Category: Sports

The gay NBA?

The not-so-famous John Amaechi, former NBA player, has come out and admitted publicly he is gay.  I am struck that he is (only) "the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major U.S. sports — basketball, baseball, football, hockey — to openly discuss his homosexuality."

Those are scant numbers, why?  I see a few hypotheses:

1. There aren’t so many gay professional athletes, maybe because guys play college ball to get women.

2. Even the not-so-famous earn endorsement income, at some level or another, or at least hope to, and that implies a mainstream image.

3. Fans don’t want to see gay players, or at least they do not want to know too explicitly about sexuality in that manner.  Major league sports are about numbers of fans, not the possibly intense minority loyalties that could be generated if a major star came out of the closet.

4. Other team members don’t like the idea, perhaps because they fear an eroticized locker room or whatever.

I put most of the weight on #2.  When it comes to #4, my sense is that the teammates often know or suspect who is gay, even if it is not publicly admitted.

Keep in mind it is relatively easy to measure performance in sports.  The real lesson is that employer-driven discrimination is no longer the dominant model. 

Why are men better chess players than women?

There is now a comprehensive study.  Two results struck me:

They found no greater variance in men than women.  It
had been suggested that since science selects for individuals at the
upper tail of the distribution, a higher variance in men than women
might explain their greater representation.  However, the researchers
found that — with respect to chess — if anything in most age groups
women had a higher variance then men.  Upper tail effects do not explain
the differences in the numbers of grandmasters…


If you look at the participation rate of women and relate that
to performance, you find that in cases where the participation rate of
women and men is equal the disparity in ability vanishes.
Basically, this means that in zip codes where there are equal numbers
of men and women players there is no great disparity between male and
female ability — and certainly not a disparity in ability large enough
to explain the difference in the numbers of grandmasters.

Chess players, of course, have clearly defined numerical performance ratings, which measure quality quite accurately.  The bottom line seems to be that men simply care more about doing well at chess, I might add that this speaks well for women.  Of course this preference-based explanation can be tested further; it implies that women should have greater relative chess strength in poorer countries, where they are more likely to play for a living and not just for fun.  I believe this to be true, most of all in China.

The pointer is from Daniel Strauss Vasques.  On related issues, here is my earlier paper, "Why Women Succeed, and Fail, in the Arts."

Why do colleges run football teams?

Over at Free Exchange Isaac Bickerstaff poses a good question:

…why are America’s institutions of higher learning also operating
semi-professional sports franchises?  Especially since overall, the
athletics department is a money-losing proposition for most schools. 
They also bring down the value of the university’s core "product", as
schools offer places and often lavish scholarships to academically
unqualified student athletes.

The evidence is mixed, but some papers find a connection between athletic achievement and student quality, or athletic achievement and alumni donations.  I suspect the donor connection is the key, but we also must ask what exactly colleges and universities seek to maximize. 

Under one view, there is some local market power, a surplus from tuition and endowments, fairly passive boards, and a faculty-driven governance structure which gives Presidents considerable discretion over non-instructional projects.  If I were a University President, I would spend money on the library, a very good music school, a concert hall, and — if they would abolish the NCAA and the zone defense — a basketball team.  Basketball is The Queen of Sports, and what better way to entertain local bigwigs and receive favors in return?

Do the Denver Nuggets refute the theory of comparative advantage?

I’m referring to the trade for Allen Iverson, of course, not the brawl.  For background Matt Yglesias is of course the go-to guy (it also turns out he is right about *The Wire*).  Some of us, like me, feel that Denver will be a worse team for the trade.  Not because of what they are giving up, but because of what they are getting.  The sports logic is straightforward, namely two shooting guys and only one ball, resulting in a discombobulated offense.  (You don’t have to agree in this particular case, the point is that this could be true.)  But how exactly, in the language of microeconomics, does this make Denver worse off?  Aren’t there gains from trade in all cases and thus also between AI and Carmelo Anthony? 

There are two partially unpriced resources, first the basketball and second the attention of the public (which produces endorsement income in the longer run).  Both induce excess and premature exhaustion of shooting opportunities.  (One correspondent tells me the two are each averaging about 24 shots a game, an NBA team averages maybe 80 shots a game, note that AI connects on 41 percent, below the league average, and plays no defense.)  The trade between the two players brings some benefits but also makes these "tragedy of the commons" problems worse.

The lesson for international trade?  The more impressively talented countries you have trading with each other, the greater the need for well-defined property rights in common pool resources such as clean air and ocean use.

