Monday, August 26, 2013

Time to Rethink the Goldman Dilemma?

The so-called "Goladman Dilemma" is one of the most frequently cited statistics in discussions of doping in sports. It holds that world class athletes are not like you and me because many more of them would be willing to engage in prohibited or illegal doping even it it meant a certain, early death in exchange for sporting success. Recent research however suggests that the Goldman Dilemma is no longer an appropriate characterization of the view of elite athletes (if it ever was).

The Goldman Dilemma was characterized as follows in the New York Times in 2010:
There’s a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma. For it, a researcher, Bob Goldman, began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.
The original source oh the dilemma is apparently a 1984 book, by Bob Goldman and colleagues, titled Death in the Locker Room.

A new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by James COnnon, Jules Woolf and Jason Mazanov has tried to replicate Goldman's findings with a rigorous survey of elite North American track and field athletes. They were motivated to do the study because, "there has been little in the way of replication of the Goldman dilemma since 1995."

Titled "Would they dope? Revisiting the Goldman dilemma" the study finds results at odds with that of the Goldman dilemma:
Only 2 out of 212 samples (119 men, 93 women, mean age 20.89) reported that they would take the Faustian bargain offered by the original Goldman dilemma. However, if there were no consequences to the (illegal) drug use, then 25/212 indicated that they would take the substance (no death condition). Legality also changes the acceptance rate to 13/212 even with death as a consequence. Regression modelling showed that no other variable was significant (gender, competitive level, type of sport) and there was no statistical difference between the interview and online collection method.

Goldman’s results do not match our sample. A subset of athletes is willing to dope and another subset is willing to sacrifice their life to achieve success, although to a much lesser degree than that observed by Goldman.
The results suggests that elites athletes are perhaps more like you and me than suggested by the Goldman dilemma. However, even with 1-2% of elite athletes willing to accept Goldman's Faustian bargain, it still helps to explain why doping is pervasive.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The 10,000-hour rule: Epstein vs. Gladwell

David Epstein and Malcom Gladwell are having a bit of a debate. In his new (and excellent) book The Sports Gene, Epstein takes strong issue with the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is a useful rule of thumb for how much practice it takes for someone to be world class.

The "10,000-hour rule" was popularized by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in a chapter with that title in his 2008 book Outliers. In it Gladwell quotes approvingly neurologist Daniel Levitin (p. 40):
[T]en thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert -- in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals ... no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.
For his part Epstein agrees that practice helps perfect, but finds the evidence to be far more nuanced and complex, arguing that "drastically different amounts of practice ... will be required for similar outcomes." Epstein adds, "somehow, the 7,000-to-40,000-hours rule just doesn't have the same ring to it" (p. 23).

Epstein explains further in an interview with Outside magazine:
Outside: The popular narrative you found while researching the book was the 10,000-hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Was the idea that pervasive?

Epstein: Totally. And it motivated me to do the book, actually, and this was before I even knew how I felt about the so-called rule. . . people would call it “Gladwell’s 10,000 hours” as if he had done the research for it. It started to bug me. People were using it just to mean that practice was important, that’s it. That’s not what the theory says. The researcher behind it, Anders Ericsson, has said that he thinks all people have the necessary genes to be elite performers. Just saying that practice is important is totally uncontroversial. From a scientific standpoint it’s useless. Scientists have to say how important it is, what else is important? I found it to be troubling from a scientific standpoint and the more I evaluated it, the more it seemed to unravel. And ultimately, Ericsson read Outliers and said Gladwell misconstrued his work. His words, not mine.

Outside: How did Gladwell misconstrue it?

Aside from not having copied the numbers from the actual paper correctly for his book? He says that there is a perfect correspondence between practice and the level of expertise a person attains. And you can’t tell that from the paper. The 10,000 hours is an average of differences. You could have two people in any endeavor and one person took 0 hours and another took 20,000 hours, which is something like what happened with two high jumpers I discuss in the book. One guy put in 20,000 and one put in 0, so there’s your average of 10,000 hours, but that tells you nothing about an individual.

