Friday, April 29, 2011

The "No NUs" Club

("But you let in Northwestern?" "We're allowed to have one.")

So, Nebraska got kicked out of the Association of American Universities today. No, Nebraska is not getting kicked out of the Big Ten. Would Nebraska have been admitted to the conference without AAU membership? While I can't say for sure, they probably would have been; lots of schools being seriously considered were not AAU members.

But take heart, Nebraska fans: the AAU is a silly, increasingly irrelevant club. A few hundred academics at a few dozen universities decide which schools meet their necessary criteria (i.e., where would I be willing to teach if I were not already a tenured faculty member at Brown). Its criteria for membership are such that having top scholars on really, really important topics, like Jacques Derrida and the social meaning of boredom, but not things like producing more and safer foodstuffs. It has not admitted a new member in 10 years, because, hey, all the good work is already being done somewhere else, amirite? Besides, no one wants to live in Lincoln, Cornhuskers; it's bad enough I have to teach two lecture classes this semester and one of them meets on Fridays.

In a few years Nebraska will be flush with Big Ten cash (see also: Penn State). Nebraska will gain 25 spots or so in the U.S. News and World Report Rankings that no one except everyone pays attention to, and Nebraska will be asked to rejoin the AAU again. Whether they do or not will say nothing whatsoever about the quality of the university.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Big Ten and the NFL Draft: 1st Round

While none of the players likely to be taken in the top five picks this evening will hail from the Big Ten, the conference will be well-represented tonight at the Music City Concert Hall. I’m going to err on the side of including everybody that could possibly be taken in the first 32 picks in this, partly because it will make my job easier tomorrow when I look at the next two rounds.


Corey Liuget, DT: In a draft less stocked with interior defensive line players (Nick Fairley and Marcel Dareus, for starters), there’s a good chance that Liuget could have been the first player at his position off the board. Even with the deep defensive line stock this year, Liuget is almost certain to go somewhere in the first round, with a range anywhere from the St. Louis Rams at 14 to the Chicago Bears at 30.

Martez Wilson, LB: A stretch for the first round, but possible after an impressive showing at the combine. There’s still some question as to whether Wilson will play in the middle or on the outside, mostly focusing on his ability to cover and fall backwards into a deep Tampa 2 zone. This is a very weak draft for linebackers, especially in the middle, so a team with a serious need (San Diego, perhaps) could reach, but Wilson is probably a late-second to third round pick.

Mikel LeShoure, RB: LeShoure has neither hurt nor helped himself greatly during the pre-draft workout process, showing reasonable speed for his size. Concerns about reliability (he had some poor games against awful defenses like Indiana and Purdue) and receiving skills have dampened his stock. The first round might be a stretch, but LeShoure is a lock to be gone by the second round, and he may be the second running back taken off the board (behind Alabama’s Mark Ingram).


James Brewer, OT: If Brewer played for Illinois or Wisconsin I’d probably just wait until tomorrow to write him up, but he is Indiana’s only hope of sneaking into the first round, so here you go, Hoosier fans! He’s probably a better bet for the third or fourth, though he could go as high as the mid-second round, with some whispers that Brewer might be higher than anticipated on a few teams’ draft boards.


Adrian Clayborn, DE: That Clayborn is still considered a possible first round pick is a testament to his fantastic junior year, because (in my opinion) Clayborn may have been the most disappointing player in the Big Ten last year. The potential is still there, and every now and again the ability snuck through, but despite claims to the contrary, Clayborn wasn’t even drawing double teams by the end of last season. Add in that two other Iowa defensive linemen will be drafted this weekend, suggesting that he had quite a bit of help in creating pressure, and Clayborn looks like a huge risk. That being said, he’s unlikely to fall lower than the mid-second round, and a mid-first round pick is still possible.


No potential first round picks.

Michigan State:

No potential first round picks


No potential first round picks.


Prince Amukamara, CB: The Big Ten’s likely first draft pick this evening, depending upon how you look at things (he never played a single Big Ten game, nor is Nebraska a conference member yet, but why let silly little details like that get in the way?) Most people have Amukamara going with the 7th pick to the San Francisco 49ers; he’ll almost definitely be the second cornerback taken, after Patrick Peterson.


No potential first round draft picks

Ohio State:

Cameron Heyward, DE/DT: It’s a little crazy that so much of the Big Ten’s elite talent last year was on the defensive line. It’s also a little crazy that Ohio State and Michigan have only one player combined that could possibly go in the first round tonight (add Penn State to that list as well if you think Stefen Wisniewski has no chance of going in the first). Heyward is probably a lock for the first round, but I think he’s no better than the fourth-best defensive line prospect from the Big Ten, behind Ryan Kerrigan, JJ Watt, and Corey Liuget. Part of Heyward’s value comes from his versatility, as he could play the interior or exterior in a 4-3 defense or play defensive end in a 3-4, so he could go to any team with a need anywhere on the defensive line.

Penn State:

Stefen Wisniewski, OG/C: A stretch for the first round if only because of his position (interior offensive lineman are usually seen as later picks), Wisniewski will nevertheless be one of the first guards taken off the board, whether today or (more likely) tomorrow. He is probably a lock for the second round, though it’s more likely a team with a need for line help at the end of the first round (Chicago, perhaps) would reach for him than that he’ll fall all the way to the third round.


Ryan Kerrigan, DE: The Big Ten’s best NFL prospect this season, if you don’t count Nebraska’s Amukamara. What Kerrigan did last season for Purdue was downright heroic, considering how little talent he had to support him on defense and how long the defense stayed on the field. Unlike Clayborn, Kerrigan was facing double and even triple teams all season, yet his numbers remained solid. The one question mark for Kerrigan is where he will play; a defensive end in college, NFL teams may see him as more of a 3-4 OLB. That limits his potential draft locations, but it shouldn’t keep him from falling out of the first round.


