How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Short Track Speed Skating

You’ll often see short track speed skating described as “NASCAR on ice.” This is because, unlike long track speed skating where athletes are essentially racing against the clock, in short track speed skating, the person who finishes the race first wins the race, no matter how fast or slow they go. This leads to two things: lots of crashes and a highly tactical race in which tactics matter as much as raw speed. As entertaining as the crashes are, I like to focus on the tactics. It’s here where I find a detail to focus on: short track speed skating passing moves.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

There are two ways of passing an opposing skater or group of skaters: the outside pass and the inside pass. The key to both of these passes is that speed skaters are able to generate the most power while turning. The New York Times has an amazing video feature that explains this better than I ever could. Skaters are able to pick up a lot of speed on turns, but only careful planning will allow them to use that speed to pass a skater ahead of them.

The Inside Pass

An inside pass is set up at the start of a single turn when a short track speed skater ironically enters the turn just on the outside shoulder of the skater ahead of them. They continue on a wider turn than the person ahead of them for the first half of the turn. This allows them to slingshot themselves back from the turn a hair of a second earlier than their opponent and exit the turn on the inside of where the leading skater does. Now they are going at least as fast as their opponent and, because they are now on the inside of the track, with a shorter distance to go to the next turn. By the time they get there, they will be in the lead.

A speed skater who pulls off an inside pass looks like she enters a turn behind another skater, goes farther outside during the turn, but then magically zips to the inside on the straightaway and enters the next turn with the lead. It looks like the pass happens on the straight part of the course, but it’s due to a choice she made entering the previous turn.

The Outside Pass

An outside pass takes even more advance planning than an inside pass because it happens over almost an entire circuit of a course. In the second half of one turn, a skater begins to pick up speed by exiting the turn a bit wider than the skaters in front of her. All through the straightaway, she remains on the outside, picking up speed. When she enters the second turn of this tactic, she enters to the outside of her peers but instead of cutting across, like on an inside turn, she stays on the outside the entire time, taking a wider turn than anyone else.

Although this means she is taking a longer path than any of her competitors, it can work. Remember that the act of turning allows for more acceleration than going straight. So, lengthening a full turn means more time for speeding up. Still, this is an exhausting choice. A skater who attempts an outside pass and doesn’t make it may be too tired to try again on the following lap.

Okay — I got a little deep in the weeds in this post. If you kept up with me, you’re brave! If you didn’t, the tl;dr is this: all passing in short track speed skating is set up by tactical choices made during the turn or two turns before the pass actually happens. If you watch to see how skaters enter a turn relative to the person in front of them (inside, outside, or straight behind) and how they exit the turn (inside, outside, or straight behind), you can predict whether they will be able to pass them and on which side!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Alpine Skiing

Alpine Skiing, consists of four main events in the Olympics: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom. Each discipline is similar in concept to the others. The winner is the athlete who can make it down the mountain through a course designated by some type of flag in the least amount of time. The events are differentiated mainly by how steep the slope is and how tightly winding the designated course is. No matter which event you are watching, there is a single detail that you can watch and comment on which will make you sound smart during the Winter Olympics. In Alpine Skiing, this is how quickly a skier makes it through the top of the course.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable

In Alpine Skiing, like some other Winter Olympics sports – Bobsled, Luge, and Skeleton, as well as Long Track Speed Skating – a running clock tracks each athlete’s progress throughout the race. Only at certain spots on the course, however, does the racer’s time get compared to all of the other competitors’ times before her. These moments are called “splits.” The trick in Alpine Skiing is to focus on the first split which measures how fast a skier has gotten through the highest part of the course.

Time on the first split is highly correlated to overall time on the course and therefore, who is going to win. At first glance, the top part of the course may not seem like the most important or the most exciting. It’s usually not the most challenging or steepest part of the course. It doesn’t have any of the most dangerous corners where racers, especially in the Downhill event can wipe out spectacularly. So, why does it give us such a strong clue about who is going to win?

