Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Felted Holes

The 2012 Summer Olympics are a nice time to reflect on the euvoluntarity of sports. Since this is sort of a big topic, I'll try to limit myself to the following points:

  1. Scale and its relevance to euvoluntary questions
  2. The relationship of schooling and sport
  3. Incentives and the perversion thereof
I also think that each point is detailed enough to break up into its own post, so I'll start with the first one today.

A word on my priors. I can't under any common definition be considered a dedicated sports fan. I get a kick out of going to baseball games in person when I get the chance, but I don't watch televised matches and I can't tell you anything about any of the teams or the players. I'm familiar enough with most of the major rules of the major sports to know the difference between a ground rule double and a leg bye (that's from cricket for those readers insufficiently Anglophilic). When younger, I confined my penchant for memorizing irrelevant statistics to characteristics of the creatures found in the Monster Manual. When I elect to exercise of my own volition, I strongly prefer solitary pursuits--I completed a 200 mile bicycle ride from Seattle to Portland a few years back, for example. With that in mind, take my comments as coming from someone who is friendly to the notion of sport, someone who is friendly to large, successful businesses, but someone who is skeptical of overspecialization and downright distrustful of cozy relationships between business owners and state officials.
Many people both play and watch sports. Chances are, the playing you do is intramural or pick-up and unless you've got a kid in Little League or Pop Warner, the watching you do is national (or a well known local franchise, like Arsenal*). There's no question that a game of pick-up touch football in the backyard or a rooftop street hockey match while the Quick Stop is bolted up is anything but euvoluntary (perhaps with exceptions for novice, drunk or otherwise incapacitated players who bite off more than they can chew). But does this imply that the Big Times are euvoluntary? Is it possible that the NHL exploits young people?

Major League sports offer enormous returns to native talent coupled with oodles of hard work and a fair amount of luck. Naturally, this attracts a lot of marginal talent. Some of this marginal talent may end up regretting wasting years of their lives in a fool's pursuit. Heck, one of the biggest boxing tropes in Hollywood is the palooka who could have been a contender, right? If it weren't for Brando in 1954, we probably wouldn't have had Willis forty years later. The question that nags me here is whether or not this is systematically biased regret and if, so, what is the source of the bias? At a first scratch, I'm inclined to say that it's not the sports so much as institutionalized poverty.

Sports are nice and egalitarian. Well, mostly anyway--you don't see many poor inner city children getting into dressage or competition billiards. Still, an NBA contract is a nitro-fueled rocket ship out of the projects. But if the problem is the BATNA, it might be worth looking at what makes living in relative poverty so unattractive in the first place. On the exogenous side, there are mandatory minimum sentencing laws for simple possession, packing prisons full of people who are both otherwise peaceful drug users and often as not, parents. We've got the institutionalized racism of minimum wage statutes, the rule-of-law-flaunting practice of civil asset forfeiture, the aggressively venal practice of urban renewal supported by eminent domain, and the brutal, ceaseless campaign against school choice powered by an unexpected alliance between the NAACP and the teachers' unions. Endogenous issues include conformity bias and the selection of pro sports as one of the few legitimate, acceptable avenues out of the mean streets. It's also one not hampered by excessive rent-seeking by local elite interests. Even if there's not a lot of competition in the public school districts, kids can pretty easily choose which basketball court to use after the 2:30 bell rings. Whatever the cause, the lure of something better isn't to blame, it's the terrible extant situation.

The point to all this is that you can make the claim that the alternatives to hoop dreams can be dismal, but surely the solution should be to move in the direction of more freedom and autonomy for poor people, to refrain from eliminating their outside options, to stop with all the paternalism already. It's sort of like sweatshops a little bit. Concerned outsiders can say, "goodness gracious, all those poor kids growing up in West Philadelphia, chillin' out, maxin', relaxin', playing some b-ball outside of the school... not all of them have an auntie and uncle in Bel-Air. We should do something about this." If what they do is to boycott pro sports, they force the kids to accept the worse alternative. If you think that this is a farcical parody of compassion, then welcome to the fold, gentlefolk. The same logic applies to light manufacturing in poor nations, kidney sales, experimental drug trial participation, or prostitution. It's more cruel to raise a ban than it is to offer an attractive alternative. Sadly, it happens that it's easier to employ the stick of the state than the carrot of the market.

So, I think I'm inclined to conclude that even if pro sports aren't strictly euvoluntary, I'm mightily glad they exist (with some important caveats to be discussed in a follow-up post). In this case, simply voluntary is a big improvement, all else held equal. And to the extent that it's unfair to hold all else equal, we should focus our attention on the all else rather than on the sports franchises.

*All due apologies to Man-U fans out there. EE does not formally endorse any particular Premier League team.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?