JJ Watt, DE: Competitor with Kerrigan for first non-Nebraska Big Ten player taken tonight. I like Kerrigan a little bit more, but that’s quibbling; Watt was a fantastic player last season on a defensive line that, while talented, did not give opposing offenses nightmares (besides from Watt, that is). Like Kerrigan, he may be seen as a better fit for the 3-4; unlike Kerrigan, he would still play defensive end. It’s not impossible that he’ll be drafted as an interior lineman either, but unlikely. Watt is a lock for the first round.

Gabe Carimi: The latest in a long line of great Wisconsin linemen, Carimi isn’t quite the prospect of Joe Thomas but isn’t all that far off. Indianapolis looks like an extremely strong possibility for Carimi with the 22nd pick; if he doesn’t get taken there, he probably won’t fall much further.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies, and Heuristics

(Partly inspired by this; partly my ongoing ruminations. Warning: this is going to ramble.)

Social scientists are often accused of having "physics envy," meaning that they wish they could reduce complicated relationships to equations in the same way that physicists can determine μ for friction. If you run enough experiments, you can figure out exactly how much energy is lost when you slide rubber over wood. So, why can't we run a bunch of experiments and figure out what happens in the average election when unemployment is one percent higher, or what happens to a community when income inequality rises by 15 percent? What happens is, you get pathetically small correlations that you are forced to cling to because there is nothing better. 

Sports statisticians don't get physics envy, but they do get baseball envy. Sabermatricians have baseball so well digested that the average layperson can no longer enter contribute meaningfully. Because it is so much easier to isolate variables in baseball, observations and conclusions can be stacked one on top of another to create a mathematical chain of stunning complexity. Because all of the links are reasonable, the chain as a whole remains strong.

Yet even in baseball, the prediction systems have proven less than deadly accurate. Sure, PECOTA can get most teams pegged to within a few games of their actual record. But then again, you can guess "81-81" for every team and not be too far off the mark; if you add in a few obvious adjustments (Pirates and Royals 71-91; Yankees and Red Sox 91-71), you'll do even better. And this is in baseball, perhaps the easiest of sports to analyze statistically. 

This isn't to knock PECOTA or to cast aspersions on the task that statisticians have chosen. I am skeptical, however, of efforts to distill statistics down to a single "omnistat" that can explain everything. The dangers aren't just that these omnistats will not be predictive--that's true--but also that they'll obscure everything that was useful about them in the first place.

I think most sports have passed through, or are passing through, three phases of stat gathering. The first phase is remarkably crude and only includes whatever is easiest to count. In baseball, that would be adding home runs, runs batted in, errors, and the like. These stats tell us something, and sometimes tell us a lot, but there is much that they obscure. The second phase involves a search for new counting statistics that get at success in a new way: on base percentage, for example. The third phase involves combining many of these statistics to create what I've termed "omnistats" above. These omnistats represent past success, but because they are more accurate reflections of the past, they are also relied upon for their predictive value.

This isn't a baseball-specific observation, though the examples are more universal in baseball because most sports fans are familiar with the story, thanks to Moneyball. Take a sport where the statistical revolution came even sooner than in baseball: horse racing. It's natural that horse racing would be at the vanguard of new statistical techniques, because it has long been one of the few legal betting options for sports fans. 

The original horse racing statistics had some value, but not much. For example, you'd think that how quickly a horse runs would be very important, but it turns out that raw times are not particularly helpful for telling how well a horse ran (there's an old racing adage that "time only matters in prison.") Final times could be thrown off by how quickly the horses ran, how hard the track was, how close to the rail a horse stayed during the race, and much else.

That was phase one. In phase two, some smart people figured out how to isolate some of those variables. Given some assumptions (such as that horses that run for the same value across the country are roughly the same ability, and then horses that run for bigger purses are better than those that run for smaller purses), they could extrapolate a speed figure from the final times. Now, a useless raw time could be turned into a number that better represented the final time. These original speed figures explained some things but purposefully ignored others, such as how fast the horse ran early in the race, or how heavy the jockey was.

The natural next step was to add all these other factors in to create one, all-encompassing number that explains everything. So some people did this. By and large, they are awful (and not only because if everyone is betting off the same number, there'd never be any disagreement on a race and no one would win money). Better to isolate one thing really well (raw speed, adjusted for a factor or two) than create an omnistat that tries to prove everything and fails.

Still, the temptation to create these omnistats is strong. We can't capture every variable,and pace Chesterton, not everything worth doing is worth doing poorly. Rather than try and fail, we should just isolate the variables about which we can be sure. With lots of small, nice stats that explain something useful, we can put pieces into place in our mind, see the whole picture, and come to a subjective conclusion. 

The process will never be scientific, but it will, at the very minimum, eliminate the temptation to fiddle with data to make it more predictive at the expense of reflecting what actually happened. The most useful stats are those that accurately capture the essence of what happened. We argue from first principles which stats do this better (we explain, for example, why on base percentage reflects reality better than batting average). We then have one useful clue as to quality: on base percentage. We accumulate clues in all areas of the sport, and then we can put together the clues to form beliefs about the whole.

There's one more danger to these omnistats; once useful information gets baked into the cake, it is impossible to figure out what is useful and what is not when the stat provider takes a proprietary stance towards the stats. This is my problem with strength of schedule adjustments made to statistics: they are useful, yes, but also useful is having the raw data. Sometimes, the result of a SoS-adjusted stat is greater accuracy; sometimes, it is not. But an open source attitude towards statistics allows many people to examine where any why your assumptions may lead you astray. Omnistats provided without context cannot allow for this.