Imagine that, instead of a skier with agency, Alpine Skiing events were actually run by marbles or some other inanimate object that the Olympic Athletes simply placed at the start of the course and gave a tiny push. The exact route the marbles took at the top of the course would almost completely define how the marble completed the rest of its trip to the bottom. A little too far to the right at the top and you can imagine a marble bouncing way off to the side and not being able to stay within the defined course. Skiers, unlike marbles, are able to make adjustments part of the way down the mountain, but these adjustments are limited and costly. No matter how strong a skier is, their ability to course correct is limited by the incredible force they generate going downhill at 30 to 60+ miles per hour. Sometimes a skier will go off course or crash because they took the turn three turns ago a few inches too far to the right and the cumulative effects of this mistake are too difficult to undo. If they are able to course correct, they will do it at a cost – any side-to-side correction is going to slow them down, something they can’t afford to do and have a chance at winning. So, the precise route or line a skier takes at the top of the course has an outsized impact on how fast they will be able to go in the middle and bottom of the course.

There is another slightly cynical way of looking at the top of the course. The first split is the first time each skier is compared to all the other skiers. The better skiers will probably be going faster at every split throughout the course. Every split necessarily includes the first one! So, if you watch and comment on the first split, you will seem clairvoyant!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the Games,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Speed Skating

The first time you watch speed skating, you may be forgiven for thinking that it simply doesn’t have any details for you to focus on. Two skaters speed around a giant oval rink. They don’t interact. One of them is faster than the other. Eventually, at some point, they stop skating. All of that is true — appreciating speed skating is largely about appreciating the enormous amount of power humans are capable of producing and the amount of pain they are capable of imposing on themselves and enduring. Speed skating in a sport of humans as draft animals, regardless of how cool under pressure these athletes seem. The detail of speed skating to watch is one of the few important signs that a speed skater is suffering: when they begin to make small and unnecessary movements.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

At the start or the middle of a speed skating race, skaters move in a lithe, long gliding stride. The upper body is bent at a 90 degree angle. On the straightaways, both hands are clasped behind the skater’s back. Aside from the speed skater’s tree-trunk-like legs, nothing moves. On turns, speed skaters continue to hold their inside hand behind their back but the outside arm comes out and swings rhythmically. At this point in the race, it seems like the entire purpose of the sport and the entire raison dêtre of the athlete is efficiency.

At the end of the race, particularly the longer races, however, things start to break down a little. Watch for any change in the body position and stride of the skater. Notice how an exhausted skater’s torso moves side to side a few inches farther than when she started the race. Observe that a skater who pushes himself to the very edge of his abilities has to strain to keep his inside hand behind his back during a turn. If possible, compare how one of the top skaters in the world is capable of maintaining 90% of her form all the way to the end of the race while the fifteenth best skater in the world completely breaks down and wiggles a tiny bit.

It may sound silly, but watching for these small unnecessary motions not only can give you an incredible appreciation for the power and pain of elite speed skaters, but it can also provide you with clues about who is likely to win the race.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Bobsled

When watching bobsled, the very first thing you might use to make yourself sound smart is that the official spelling (and perhaps pronunciation) of the sport is “bobsleigh.” Smart, maybe, but also verging on the obnoxious. A second, much more fun factoid, is that the sport evolved from an absurdist  amateur sled racing arms race in a single Swiss town that eventually led to sleds having to be outlawed from being used on streets!

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

Sports chatter notwithstanding, there is a single element of bobsled which you may enjoy focusing on as you watch and which will definitely impress your Olympics watching friends. This element is getting into the sled.

At the start of every bobsled race, none of the bobsledders are actually in the sled! In the two person events, one person is behind the sled, with a hand on either side and one person, the driver, is closer to the front of the sled on one side. In the four person events, two people are in the positions already described and the additional two people are on either side of the sled behind the driver and ahead of the person in the back. Got that? The race begins when these two or four people start sprinting like crazy, pushing their sled as they run.

