?

I would consider myself intellectual, and I've always enjoyed sports. It has become easier ever since analytics took over to be an intellectual sports fan, what I used to hate about sports was the banality of the conversation about it. The moneyball types changed all that, I can now discuss sports in a more abstract way without being an insider.

If anything, I suspect that many intellectuals are afraid of not liking sports ("people will think that I am an egghead/nerd living in a ivory tower; it is better that I find some sport to like - or at least pretend - to gain some street creed as «regular guy»"; a kind of virtue signalling, in the end)

Inside The NBA on TNT is also one of the best shows on television

Apropos nothing, yesterday Paul Finebaum said on his show that college football is in trouble. Who is Paul Finebaum? He is the voice of the SEC. If he believes football in the SEC is in trouble, holy cow! I suspect what he means is that student interest in football is declining, even as alumni interest is increasing (or holding steady). Finebaum believes students have better things to do than attend football games. Apparently, alumni don't. My own interest in watching sports (football, basketball, baseball) on tv has fallen off the charts (and tv ratings). I'm not sure why, but they bore me. The one exception is golf. Why I find the most boring of televised sports interesting is one of the mysteries that has come with old age.

The National Spelling Bee finals are a riveting sporting event.

Trivial indeed.

Did you have a piece all written up saying "Liz Warren sure put that Indian thing to bed" only to have to pull it, and write something new very quickly?

You should consider having Bill Simmons on for a *Conversation With Tyler* at some point. He's probably America's leading sports-intellectual and pioneered fan-perspective sports writing for the internet generation.

Bill Simmons, America's leading sports -intellectual....as if.

I tend to agree. Bill Simmons is a funny guy, good writer, and an entertaining podcast host. I've been a fan for years. I wouldn't label him as a real deep thinker, though. His basketball book was inane.

The Lakers are interesting... this is the first time in a while LeBron comes into a season without two returning All-Stars and also the first time he's not surrounded by shooters he can hit with those long, accurate passes. The plan is to put the ball in the hands of "other playmakers" instead but unless their young players make huge improvements from last season, it's hard to see how they can be competitive without LBJ dominating the ball -- remember, they gave up Nance and Randle, their only players with a strong WS48 last year. Honestly, I'll be a little surprised if that bit of offseason scheming lasts much past the first ten games of the season.

I hate that you get 3 points for hitting a long shot, perhaps because I'm old. I like dunks and the 3 on 2 break that was a beautiful thing to me have been ruined.

good to see the economists embracing footnotes1

1 invented by the biology dept.

Not to mention sports has long been an excellent natural lab for several fields. Baseball has long been the statisticians playground, and several other sports are now sufficiently tracked to join it. Also, while less measurable, psychology and anything that involves spatial reasoning find excellent environment in sports

I generally stopped watching sports in high school (with exceptions of group events), but it may not have been a good idea, either for me or society at large.

People are tribal and need to hate the outgroup. If they do not belong to tribes about sports, they will belong to tribes about something else, like politics or religion. Tribalness about sports is nearly free of side effects: Eeeryone knows, internally, that team affiliations are based mostly on geography and chance, and no one would get an online mob together to destroy someone for being a Browns fan. (Being a Browns fan is punishment enough.)

Since people are going to be tribal, we might as well direct that tribalness towards something benign like sports.

This reminds me of a science fiction story where someone was deselected from some program because he preferred individual sports, and that was considered antisocial.

Non tribal long distance runners?

One of PayPal's potential founders was kicked out because he liked to "shoot hoops."

That is precisely the reason sports 'matter' to most of humanity, the tribal belonging. The World Cup is almost like a war between countries but no one dies! The Olympics too.

@msgkings - no one dies says the . You've never been hassled by Europeans during World Cup events, with their obnoxious manners that come out during that time.

Point taken. Actually when the Cup was in the US I saw plenty of those types. But yeah sports fans tend to be pretty obnoxious at the big events.

yeah, I was in 'Frisco in the early 1990s when they had the World Cup, and literally I had forgotten about it, until a trolley full of Irish reminded me of it, haha, good times. Now, vamos!

"Vamos" means "let's go". Where are we going?

"Why intellectuals should not be afraid to like sports": but I always have.

Now that I am too old to play them though, things are a bit different. Some that were fun to take part in are no pleasure to watch. There are really only three that make decent spectator sports.

Bass fishing, table tennis, and MMA. Yep.

Phhht, ESPN Ocho for the Win!

Did you see that on August 8 this year (and last I think), ESPN really did turn into 'the Ocho', showing a bunch of random weird sports including of course dodgeball. It was hilarious.

sports against the stopwatch are the best. no tricks, no mind games, no bullshit. from swimming, to running and motorsports.

i prefer moto1, ski or uci mtb downhill.
in case of emergency, even nascar is more interesting than basketball..... at least the engines sound good.

Thoughts that strike me about this:

1) If you want to persuade thinking people who see themselves as intellectually independent of an interest in sports, do you really want to do so by highlighting it as a sort of creepy Machiavellian strategy to achieve some cultural imperatives? ("race relations", "rap").

2) That said, as an argument, however morally dodgy it is, probably well timed to appeal to its audience - the tomfoolery around NFL protests leaves the lumpy mass of centre-left "intellectuals" predisposed towards anything that will allow them to use "sports" in their culture war, however much they dislike jock culture. People who've been avowed proponents of the notion that athletes are no moral authority their whole lives are probably just about ready to turn on a dime towards athletes as moral heroes, now that some of those athletes publicly support a mostly statistically discredited and conspiratorial ideology directed towards the police. (Or as Tyler would say "That was then, this is now").

Baseball is a great way to teach probabilities. Also, I thought LBJ died in the 1970s! Does he cheat as much at basketball as he did at politics?

any favorite basketball analytics sites?

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