I write all this by way of introduction for the upcoming football season. I am a believer in many advanced stats, and I think many old fashioned stats are worse than useless. For example, I think points scored per drive is incredibly useful, while total yardage is significantly less useful, and time of possession is almost useless. As we approach the season, I will introduce some numbers I think are important. Sometimes, I will make adjustments to those numbers. But I will also provide raw, unadjusted numbers for context wherever possible (that is, wherever I'm the person creating the number). I will link this post quite often while doing so as a disclaimer my use of those numbers. Hopefully, eventually, we will separate some wheat from the chaff.

Season Obituaries: Minnesota

Four years ago, Minnesota and Michigan basketball were in similar places. Both programs had the stench of former impropriety about them, though the Gophers’ problems were more recent than those of the Wolverines. Each was turning to a new head coach that had enjoyed success elsewhere, with John Beilein moving from West Virginia to Michigan and Tubby Smith moving from Kentucky to Minnesota. Both coaches were looking at difficult transitions, but the payoffs were potentially large; Beilein had the chance to resurrect a long-dormant Michigan program, and Smith could revitalize one of the long-underperforming teams of the Big Ten.

Which team made the better hire seemed obvious, until early February or so. Minnesota made the NCAA tournament twice in Smith’s first three years, while Michigan had made the tournament only once (and disappointed quite badly in 2010). The 2011 Gophers were cruising to their third consecutive strong season, while Michigan lost several early conference games and seemed headed to the second straight awful year.

How much we learn in a month: Minnesota nosedived to a 6–12 Big Ten season, didn’t win a game in the Big Ten tournament, and failed to make even the NIT. Michigan went 8–3 to end the conference season, made the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, firebombed Tennessee to end Bruce Pearl’s major conference head coaching career, and gave #1 seed Duke a scare in the Round of 32. Next year, Michigan will return everyone (barring unexpected transfers or the unlikely loss of Darius Morris to the NBA draft), while Minnesota is left trying to replace Blake Hoffarber, Al Nolen, and (transferring) Colton Iverson, among others. Seldom does a debate that looks so settled in one direction get answered so definitively in the other direction in so short a time.

The failures of the Gophers were obvious and do not require much elaboration. After Al Nolen’s injury, no one was left to handle the ball, and Hoffarber was forced into the point, where he never looked comfortable. Ralph Simpson and Colton Iverson failed to take steps forward in their junior years and could not learn to defend without fouling. And Minnesota has experienced an exodus of players, with Iverson and Devoe Joseph only the two most recent during Smith’s tenure. With no depth, Minnesota faltered once adversity struck.

It would be tempting to say that this is the new normal: Minnesota rose, fell, and failed, and now there is no hope. Then, I would say “no! Look at Michigan, after all, the doppelganger to the East.” I’d draw a parallel once again and wrap up the essay saying “who knows what the future may hold” and fin.

As tempting as that is, there’s a pattern that’s repeated itself the past few years at Minnesota that worries me. Every offseason, Smith is rumored to be five seconds away from jumping at some marginal but higher paying job elsewhere. Ignoring the wisdom or foolishness of such a move for Tubby, this is no way to build a program in Minnesota. If Smith succeeds, everyone anticipates he’ll be on the first train to Stillwater or Corvallis or Tallahassee or whatever. If he fails, he’s all Minnesota’s, because no one else will want him. Minnesota gets none of the upside, except perhaps only the successful season that launches Smith elsewhere.

Thus, the dilemma of the long-suffering program: hire the small-name coach grateful for the position, or the big name coach with a history of success? Of course, the small-name coach might leave too, but usually that’s because they’ve built a successful program in their place. Butler will be in a good position when Brad Stevens leaves, just as they were when Todd Lickliter and Thad Matta left. Big name coaches trade just as much on their prior as their current success, and athletic directors will always see these types of coaches as “safer” hires (that is, hires less likely to cost them their jobs). Thus, Shaka Smart will have to prove himself a year or two more; if Tubby Smith’s Minnesota had made the Final Four, the chances he would be in St. Paul the following year would be approximately 0.005%.

This is a problem few of the other Big Ten programs seem likely to face, except for the historic dregs. Tom Crean will not leave Indiana, unless he is asked to leave by security. Tom Izzo is not leaving Michigan State, nor Bo Ryan Wisconsin. It looks like Painter will remain permanently at Purdue. And Beilein, the Smith foil, looks as though he hopes to finish his career in Ann Arbor. Surely that will matter to Michigan fans, and the Michigan program, much more than a year or two of immediate success.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Clock That Struck 13

I consider myself a trusting person. That's not exactly right: I think that, most times, when people do something wrong, it's either from mistake or ignorance of the rules or because they ended up in a situation they did not anticipate, rather than malice or immorality. I trust people, and I trust their fallibility to be of the sort that none among us can disclaim.

Eventually though, these attempts at rationalizing mistakes must fail. That point in the Jim Tressel Saga, for me, came at around 10:00 AM this morning when I read this:

Documents obtained by The Dispatch also show Tressel called an FBI agent within days of getting the first email warning the coach of the potential NCAA rules violation and a federal drug investigation. 
But OSU records don't show a single call or email from Tressel to the Ohio State compliance office in which he could have reported his players' apparent violations of NCAA regulations. 
Tressel did not send athletic director Gene Smith emails about the issue, either. 
Tressel's phone logs from last April and his emails from April through January, obtained through a public-records request, shed new light and more detail on the coach's communication with others.

I thought the reasons for Tressel's missteps were understandable, though inexcusable in the sense that there should be some punishment for both the coach and the school. People send coaching staffs crazy-sounding e-mails all the time, and I don't expect head football coaches to investigate every "tip" they get from an overfrothed fanbase (or overfrothed rivals). The confidentiality argument was also plausible, especially when dealing with a federal investigation that only tangentially involves current students. As for the punishment, the involved players and head coach would be suspended for five games to begin the 2011 season, enough to extinguish any realistic national championship hopes, along with Terrelle Pryor's chances of winning a Heisman Trophy. Extending as it did into the Big Ten season, the suspensions would also imperil Ohio State's chances of winning a conference championship.