This may seem like a slightly insane (or is it inane) way to start an Olympic sport, but it soon gets even more chaotic! As soon as the sled has picked up enough speed and by rule, before the sled has traveled 50 meters, the bobsledders need to get into their vehicle. As you might guess, this is minutely choreographed, because every moment when a bobsledder is neither pushing the sled nor aerodynamically tucked into the sled is a lost moment for the team. In the two person races, this means the driver jumps in and tucks themselves down followed quickly by the pusher at the back who leaps in right after. In the four person races, the driver goes, then the person behind them on their side, then the person on the opposite side, then the person in the back. The difficulty of getting all these motions just right at a full sprint it exponentially harder.

Any small blunder getting into the sled is not only incredibly costly to a team’s chances, it’s also sometimes… a little funny? Of course, missing the sled entirely or going in sideways is likely to be noticed by all Olympics viewers, no matter how casual, but if you look for the momentary hesitation of the third or fourth person into a sled whose routine is disrupted by an unexpected movement from someone ahead of her or a stray elbow that dangles too far out before being tucked in, you will be an impressive Olympics viewer indeed!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What sports could be shortened?

Dear Sports Fan,

My wife is a sports fan. I love sitcoms. My hobby takes 30 minutes to watch. Hers takes three hours, whether it’s football, basketball, hockey, baseball, or soccer. How is this fair? What sports could be shortened without making them less fun for sports fans?


Dear Sam,

You have a point – sports games are much longer on average than other forms of entertainment. As a sports fan, I find it hard to commit to watching a two hour movie, but I think nothing of sitting down to watch a three hour football game… or more than one! On its face, this behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why commit to three or six hours when you won’t commit to two? Do I really like sports that much more than movies? Probably not – instead, the difference can be explained by the intermittent nature of sports. The average football game famously only has eleven minutes of action spread out over those three hours. This is an exaggeration, but there are lots of times during a three hour game when a sports fan can safely leave the couch to get a snack or a beer or check their email or… I’ve even been known to read a book while watching a game! That said, you may be on to something. Sports games are long. Can any sports be shortened without losing the essence of their appeal? Would any actually become more exciting by being shortened? Let’s play out the hypothetical of cutting each of the five most popular sports in half and see what happens.


Soccer is 90 minutes of running around without much happening. It seems ripe for disruption through abbreviation. The problem is, because there is so little scoring, shortening the game would pose a serious problem. Think there are too many ties now in soccer? Wait until games are only 45 minutes. It’s not just the length. Many soccer games don’t really “open up” until the 60 to 70 minute mark. This is when players start getting tired enough to make mistakes that allow the other team to get some legitimate scoring opportunities. If we are going to shorten soccer, we would at least have to require players to tire themselves out before they begin; say, run a 10k before the game starts.

Verdict: Not a good candidate. Soccer requires a long time for one team to win as it is.

Ice Hockey

Ice hockey doesn’t have soccer’s issue with excitement. Hockey is so exhausting to play that players don’t stay on the ice for more than 45 seconds to a minute at a time anyway. While they are on, they go like gang-busters! A 30 minute hockey game would be just as exciting as a 60 minute one. There are two issues with cutting hockey in half. First, the necessity of rotating players makes hockey a uniquely team-oriented sport. Cut the time in half, and you would definitely be able to get away with having only 3/4 or even 1/2 the number of players, which would harm this aspect of the game. Second, and more conclusively, hockey is one of the most random sports because goals are scored in such a chaotic way. A lot of the time, even watching in slow motion on a high definition television doesn’t help the viewer figure out how the puck went into the goal. The average game in 2016 had 5.45 goals scored. Just enough for the weirdness of the game to even out and the better teams to win most of the time. Cut the game in half, and the better team might not win most of the time. The weirdness could easily overpower the statistical significance of the sport.

Verdict: Ice hockey is just too random to be any shorter than it already is and still have the better team win most of the time.