Now, Gladwell doesn’t say there’s no such thing as genetic talent. I think other writers are stricter than him. [Matthew Syed’s] Bounce is a book that minimizes talent. Gladwell does say elite performers are more talented. One of the things that Ericsson criticizes Gladwell about is to say that 10,000 hours is some kind of rule. The paper just says that these performers by the age of 20, these performers have accumulated 10,000 hours but there’s no where that says it’s a magical number where that’s when they become elite or anything like that.
Today, Gladwell responds to Epstein's critiques at The New Yorker, asking, "I wonder if, in his zeal to stake out a provocative claim on this one matter, [Epstein] has built himself a straw man."

Gladwell defends the "10,000-hour rule":
[Epstein] cites a study by Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet of a hundred and four competitive chess players. Epstein says that they found that the average time it took to reach “master” status was eleven thousand hours—but that one player reached that level in just three thousand hours. This is variation on an extreme scale. Does that mean that in chess “naturals” really do exist? I’m not so sure. Epstein is talking about chess masters—the lowest of the four categories of recognized chess experts. (It’s Division II chess.) Grandmasters—the highest level—are a different story. Robert Howard, of the University of New South Wales, recently published a paper in which he surveyed a group of eight grandmasters and found that the group hit their highest ranking after fourteen thousand hours of practice. Even among prodigies who reached grandmaster level before the age of sixteen, we see the same pattern. Almost all of that group reached grandmaster level at fourteen or fifteen, and most started playing when they were four or five. The famous Polgár sisters (two of whom reached grandmaster status) put in somewhere north of fifty thousand hours of practice to reach the top. Epstein, similarly, argues that studies show that it takes only four thousand hours to reach “international levels” in basketball. The study in question was of a sample of players from the Australian men’s basketball team. I have nothing against either Australia or Australian basketball. But I’d be a bit more impressed if someone could find a starting point guard in the N.B.A. with fewer than ten years of basketball under his belt.
Gladwell might be interested in Steve Nash, long-time NBA veteran and wannabe soccer player. Nash started playing basketball in 1988 while in 8th grade. Less than 9 years later Nash started an NBA game at point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Would this case impress Gladwell?

The case of Steve Nash, and other NBA basketball stars with more or less experience simply reinforces Epstein's argument -- the answer to the question of whether talent or practice matters more is always: it depends. It depends on the task and on the individual. Sometimes the combination of task and individual means that less practice is needed to achieve world class expertise, some times more, and sometimes there is simply no combination that leads to world class expertise (e.g., me and long-distance running!).

One thing that we can say for sure from this debate -- There is no "10,000-hour rule." It is an oversimplification of a much more complex set of ideas. The Sports Gene helps to put it in its proper place.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Jamaica's Doping Hurricane

At Sports Illustrated Renee Anne Shirely, the head of Jamaica's Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO, somewhat equivalent to USADA) from June, 2012 to February, 2013, has written a powerful indictment of Jamaican athletics and its approach to doping.

She writes:
JADCO was formally established only in 2008, and the program has had a difficult childhood. In 2010, after WADA head David Howman pointed out that JADCO had board members who also lead sports associations on the island, the entire 15-member JADCO board of directors was dissolved. One of the dismissed board members, Dr. Herbert Elliott, was Jamaica's team doctor at the Beijing Olympics, and is now chairman of JADCO.

In July, Elliott was vague when asked about the number of out-of-competition tests conducted by JADCO in 2013. "I don't want our athletes to know whether it's 400 or 500 or whatever," he told The Guardian. But Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller recently told Parliament that—in total since 2009—there have been 356 out-of-competition tests conducted in Jamaica.

The current program—while improved—makes a mockery of Jamaica's posturing and flames suspicion more than it douses it. Between the time Between the time the current board was appointed, in February 2012, and the start of the London Olympics late last July, out-of-date testing kits and limited staffing resources resulted in a total of one out-of-competition test. Below are the full 2012 testing numbers by month—with not one out-of-competition test in the three months leading into the Games . . .
Shirley explains some of the challenges that she faced, leading to her stepping down:
When I took over, in mid-July, JADCO did not have a large enough staff in place to carry out rigorous anti-doping programs. The Doping Control/Technical Services and the Education/Communications Units had only one junior staff member each, and the director positions were vacant. There was no Whereabouts Information Officer—in charge of keeping track of athletes so that they could be tested out of competition—and only one full-time doping control officer. The committee in charge of reviewing the legitimacy of medical prescriptions for athletes was without a chairman and had never met.