All of those excuses are blown now. The tipster was not just some unknown e-mailer, but an attorney with long-held ties to the athletic department. Whatever confidentially concerns may have legitimately existed were ignored as Tressel sent e-mails to almost everyone except his putative superiors at Ohio State and in the compliance department.

As for the punishment? Even with the latest disclosures, I'm not one to get histrionic about college sports. Tressel didn't, say, tell his players to frame a murdered player as a drug dealer to keep recruiting and academic violations from being revealed. We're not dealing in the world of real outrage, the world where people are murdered, abused, and otherwise violated on a daily basis while children go hungry and without shelter. We're dealing in the world where a football coach sought to gain advantage over rival programs, and while that's immoral because we should all follow the rules and not cheat, it's not jeremiad-worthy. I'll save my outrage for other things.

Still, I'm now in 13 o'clock territory with Jim Tressel. Not only was he incorrect, but he was incorrect in such a way that I can no longer trust any of his explanations, past or present (and there has been a lot of things to explain during his tenure). Of course, I'm just a pantsless blogger. But I'd reckon that NCAA investigators feel the same way, just as the fatal moment in the Bruce Pearl investigation came when he told the obvious lie that he didn't recognize his own home in the photographs admitted as evidence. As always, it's rarely the crime that will finish you; it's the cover-up.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Season Obituary: Northwestern

In the Wisconsin obituary, I argued that disappointment is relative, and that it should take several more "disappointing" Sweet Sixteen seasons before fans question Bo Ryan. Northwestern basketball has been Wisconsin in miniature over the past couple of years; a program that has reached as heights never reached before, yet stuck in place. Unfortunately for Wildcat fans, that plateau is not the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, but the NIT.

Northwestern is a major conference program, but it hasn't always felt like it: never made the NCAA Tournament, one Big Ten tournament semifinals appearance in history, and so on. For the rest of the college sports-watching country, Northwestern is the team people forget when they're trying to remember the eleventh team in the Big Ten. But the past fifteen years have been a renaissance in Wildcat football--at least relatively speaking--and the last couple of years in the basketball program might be the beginning of the same, though without the same roaring success of the 1996 Rose Bowl to inaugurate the breakthrough.

So, the question: what is Northwestern? Has Bill Carmody reached the apex of what any NU basketball coach can hope to achieve, having been handicapped by poor facilities, a high school gym, and stringent admission standards? Has he successfully transformed Northwestern into a full-fledged Big Ten team that, while not a threat to win conference championships, is at least a threat to win each game on the schedule? If you're the optimistic sort, Ohio State was taken to the buzzer twice this season, while Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois (among many others) have all fallen to Northwestern over the past two seasons. The Wildcats made the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in its history, and while "postseason" covers up "NIT", at least Northwestern won a couple games last year. And with everyone but Michael Thompson returning--assuming John Shurna comes back, which he almost certainly will--the forward trend would figure to continue.

Those are the optimists. There are countering questions. Is this the best that Northwestern can do, or just the best that Carmody can do? Vanderbilt, Stanford, and Duke can manage their academic requirements; Baylor, Kansas State, and (to a lesser extent) Penn state have turned around long-failing basketball programs.  The pessimists would point out that Wisconsin and Ohio State fans are disappointed when they can't escape the Sweet 16, Purdue and Illinois fans are disappointed when they couldn't make the second weekend of the tournament, and Northwestern fans should be disappointed to not escape the NITite Eight. The best team Northwestern has ever put on the court couldn't make the most watered-down tournament, or even make the weakest bubble, in history.

I go back and forth on that debate, and I think either side can be plausibly argued. Regardless of where you fall, however, two things shake out. The first is that Northwestern basketball is no longer just the eleventh team in the Big Ten; this is a real program with real expectations and real disappointment from not attaining something that would have been unthinkable not very long ago. Whether the Wildcats improve next year or regress, I'd predict that Northwestern fans standards will be much higher going forward. Even if unrealistic, that's a good thing: dare to dream, purple backers. The only way to turn around the apathy that has surrounded the program is to invest fans in something stronger than "we'll play hard."

The second thing that shakes out is that Northwestern has to stop adding to its disadvantages. The facilities and Welsh-Ryan Arena are what they are, and while it's easy for a blogger to write "buy better ones," that's real money at a time when cash is not flowing like milk and honey in the chosen land. But there are easy fixes too. For a season with expectations higher than ever before, Northwestern had almost no chance to make the tournament before the season started just by reason of the out of conference schedule. When your third-toughest game is home against Creighton, and your fourth hardest game is home against American, you have not given your team am opportunity to prove its worth. 

And it's not like Northwestern played a dozen teams in the 100-150 Kenpom range during their out of conference schedule. SIU-Edwardsville? A road game at UT-Pan American? Northwestern was a bit unlucky that Georgia Tech, their ACC/Big Ten Challenge opponent, was not very good, but then St. Johns was supposed to be an easy road win, so the luck evened out. The NU athletic department entered the season knowing they had only one challenge on the schedule before Big Ten games started. Even though they entered conference play with only one loss, they still needed to win ten games to make the tournament. And worst of all, Northwestern proved they were good enough to beat reasonably strong teams in the NIT, including a road win against Boston College.

For that reason alone, I'm willing to give Bill Carmody a pass. The coach has enough disadvantages just because "Northwestern;" he doesn't need the athletic department adding extras. 2012 is going to look a lot like 2011: similar roster, same backdoor-cut Princeton system, same stadium. The NCAA tourney field is still 68 teams, and the Big Ten will be weaker than this past season. There's still time to schedule a big boy schedule, Jim Phillips; the season you save could be your own.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Utah AG Files Antitrust Suit, Recruits Buddies for Adventure

In my last post, I discuss what antitrust means and how it pertains to the BCS. It's a long post, but in the end I come down on the side that the BCS probably doesn't violate the antitrust statutes, though I don't think it's an easy case either way.