Baseball seems like a great candidate for cutting in half. At its heart, it is a series of one on one interactions anyway. Pitcher faces batter, repeat. Because of this, baseball is the sporting culture obsessed most with statistics. Any change to the game which affects the ability to compare contemporary players to players in the past is fiercely resisted. If that could be overcome, the next obstacle to consider would be the endurance of starting pitchers. A lot of baseball games are decided only when one team’s starting pitcher gets tired enough to make a mistake and the other team is able to start hitting their pitches. Over the past decade, baseball teams have adjusted to patch this vulnerability by substituting relief pitchers in for their starting pitcher earlier and earlier – before he even gets tired. So, in a way, cutting the game in half might create a throw-back to an earlier era, when starting pitchers were expected to pitch complete games. Hmm!

Verdict: It would never happen because of the rabid baseball traditionalists, but if it did, they might find themselves oddly pleased.


Why not football? Football is facing a looming crisis anyway. The brutality of the sport and our new understanding of traumatic brain injuries has already forced a number of changes and promises to force many more, or perhaps end the sport entirely. I’ve thought and written a lot about this issue and my conclusion was that NFL football rosters should be reduced from 53 to 20. This would reduce the specialization of football players that allows for 350+ pound men and 180 pound men who run 20+ miles an hour to coexist on the same field. It would also make it impossible for players to “give 110%” on every play. Slow everyone down, encourage everyone to have bodies optimized for endurance over speed and strength, and maybe players will have the split second they need to avoid calamitous collisions. Cutting the game in half is exactly the opposite of this! It would make every play more important and encourage everyone to play even harder on every play. No way!

Verdict: Not a good idea for players’ long term or short term health.


Like football, basketball is played harder than ever these days. If you look at film from the 1980s and compare it to now, it’s radically different. Players in the 1980s were not expected to cover nearly as much ground as they do today. The dominance of the three point shot today means that players need to play high intensity defense in parts of the court that they used to simply allow an opponent to dribble in without being contested. This difference showed up in the playoffs last year, when teams built around a single great player, like James Harden on the Houston Rockets or Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, fell apart in the fourth quarter when their star got too tired to play effectively. This could be an argument against shortening the game — teams should have to be built in a more balanced way, not around a single player. Basketball is already the sport that is affected most by a single player. One player out of five on the court is more impactful than one out of eleven in soccer, eleven (plus eleven, plus special teamers in football), or one out of nine in baseball. (Hockey has only six on the ice at a time, but because they can only play for a minute or so before they need a rest, the impact of a single player is proportionally smaller.) Basketball is the most star-oriented sport but its length, combined with the way it’s now played is getting in the way of the best players being able to play their best when it matters the most.

Verdict: Let’s do it!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Can a sports fan become a cord cutter?

Dear Sports Fan,

Some friends of mine just canceled their cable subscription and replaced it with one of those fancy new internet streaming TV services. They’re saving a ton of money but they’re not sports fans. I am. Can a sports fan become a cord cutter?


Dear Lorena,

It’s a funny coincidence that you sent me this question today. I just cut the cord myself this weekend, and you know I’m a sports fan! Yes, in today’s market, even many sports fans can switch from cable to a streaming TV service without losing the ability to watch your favorite teams play. Here’s a quick overview of what streaming TV services you should consider, how you should make your decision and what you might stand to lose, and finally some thoughts about the costs and benefits of cutting the cord.

You may have heard of Sling TV. They got into the streaming TV game first. They also have, at least for sports fans, a very strange way of packaging their channels. They have two options — Sling Orange ($20) and Sling Blue ($25). The problem for us sports fans is that Sling Orange has ESPN and ESPN 2 and Sling Blue has Fox Sports 1 and 2 and NBC Sports Network. So, you’ve got to get both. For an extra $10 you can get NBA TV, NHL Network, the Redzone channel, etc. That’s $55 total.