Other aspects of the program were equally troubled—and troubling. I arrived to find no accounting staff in place, and no monthly financial statements had been produced in the five years since inception. JADCO was behind on payments for a number of its bills. . .

During my time with JADCO, I also voiced concern about internet purchases of drugs and supplements by athletes, as there is reason to believe that some Jamaican athletes have been careless in their Internet purchases of dietary supplements, the ingredients labels of which are not tightly regulated in Jamaica. But despite my efforts I could not get any member of the JADCO board or member of Jamaica's Cabinet to take it seriously. They believe that Jamaica does not have a problem.

The more frustrated I became about the lack of staff and attention to issues I raised, the worse the working environment became for me, and in February of this year I met with a group of JADCO board members and we agreed it would be best if I stepped aside. Dr. Elliott has voiced his strong opinion that Jamaican anti-doping efforts are satisfactory. But this is not a time for grandstanding. In the wake of both recent achievements on the track and devastating positive tests off it, we need to believe that our athletes are clean and that our anti-doping program is independent, vigorous, and free from any semblance of conflicts of interest.
She recommends that the Jamaican government step in to provide greater oversight of JADCO. The JADCO sits under the Jamaican Prime Minister's Office and is thus a government entity, which differentiates it from USADA, which is in a quasi-governmental role.

A editorial in The Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper, last week highlighted what is at stake in the poor governance of JADCO:
[C]are has to be taken that nothing is done to weaken Jamaica's athletics brand. That is why we are concerned by the seeming managerial governance dysfunction at the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO).

For a long time, external critics questioned the robustness of JADCO's drug-testing programme. This newspaper lamented its lack of transparency.

Eventually, JADCO's chairman, Dr Herb Elliott, lifting the veil slightly, caused it to dribble out that JADCO conducted 106 tests last year. But the agency's former executive director has since revealed that that figure is 50 per cent shy of the real mark and hints at bungling and incompetence at the level of the governors.

JADCO has offered no response of clarity, nor has it shared a strategic programme. Those are old ways that hurt Jamaica.

Travis Tygart Interview on NPR

KERA's Think program on public radio has a lengthy interview with Travis Tygart, president of the US Anti-Doping Agency. It is worth listening to in full.

Here is a link.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sports Analytics Research and Sport Policy Outcomes: The Case of Racial Bias in the NBA

A few years ago I blogged on an interesting paper in the American Economic Review which identified a small but detectable racial bias in umpire decision making in Major League Baseball. As interesting as those findings were, what was most fascinating about the paper is its finding that the racial bias disappeared once the umpires became subjected to a rigorous mechanism of evaluation.

In that post I wrote:
The paper suggests that if you want to address systematic bias in subjective decision making, then pay close attention to decisions, use evaluations against an external metric to assess the decision maker performance with respect to performance objectives and ensure that decision makers are aware of the evaluation criteria.
A contemporaneous paper provides further support for this hypothesis. In a paper titled 'Awareness Reduces Racial Bias" Pope et al. (here in PDF) look at what they call a "natural experiment." The follow up on a widely discussed 2010 paper (Price and Wolfers 2010) which found evidence of a racial bias among NBA referees.

Here is how Pope et al. describe their analysis:
In this study, we exploit a natural experiment that occurred in May 2007 when the results  of Price and Wolfers (2010) received considerable media attention and ask whether this  increased awareness of racial bias changed the level of own-race bias displayed. Using new data,  we begin by replicating the original findings for the data period after the original study, but  before the media coverage (2003-2006). Easing the concerns associated with publication bias, we  find continued own-race bias during this period that is, if anything, larger than the bias found in  the original sample period (1991-2002).