I certainly didn't expect anything to happen on this front so soon, but I guess my sense of unwitting prognostication is quite keen:

Utah's attorney general is investigating the Bowl Championship Series for a possible violation of federal antitrust laws after an undefeated Utes team was left out of the national title game for the second time in five years. 
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff contends the BCS unfairly puts schools like Utah, which is a member of a conference without an automatic bid to the lucrative bowl games, at a competitive and financial disadvantage.
All of the articles on this announcement read the same, and they all read funny. Shurtleff hasn't actually filed a claim yet; he's just announced (again) that he's really serious about it. One article suggested that Shurtleff was looking to prosecute under state antitrust laws, but in federal court; he could do this but it would be a slightly awkward maneuver. One overwhelming problem with any sports/law article is that the people writing them tend to know about, at most, one of the subjects, so they either clip or jumble important information.

That important caveat aside, these stories haven't made the Utah AG look particularly brilliant:
Shurtleff said his office is still in the initial stages of reviewing the Sherman Antitrust Act to see if a lawsuit can be filed. To succeed in a lawsuit, he would have to prove a conspiracy exists that creates a monopoly.
He's said this dozens of times before. That's why I wrote the damn "BCS and the antitrust laws" post; politicians including Shurtleff have already discussed this before. You're still in the initial stages of reviewing? Really?
If a lawsuit is filed against the BCS, though, Shurtleff could end up suing the state he represents. Utah is a member of the Mountain West Conference and Utah State belongs to the Western Athletic Conference; both leagues are members of the BCS. 
"We have to determine the answer to those questions," said Shurtleff, whose planned investigation was reported by the Deseret News on Tuesday. "You determine who it is you're bringing action against."
This is a 15 minute research question. I don't understand what there is to determine. I can see two possible theories: either a suit against the BCS as a whole (essentially every FBS school) or against the six power conferences. I think he'd like to do the second for political reasons (he's not dying to sue Utah, Utah State, and BYU assuming the latter reaches an accord with the BCS), but the strongest antitrust argument might be against the first. But the former could be a silly victory. The BCS restricts Villanova's chance to win a National Championship?

Some of the info in another iteration of the story makes Shurtleff sound even worse:
Shurtleff, who is midway through his third term as Utah attorney general, says his suit will claim restraint of trade and "ask the judge to order some way to fix it. It's not my call on how to fix it, but I think clearly (it would be) to go to a playoff and eliminate the BCS."
Even if the suit is as successful as could possibly be, no federal judge will ever order schools to create a playoff. Judges are loathe to order injunctions that say someone has to do something; they'd rather just tell you to stop doing the bad thing. If the case is successful, the result will be an injunction to stop the BCS. Whether that results in a playoff, no championship game whatsoever, or a slightly altered BCS that removes whatever concerns the judge finds is anyone's guess. But that decision won't come from a federal judge.
He met with Justice Department officials in February, and says he preferred that they take the lead in the legal action. "They kind of suggested that, if the states started, they might follow," he says. "There's no guarantee of that."
Shurtleff is like that friend who always talks about how he wants to rent a Winnebago and drive across the country smoking pot with his college buddies, even though he's 37. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is the crazy kid from the frat who settled down and became an accountant. They're on the phone one night, catching up on old times, and Shurtleff discusses his crazy plans, while the DOJ just chuckles and humors him. "Yeah, Mark, that would be pretty awesome. If you ever rent that trailer let me now bud, I'd totally think about it."

Actual law-talking guy with some much needed wisdom:

"If it was an open-and-shut, clear-cut violation, then you might think DOJ would be more interested," says Stephen Ross, a Penn State law professor and antitrust expert who once worked for the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. "Beyond that, I think it's hard to read the tea leaves." 
Proving unfair business practices by the BCS won't be enough, he says. Shurtleff will have to show consumer harm. 
"It is possible that the Justice Department's failure to sue simply reflects the fact they believe that, politically, there's sufficient incentive for state attorneys generals to sue and they don't have to do the work and their resources can be better used elsewhere. It is also possible that, on the merits, they think they don't have a good case," Ross says. 
"It's also possible they think it's a close case on the merits and ... it's primarily designed to benefit college football fans of non-BCS conference schools and that it's hard to argue that is something the federal government ought to be spending its time and resources on."
Either the DOJ thinks the case is a loser, or they think it's close enough it's not worth pursuing, or they are waiting for Shurtleff to rent that Winnebago. Let's see if he actually puts down a deposit.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

You and Antitrust: A BCS Primer

(the enemy)

“Antitrust” is one of those words where a few people know what it means, and everyone else nods knowingly whenever the subject comes up. It is a verbal trump card. You can be in an argument about anything—anything at all—with an ordinary person, and if you say “well, of course you have to consider the antitrust ramifications” you will win the argument. Try it later today:
Honey, what are we having for dinner? 
Pork chops. 
I’d prefer meat loaf. 
But have you considered antitrust?
Uh…pork chops it is.
Etc. I was once one of those persons. Now I am the other of those persons. Part of the confusion is because proving an antitrust case is usually hard. Many of the top attorneys in the world are antitrust experts. Trials on antitrust can take an unusually long time, even by the standards of our tortoise-like judicial system, and both sides hire economists with PhDs from expensive schools to prove their cases.

Just because proving an antitrust case is hard, however, doesn’t mean that the entire subject is inscrutable. In fact, much of the subject is surprisingly easy, and understanding what people mean when they say “antitrust” is becoming increasingly important for college football fans. This won't be an exhaustion of the subject, but it should be enough of an introduction that you are no longer forced to submit to unwanted pork chops.