Another option is DIRECTV NOW. Run by a company that has long been a favorite of sports fans, at least those of the football variety, DIRECTV NOW has four packages ranging from Live a Little at $35 to Gotta Have It at $70. Amazingly enough, the cheapest package has most of the sports channels you would want: ESPN and ESPN2, Fox Sports 1, NBCSN. The Go Big package at $60 gets you NBA TV and NHL Network, etc. The NFL is, alas, nowhere to be seen.

YouTube TV is the newest entry into the market and, I’m guessing based on the power of the company behind it, (the company formerly known as Google,) will soon be the best bet for most people. Alas, as of writing this, it was only available in 14 cities in the U.S. and I don’t live in one of them.

Playstation Vue is the service I decided to go with. It has four packages ranging from Access for $40 to Ultra for $75. The Core package, for $45 has ESPN and ESPN2, Fox Sports 1 and 2, NBCSN, NBA TV, NHL Network, MLB Network, and the NFL Network.

All of these services are around the same price and offer a similar selection of channels. Playstation Vue was my choice because, where I live, they have what seems to be an exclusive deal with the dominant regional sports network, NESN. On any of the other services, I wouldn’t be able to watch any of my local NBA, NHL, or MLB games. Now, I don’t happen to be a Celtics, Bruins, or baseball fan but my partner is and it’s important for her to get to watch her teams as well! Regional sports networks — often owned by the local cable company — are the last riskiest part of switching to a streaming service. As you can guess, these networks often don’t have any incentive to cut a deal with a streaming service that’s just going to lure customers away from their parent company. All of the streaming services have a spot where you can enter your zip code and see if your regional sports network will be carried. If you can’t find yours… that may be a good enough reason not to cut the cord! If that’s you, look again periodically or set a Google Alert. These deals seem to be happening more frequently now.

A last note on what you might stand to lose: I haven’t done any in depth comparisons between streaming and cable, so I don’t have a strong sense of whether the streaming service lags more than cable does. (Cable does lag — I remember watching my Rutgers football games on the TV in my living room in college and hearing (rarely) the cannon fire in celebration of a home touchdown and then seeing the play happen on the screen. Talk about spoilers!) The picture quality is quite good, but I plunked down $90 to get the Roku Premiere Plus that has an ethernet connection so I didn’t have to worry about wifi. I can attest to the interface in general being less satisfying than the kick-ass Comcast Xfinitity interface and the DVR not quite working as well. (Editor’s Note: The DVR really doesn’t work very well.)

What’s the benefit then? Well, I am saving $80 a month without losing any of the channels I care about outright. That’s a big benefit from my point of view! I’ll actually end up saving a bit more because I’ll be using less energy. They’ve improved in the past five years or so but cable boxes, particularly those with DVRs are still shockingly power-hungry devices. Most range from 20-30 watts of power regardless of whether you’re using them. The Roku I bought uses 4-6 watts of power and one of those streaming sticks that connect to your TV through USB probably use even less! Using less power is a good thing regardless of the money.

Is there a downside? I can almost always think of a downside. In the case of streaming TV, I have a couple of concerns. Although it’s expensive, one thing I like about the cable TV model is that, by refusing to create customizable or slim packages, they force fans of all different types of entertainment to subsidize each other’s love. Sports fans pay for The Bachelor to be made and fans of Chopped pay for the production costs of 24. Destroying the bundle inevitably means destroying less popular or less mainstream channels and shows. Cable TV money is also one of the drivers of the sports industry in particular. Cable companies pay massive amounts to sports leagues in order to get the exclusive rights to carry local games. If they get undercut by streaming services, those contracts could become less lucrative. Without that money, leagues may have to contract or pay athletes less. Pay the athletes less… and the quality of the competition may go down.

Now that my fear-mongering is done for the night, I’m gonna kick back and see what sports are streaming right now.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why be part of a breakaway in the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do cyclists in the Tour de France bother going out on breakaways? They always get caught!! What is the point?