Allen Iverson needs to join the Pigou Club.  The presence of Yao Ming in the league — as a force whose time has come — makes this all the more imperative.

Kramnik vs. the computer

The match started today, six games, here is a good overview article.  Kramnik gets a million dollars if he wins, $500,000 otherwise.

Here are the rather complicated match rules; Kramnik has unparalleled access to the opening book and workings of the machine.  Here are numerous expert opinions, many favor Kramnik.  Sorry guys, but I predict one computer victory and the rest draws.  Here is commentary by Kramnik.  You can watch the games live here.

One commentator put it well: "The last match was drawn – against a weaker version of Fritz on lesser
hardware.  And there’s no reason to think that since that match, Kramnik
has learnt to calculate an extra 6 billion positions per second."

But so far, in game one, the outcome was a draw and Kramnik had a slight edge throughout…

Addendum: Kramnik missed a win.

Has NBA defense become less important?

Matt Yglesias has read Aristotle:

I concede that the new [NBA] rules have made it harder to play defense.  I
fail to see, though, how that makes defense less important.  Two factors
determine who wins a basketball game: how many points your team scores
and how many points the other team scores.  Since you have the ball
roughly half the time and the other team has the ball roughly half the
time, it stands to reason that offense and defense should have exactly
the same importance.  You could even argue that, in an era when it’s
easier to score than to defend, a guy who can stop the other team from
scoring is more valuable than someone who can put the ball in the

Amen, and try putting that last point into a Solow model-like framework.  That all said, I don’t understand why there are so few good centers these days.  Why is there no Bob Lanier?  Is the pay too low?  Surely people are not shorter than thirty years ago.

While we are on the topic, I’ll offer up my yearly predictions and opt for San Antonio.  Their new 30-year-old big lug seems able to play center, they have the game’s best power forward, lots of title experience, and an excellent backcourt.  Plus they can play defense.

Addendum: A reader sends in this excellent commentary.

The saga continues

According to, a chess news Web site, at the start of today’s game, Mr. Topalov sat down to play while Mr. Kramnik went to his private area and sat down outside his private bathroom, demanding that it be unlocked.

Chessbase reported that the organizers refused his request and after an hour, the game was declared forfeited in Mr. Topalov’s favor.

Here is one story.

Department of Uh-Oh, a continuing series

After each move Mr. Kramnik immediately heads to the rest room and from it directly to the bathroom.  During every game he visited the relaxation room 25 times at the average and the bathroom more than 50 times – the bathroom is the only place without video surveillance…

Should this extremely serious problem remain unsolved by 10.00 o’clock tomorrow (September 29th, 2006), we would seriously reconsider the participation of the World [chess] Champion Veselin Topalov in this match.

Here is the story.  Kramnik is leading 3-1; with the exception of his B x f8?? move in game two, his tactical play has been uncannily accurate, and indeed computer-like, at key moments.  Or maybe he has learned that new style by playing with computers.  Here is my previous post on the topic.

Perfect competition, or collusion?

Takashi Hashiyama, president of Maspro Denkoh Corporation, an electronics company based outside of Nagoya, Japan, could not decide whether Christie’s or Sotheby’s should sell the company’s art collection, which is worth more than $20 million, at next week’s auctions in New York.

…he resorted to an ancient method of decision-making that has been time-tested on playgrounds around the world: rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper smothers rock.

In Japan, resorting to such games of chance is not unusual.  "I sometimes use such methods when I cannot make a decision," Mr. Hashiyama said in a telephone interview.  "As both companies were equally good and I just could not choose one, I asked them to please decide between themselves and suggested to use such methods as rock, paper, scissors."

Christie’s won, and here is the full story, via Jason Kottke.

Beckett vs. Duchamp

The two were not evenly matched.  Duchamp was one of the best players in France, and no doubt swept Beckett off the board in most of their encounters.  But still they enjoyed each other’s company, and continued to play.  The two came together again in the summer of 1940, converging on the Atlantic coastal town of Arcachon, southwest of Bordeaux, as they fled the Nazi onslaught.  All summer they played lengthy chess games together in a seafront cafe.  While their conversations were not recorded, we can imagine that they discussed their mutual interest in chess’s dialectic between total freedom and complete constriction, between choice and futility…[Beckett] once remarked that the ideal chess game for him would end with the pieces back in their starting positions.

That is from David Shenk’s new The Immortal Game: A History of Chess.  If you are going to read only one book on chess, this is it.  I don’t read this stuff any more, but was persuaded to buy it by Stephen Dubner’s strong blurb.