What does antitrust even mean? What is a trust? Why are we against them?

Don’t worry about the “trust” part of antitrust; it is just a product of the early history of the subject, when large conglomerates of would-be competitors arranged themselves as “trusts” to avoid competition against one another. This isn’t so much of a concern anymore; nowadays you are more likely to encounter a trust as a way of passing money to someone else, sort of like a will. Think of the topic as “anti-monopoly” rather than “antitrust” and you will be better served.

Then why are we anti-monopoly?

Monopolies are bad for a few reasons. Free competition is good because it leads to lower prices and more of the product being sold. Those two things are actually the same thing; the scarcer the supply, the more the thing will cost. Price goes up as supply shrinks (think about groceries just before a hurricane).

A monopoly company raises its prices. It can do that because there are no other competitors (or few competitors) to drive prices down. When it raises its prices, some people stop buying the product, while others pay more for it. This is bad, because under competition more people would have the product, and we want people to have things. There’s some economics involved here, but just trust me when I say there’s more societal good as a whole (to both the consumers and the companies) in competition than there is in a monopoly, where lots of beneficial transactions are not performed. In other words, I would have bought a pound of bananas at 50 cents, but because the monopoly raised prices, I can no longer afford the bananas.

So, being a monopoly is illegal?

Not exactly. The reason people go into business is to become a monopoly, or at least to have market power. Classic economic theory says that in perfectly free competition, no company will make any profits beyond what they would make doing their next best option. This isn’t good enough for most people to enter business; entrepreneurs want profit. This is why they invent new products, try to make existing products cheaper, etc. We want to encourage these things, so we don’t make being successful in business illegal by itself. (We see this in patents and copyrights, where we actually give creators monopoly rights; we want new products and works to exist more than we are concerned about competition, at least for a little while).

Then what is illegal?

One thing that is especially bad is when lots of companies group together and mimic a large monopoly (this is what the original business trusts did, among other things). For example, if you and I own the only two gas stations for fifty miles, we would be expected to compete against each other for customers. If I went to you and said “let’s both raise our prices by 50 cents a gallon; we’ll both make more money,” and you agree, our two competing companies would be acting like a monopoly. This is just as bad as if a monopoly existed naturally. That is illegal under the Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which forbids unreasonable behavior such as price fixing.

Wait, I see gas stations right next to one another with the same price all the time! Isn’t that an antitrust violation?

Probably not. There are two possibilities here. The first is that the market is very competitive and companies in the same area are just charging the market rate. This is a strong possibility in the gas market, since all gasoline is pretty much the same. Prices might change based on geography or taxes, but if two gas stations are in the same location and otherwise similar, neither one can afford to charge less than the other gas station, since even a penny difference might lead motorists to go to the other station.

There’s a less wholesome possibility as well. Perhaps I do not go to you and ask you to raise your prices; that would be illegal, and I don't want to break the law. Instead, one morning I post my prices on my giant electronic sign as 50 cents higher than yours. You are wise to my plan and raise your prices as well. We’ve never even spoken with one another, but we’ve silently agreed to raise prices in parallel. Courts have decided that telling this situation from the first situation is too difficult and so this is allowed as well, even though the result is the same as the illegal scenario above. The legal looks just like the illegal, so we can't risk punishing the former.

Luckily, silent cartel arrangements are very unstable. If I raise my prices 50 cents, you could raise your prices 49 cents, make a great profit, and still get most of the business since you have cheaper gas. This is even a problem when we actually discuss creating a cartel (OPEC countries cheat on their cartel agreement all the time to make a little more money); when we don’t speak, the cartel is very hard to maintain. Things tend back towards competition.

What else is illegal?

All the secondary signs that a cartel has been created are also illegal. For example, punishing a company for not maintaining high prices is illegal (craftmen’s unions sometimes run into this problem by refusing to accredit workers who are not charging high enough rates). Tying a product that you have a monopoly in to a product in which you do not have a monopoly is also illegal. (If you want my printer, where I have a monopoly, you’ll have to spend more money on my ink, which is otherwise a competitive market).

Another common example is splitting areas by geography. If Pepsi and Coca-Cola agreed to stop competing nationally, with instead Pepsi agreeing to compete only west of the Mississippi River and Coca-Cola only east of the river, this would be an antitrust violation, since each company is acting as a monopoly in its own area. The Department of Justice website provides a helpful checklist of some other things that are potentially illegal.

Interestingly, just being a monopoly is not illegal. If my company does well, drives my competitors out of business, and thereby becomes a monopoly, this is fine (eventual monopoly status is the carrot we use to get people to go into business). But companies are not allowed to use that monopoly power to fight unfairly against new competitors. For example, let’s say I’m the only airplane company. Running an airline is expensive, but I’ve done well and have become a monopoly. Thus, I am making tremendous profits. Every time a new company spends the money to enter the market, I lower my prices so much that I am temporarily losing money. Once the new company folds, I go back to my old, high prices. Discouraging competition like this is illegal, though telling apart normal competition from predatory pricing is very difficult (that’s why the attorneys and the experts make so much money).

Don’t sports leagues do some of the things you’ve described?

Yes, kind of. There are three different possibilities at play here. Some sports leagues are set up as a single business (this is true of the MLS, which did this specifically to avoid antitrust problems). Major League Soccer can create whatever rules and regulations they want because the teams are separate several companies, and there cannot be a one-company cartel.