Dear Lester,

It’s one of the most common and most heartbreaking sights of the Tour de France — a small group of riders, or even a single rider, have led the race for fifty miles or more, over mountains and through valleys, across bridges and through forests. Then, with the finish line metaphorically or sometimes even literally in sight, they are caught by the big pack of riders called the peloton. How does the peloton always seem to catch them at just the right time? Why can they go faster than the breakaway? And, as you put it, why bother going out on breakaways if you’re always going to get caught?

First they physics of it —  the peloton is always able to go faster than a single rider or small group of riders because they have more riders to rotate through the painful position of being at the head of the pack. The person in front “breaks the wind” for all the riders behind them. This is an exhausting position, and even the superhuman (implication intended) athletes of the Tour de France can only do it at full effort for so long. In a solo breakaway, a rider must always fight the wind, in a small breakaway, even when the riders cooperate, each person’s share of the effort is bigger than in the peloton. Race radios, allowing team coaches to communicate with the riders on the course, help the peloton time its effort so that it catches the breakaway at just the right moment.

Luckily for viewers of the Tour, there are still a bunch of legitimate reasons for cyclists to go out on breakaways. A tour with nothing but a single pack of riders would make for boring viewing!

Like in many European sports, there is more than just one prize to shoot for in the Tour. Aside from the yellow jersey, which goes to the rider that completes the stage and eventually the race in the least amount of time, there are two other cumulative jerseys to race for. The green jersey goes to the best sprinter in the race and the red polka-dot jersey on a white background goes to the King of the Mountains. In order to win either of these jerseys (and the money that comes along with the prestige) you have to accrue the largest number of mountain or sprint points during the tour. Although many of the biggest sprints (and a few of the biggest mountain summits) are at the end of stages, most of them are intermediate or during the race. A rider in a breakaway has a good shot at winning an intermediate sprint or being the first over a summit. This helps if they are in contention for the green jersey or the King of the Mountain competition or it can help a teammate of theirs if it denies someone on another team those points. And, these intermediate sprints and summits come with cash prizes.

A third, less visible secondary prize may even be more directly affected by participating in a valiant but eventually unsuccessful breakaway — the Combativity Award. Unlike all the other competitions we’ve discussed before, this award is subjective. A panel of judges watches and votes on the rider for each stage and for the tour as a whole (the one for the tour as a whole is called the “super-combativity award… I’m guessing there may be some slight transliteration issues here…) who is most aggressive. Although this award does not come with a jersey, it does come with cash and some amount of notice in the cycling world.

If you’ve been watching the Tour, you no doubt noticed that each rider wears a jersey with their team’s sponsor emblazoned all over it. The brand name of the sponsor IS the team name. It’s not the “Amazon Bowstrings,” it’s just “Amazon.” Although this may feel foreign to American sports fans who quiver just at the thought of putting an advertisement on their favorite team’s jersey, it’s an integral part of cycling. A rider who can make it into a small group at the head of the race and stay there for three or four hours has successfully captured free advertising for their sponsor for the same amount of time on television. And that rider knows the team sponsor will notice it and remember when the time comes to renew contracts.

So far we’ve been describing only rationales for taking part in a breakaway that don’t have to do with winning the race, either that day or the whole tour. Well, here’s a tactical reason that does have to do with winning. A team that has a rider in contention for winning the whole race (called general classification or GC) may sometimes want to hide one or two of that rider’s teammates in a doomed breakaway. That way, if the GC rider feels like they have an edge on some of their GC competitors and is able to break away from the peleton, they will have teammates ahead of them who can fall back and help their GC teammate extend his lead over the other GC riders.