Th MLS is arrangement is unusual, however, and it only exists because the MLS was actually thinking about antitrust when it was formed. In most leagues, every team is a separately owned company. The NFL does not own the Browns, the NBA does not own the Cavaliers, and MLB does not own the Indians. Yet those competing companies have to agree on some things, like how big the field will be. There literally cannot be a game if both teams can’t agree how many bases go on a diamond; even negotiating this before each game would be a massive annoyance. Better for all the teams to just agree in advance. This sounds silly, but most companies cannot define the boundaries of their competition in such a way (hey Pepsi, we're only going to sell cola and root beer, and only in plastic bottles, OK?)

Field dimensions are the easy examples; many are more difficult. Are salary caps an antitrust violation? A salary cap is an agreement by all teams to only pay their employees so much; this would be illegal in almost any other sector. But salary caps are arguably needed in sports leagues because competitive balance is needed for the league, as a whole, to be successful. Everyone in the NFL benefits when all the teams are competitive. (Salary caps are also OK because the union has agreed to them and labor law governs some of this area, but set that aside). Teams want to compete against one another on the field, but they are not trying to drive one another out of business; competition in sports leagues is friendlier than on Wall Street.

One league, the MLB, has a judicially-granted antitrust exemption. The reasons for this are quirky and not particularly sound, either legally or economically, but this has been true for almost a century and is just the way things are. The other professional sports leagues do not have this total exemption, but between the labor agreements and the necessity of running a sports league, these leagues have far more leeway than other sectors. They also often have limited exemptions in some areas, such as television agreements; these exemptions have been granted by Congress, not the courts.

As an added complication, competition could mean many things for sports leagues. First, there is competition within the league (the Bears vs. the Packers). Second, there is competition against other sports leagues (NFL vs. NBA), or against other forms of entertainment (NFL vs. other television shows, or NFL vs. opera). Defining the market is tricky; does the NFL compete in the professional football market (definitely a monopoly), the football market (split with college football), the television market (a major player), or the entertainment market (one of thousands or perhaps millions of choices)? Just how “unique” is the NFL or football that it makes its own separate market? That is, to what extent do fans replace professional football with other forms of entertainment (how many football fans would become opera fans if the NFL was too expensive? How many would become college football fans?)

Where does the NCAA fit into all of this?

There is no college football antitrust exemption from either Congress or the courts. Because the NCAA is a sports league, however, the competitors within the NCAA can reach more agreements than, say, Pepsi and Coke, so long as those agreements make college football more competitive as a whole. Thus the NCAA decide how long the field should be and whether you need one foot down or two for a completed pass. The NCAA can also set prices (i.e., amateurism) because keeping amateurism in college sports is arguably necessary for college football to retain their competitiveness with other forms of entertainment (this is more controversial). Yet the NCAA doesn't have carte blanche; the Supreme Court held in the 1980s that the NCAA could not limit the number of college football games shown on television, because by limiting the games, the NCAA was acting like a monopoly within the televised college football market.

How about the BCS?

The BCS is not the NCAA. The NCAA has almost nothing to do with the NCAA, beyond giving certification to the bowl games that make up the BCS games. Instead, the BCS is a separate arrangement reached by the six major college football conferences.

You can probably see where this is tricky. The BCS is an agreement amongst competitors, which is always a little fishy, yet it is being done in a sports league, where a little extra leeway is always provided since some agreements are necessary. Not all teams are treated the same under the BCS, so there is a fear that the BCS is acting like a certification that is only sparingly given so that the chosen few retain a monopoly over quality college football.

But the case against the BCS isn’t a slam dunk. The quantity of college football playoff games has gone up, not down, since the BCS was put in place (from zero playoff games to one). If the BCS was removed, there’s a good chance the number of playoff games would go down (from one to zero). Supply usually increases when cartel restrictions are removed—that’s what happened in the college football television market. Remember, when supply increases, prices go down, and we almost always want supply to increase, all else being equal.

There’s also the argument that no teams are excluded from the games governed by the BCS. About 10% of the teams playing in BCS games have been from outside the BCS conferences. One of those teams, Utah, has even obtained BCS membership. As for the restrictions, there is a plausible argument that those restrictions are necessary to preserve the value of the BCS; not all conference championships automatically earn games, but no one cares about the best MAC or Sun Belt team, while (arguably) lots of people care about the best Big East or ACC team, even when those teams are mediocre. Every conference gets a payment from the BCS (even when no teams take the BCS games), and conferences that place teams get fairly large payments. On the whole, the size of these payments has reflected the popularity of the conferences (Big Ten and SEC first, other major conferences next, then the mid-major conferences). Popularity is what drives value, after all, so this is a reasonable arrangement (so the argument goes).

So, antitrust is complicated, despite what you said?

I never said it wasn’t complicated, just that the ideas underpinning it are simple. Describing the economic concepts is one thing; finding evidence in the real world is difficult, since there is all sorts of random noise that needs to be filtered out. Unless you have a document that says “let’s conspire to fix prices” (and you do find those sometimes), the case will be a tough one. There is no smoking gun in the BCS case because everyone agrees on the facts; the disagreement is on the economic effect. Without dismantling the BCS, we don’t know what would happen if we dismantled the BCS.

Last week, a group of professors—mostly business school professors but some law professors—wrote a letter to the DOJ that won’t do anything arguing the BCS runs afoul of the antitrust laws. Lester Munson says the case is a no brainer. Maybe, but the bulk of the academic literature (though not all of it) says the BCS is probably legally OK. Someday, we may find out. But now you at least have an idea of what everyone is talking about.

Season Obituaries: Ohio State

There have been curiously few recriminations following Ohio State’s defeat as the number one overall seed this year, especially when compared to Kansas’s loss to Northern Iowa one round earlier last season. Maybe that’s because Kentucky was such a good team—Kenpom, for example, says the Wildcats were much closer to a two-seed than the four-seed they were given. Maybe that’s because Ohio State was so dominant during the Big Ten season, and a conference championship heals most wounds. Maybe it’s because Ohio State isn’t all that far removed from their national runner-up 2006 season and so the sense of disappointment is not quite so severe.

Those are all plausible explanations, I think one works better: Ohio State’s dominance isn’t going to end any time soon. There was no urgency to this particular season like there was for Purdue fans. The Buckeyes lost the Big Ten Player of the Year and nevertheless went from sharing the Big Ten title to winning it outright, with a better conference record and an undefeated nonconference record. Ohio State will lose great players again before next season begins, and yet the Buckeyes will almost certainly be ranked in the top 5 before the season. Sure, the tournament results were the same this season as last: a disappointing exit to a lower seed in the Sweet Sixteen round. But so what? If you keep getting chances as one of the best teams in the nation, you’ll find your way through the tournament eventually.

I discussed in my Purdue obituary how the Big Ten basketball programs are not the kind that can hope for championship-level success every year. If there’s an exception, it is Ohio State. No one would have predicted this even six years ago. Michigan State won a national championship in 2000; Indiana was a perpetual powerhouse off a (somewhat fluky) championship game appearance in 2002); Illinois was laying waste to the conference in 2005. Amongst the teams that were down, Michigan had a better recent basketball history (national championship in 1989, plus the whole Fab 5 team), and Purdue was a perennially solid program for two decades before the temporary post-Keady letdown. Bo Ryan had already turned Wisconsin around by 2005 and seemed poised to take the next step. Even Iowa under Steve Alford was a plausible contender for next great Big Ten team. Ohio State was just a middling team on probation, with a successful-but-unproven mid-major coach, maybe no less likely than Iowa or Purdue to take the step towards national dominance, but certainly no more likely.

Fans can be fickle, but most Ohio State fans aren’t so fickle that they don’t appreciate the rarity of this kind of sudden extended success. They can also be confident that this success isn’t about to end, just as Duke fans don’t panic when they lose in the Sweet Sixteen round. There’s always next season, and not just in the existential sense; next season is another legitimate opportunity to win a national championship. Windows of opportunity are for other, lesser teams.

Ohio State is now an upper class program, and the upper class don’t have problems like you or me. Upper class individuals might be disappointed, even hurt, by a recession, but they (should) know that their wealth insulates them from the harms that others must endure. Upper class basketball programs suffer disappointing seasons that nonetheless outperform the vast majority of other teams, and fans of those programs know they’ll be back in the championship hunt the following year. The 2010–11 basketball season was nothing but paper losses; the wealth is still there.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Around the Big Ten: Spring Games

Spring game disclaimers: These are only glorified practices. Every team has fifteen practices each spring, but the spring game attracts far more than 1/15th of the fans' offseason attention. Some players aren't particularly interested in practice, and anyone can have an off day.

To make matters worse, some teams run only skeleton offenses, others run vanilla defenses, and most run both. What we saw this weekend is a reflection of what we will see in the fall, but only a murky one; we can discern the outlines but the particulars are muddled. Finally, almost every observation is zero sum. A missed tackle is a broken tackle. Great pass blocking means bad pass rushing. 

The most valuable things we learn are the things that filter out the zero sum. Who looked slow? Who dropped passes? Who overthrew receivers? These are valuable because they aren't context-dependent. The schemes may be watered down, the systems may not be installed, and players may still be feeling their way, but overthrowing a receiver by 10 yards is always bad. 

Unfortunately, context-neutral observations tend to be negative, because the positives usually have offsetting negatives (good accuracy on throws? Why was the pass defense so bad? Bad accuracy? This QB stinks.) That being said, lets go ahead and over-analyze some scrimmages!


The Positives: Mike Martin is still very good. Devin Garner might have the strongest arm in the Big Ten; he threw one pass 60 yards while moving away from his throwing arm (it was incomplete, but still). The wide receivers showed some ability, especially Je'ron Stokes, who made nice adjustments on a couple of passes. Redshirt freshman Jake Ryan had a nice day, getting a sack and an INT-TD (the sack honestly impressed me more as he kept from doing that thing that most young linebackers do on an end rush and get sucked in too far and lose contain on the outside). The offensive line opened up some nice holes when the offense went into plow-ahead mode, which they'll probably be doing a lot more of under Brady Hoke than under Rich Rodriguez. Denard Robinson is still really fast. Mike Cox had a nice 68 yard touchdown run.

The Negatives: Kickers might be a problem again this year. Denard Robinson had a really poor day throwing, especially when asked to stand in the pocket and deliver a ball accurately 15-20 yards through the air. Decision-making was a problem for both Robinson and Gardner, with both throwing interceptions. Besides from the long TD run from Cox, none of the running backs did much to distinguish themselves, and most of the gains on the ground seemed to be from good blocking, not necessarily good play from the rusher (the Cox TD had a broken tackle, which zero sum means could be good or bad). On that same note, the middle of the line is vulnerable; I focused on junior Will Campbell for much of the scrimmage and he was getting beat pretty easily in one-on-one situations every play while non-existent in the pass rush. The hustle is there, but the results are not.

Penn State

The Positives: Matt McGloin led the offense on a nice touchdown drive, showing moxie and spunk and verve and whatnot (also, some sharp passes). Backup receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder had two completions, including the only touchdown of the scrimmage. The defense looked solid, though no one really stood out. No one was hurt.

The Negatives: The weather, which shortened the game by almost half while rendering the rest almost useless. Like the Michigan/Purdue game last year in which Michigan scored its third lowest point total of the season, the conditions almost certainly made the offenses look worse and the defenses look better than the are.  That being said, Rob Bolden had an awful game, with zero completions and an INT (there was a drop in there, maybe two depending upon how generous you want to be in your definition of drop). It's unwise to take too much from a spring game no matter what, but this was more of a washout than usual; quite a shame for a team whose quarterback competition is perhaps the single biggest question mark in the Big Ten heading into the season.