If all of these reasons are still not good enough, there is this: sometimes it does work. Sometimes the peloton, even with the advantage of physics and race radios, mis-times their charge and can’t catch up in time. Or, sometimes the team tacticians may decide it’s simply not worth expending the energy to catch the breakaway. Cycling is a relatively predictable sport after the first five to ten riders. If no one in the breakaway group is in the top ten, they probably pose no threat to the GC riders who feel they have a chance at winning the whole race. So, those GC riders and their teams may decide it’s more important to save their energy or try to make a late move on another GC rider than to organize the peloton for a long chase.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Race and Basketball in the New York Times

Race and basketball in America are inextricably linked. Of the four (or five) major sports leagues in the United States, the NBA is the most predominantly black league. This past weekend was the NBA All-Star game, a festivity that two of my favorite NBA writers, David Aldridge and Michael Wilbon, got in trouble for calling “Black Thanksgiving” several years ago. (Side note, the quoted comments from fans in that article from look eerily like Trump-era attacks on CNN). By any measure, one of the most famous movies about basketball is about a white con-man who plays off racial assumptions to scam people in two-on-two basketball games. Entitled White Men Can’t Jump, this movie provided the inspiration for the headline of a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review about race and basketball that was so misguided it pulled me out of my grad school hiatus from writing this blog.

The article, “Even When White Men Can Jump…” is written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and author. In it, he presents an interesting analysis he worked on, determining the percent breakdown of NBA player fanbases by race based on Facebook data. The data show two things: that fans tend to root for players of their own race and that black players of similar ability to white, hispanic, or asian players tend to be more popular.

This is a clever investigation and we are indebted to Stephens-Davidowitz for performing it. Unfortunately, in two places, his racial analysis leaves a lot unsaid, to the point of being misleading. Early in the article, Stephens-Davidowitz attempts to explain the historical context of his experiment:

This is a long-debated question. For years, owners were accused of padding their benches with white players to increase a team’s fan base. The implicit assumption: If you are white, you will have more fans.

While it is certainly true that “owners were accused of padding their benches with white players,” the implicit assumption is too generous to basketball fans of the 1970s and 80s, the era most associated with this tactic. The assumption was not that individual white players were more popular, it was that fans would not stand for teams made up completely of black players. To simply say that owners padded their teams with white players because they were more popular makes it sound like a marginal consideration; that teams could increase their popularity a little by hiring white players. In reality, teams worried that fans would completely stop watching unless they hired a quota of white players regardless of skill. This is a much more harsh interpretation that assumes widespread racism. In support of this claim, look to a 1979 Sports Illustrated article, “There’s an Ill Wind Blowing For the NBA” or “‘Too Black’: Race in the “Dark Ages” of the NationalBasketball Association” in the 2010 edition of The International Journal of Sport and Society. It’s also important to think about where this issue of the 1970s and 80s came from. During the 1950s the rules, written and unwritten around race in basketball were much harsher. According to David Kamp in his GQ article, “Only the Ball was Brown,” in the NBA there was an “unofficial quota on blacks in the late ’50s, allowing no more than two or three per team.” In college basketball, things were worse with institutions agreeing to “gentlemen’s rules” prohibiting the recruitment of black athletes. As with most things in college sports, fans and their rabid, rich counterparts called boosters, played a big role in enforcing these unwritten rules.

If the history of race and basketball is more pernicious than Stephens-Davidowitz makes it out to be, so is its present. Stephens-Davidowitz finishes his article with the rosy conclusion that the racial slant to NBA fandom is a refreshing change from the opposite tilt toward white privilege found in the rest of society. I’m all for rosy interpretations, especially in this political era, but it seems like a disservice not to also mention the quite well known trap of black popularity when confined to particular areas. In every fan who contests that “white men can’t jump” or play basketball as well as black athletes, there’s an overtone which states, “basketball (and music and acting) are all black people can be successful at.” Disproportionate adulation in one area can just as easily be seen as enforcing white privilege as lacking it.

Stephens-Davidowitz has produced rich data about race and the NBA but it needs more analysis from a cultural and historical angle.

What should I watch at the Olympics on Sun, Aug 21?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email and I will reply!

What should I watch at the Olympics on Sat, Aug 20?

The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email and I will reply!