We then test for bias in the data period immediately following the media coverage (2007-2010) and find zero evidence of racial bias. We argue that this dramatic decrease in bias is a causal result of the awareness associated with the release of the original academic study. We explore the mechanism for this effect and find no evidence that it is the result of institutional changes made by the NBA. We argue that the most likely explanation for our finding is that the decisions made by individual referees can be impacted by simply making them aware of their own racial bias.
They conclude:
There is a long history of studies showing that racial bias impacts how individuals are  treated in a variety of settings. An important question for academia and the media is what impact  the awareness of these results may have on individual decision makers. In this paper, we examine a real-world setting in which the individuals had large incentives to make correct decisions, but were still exhibiting significant amounts of racial bias. Our results suggest that  public awareness of racial bias was enough to bring about meaningful change.
The NBA and MLB studies together provide a compelling argument for the importance of sports analytics research in sports policy outcomes. Sometimes, sunshine can serve as a disinfectant, especially when that sunshine is used to hold decision makers accountable.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The NYT Looks Back at Kelli White at PTG 2005

Today's New York Times has an essay by M. Nicole Nazzaro looking back at US sprinter Kelli White's admission of doping at the 2005 Play the Game conference. Here is how it starts:
Ten years ago this month, the American sprinter Kelli White tested positive for modafinil, a stimulant used to treat narcolepsy, after winning the 100- and 200-meter gold medals at the world track and field championships in Paris. It was the first time a track athlete from the United States had tested positive during a world or Olympic championship event.
Nazzaro explains how it was that White came to tell her story at the 2005 Play the Game Conference:
Kelli and I met again in November 2005 in a Copenhagen lecture hall, where I watched her tell her story at the Play the Game sports governance conference sponsored by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies. The executive director of the conference, Jens Sejer Andersen, had traveled to Oslo to hear Kelli speak at another conference sponsored by the World Anti-Doping Agency and was impressed. After a series of e-mails, she agreed to appear at Play the Game.

“I want to explain what it takes for the whole system to work,” she said in her prepared remarks in Copenhagen. “It not only took Conte’s help, it took my coach making me believe it was O.K. I think a lot of the time, what happens to athletes is that people make you believe that what you are doing is O.K. because everyone else is doing it.”
Andersen, reflecting last week on the success of that conference, said of White’s speech, “There is nothing to replace a firsthand eyewitness account” of doping. He added, “The potential for the encounter between Kelli and the audience was fully realized.”

From the darkest of days, White had emerged as a symbol of redemption.

Travis Tygart, the chief executive of Usada, also spoke at Copenhagen. His praise for White extends far beyond the importance of her telling the truth.

“Kelli is a wonderful example, still today, that when you try to right the wrongs you’ve committed, it becomes a great tale of redemption for other athletes who come forward,” Tygart said last week, recalling White’s cooperation with the Balco investigation.

“Kelli’s contributions to antidoping,” he added, “will have a much longer-lasting and beneficial impact for athletes and sport than anything she ever did on the track.”
You can read White's full remarks at that 2005 conference here in PDF.

In the NYT Nazzaro quote PTG's Jens Sejer Andersen explaining why the fight against doping matters:
Andersen, whose conference attracts sports journalists from around the world, believes deeply in the antidoping cause.

“It would be impossible” to legalize doping in sport, he said from his home in Aarhus, Denmark. “Today, you can say yes to doping or you can say no to doping.” He said if doping were legalized, it would become “a precondition, and you no longer have a choice.”

“Sport is an expression of civilization,” he said. “Sport has a moral side, and although it’s very difficult to maintain it, it’s worthwhile. We invest in police, but we still have crime. But we don’t give up, because there are certain values we want to protect.”
Civilization has politics, of course, and with respect to doping in sport, some believe that the battle has gone too far. It is a debate I'll be engaging in greater depth on this blog in coming months.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Is the NCAA Zeitgeist Changing?

Comments by John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M university system, offer another data point in the changing views of scholarship athletes and the NCAA. NBC Dallas-Ft. Worth reports:
"I also think that there’s something, you know this is just me talking not as chancellor of the system, something is wrong with the system when we can make money off of our football players, the NCAA make money off of our football players and they can’t be treated like Olympic athletes," Sharp said.

Sharp went on to say that Olympic athletes at A&M are allowed to sell their signatures, but the rest of the student-athletes involved in NCAA programs can't.

"I suspect, courts or somebody or the NCAA is going to have to take a look at that and see whether or not they’re violating someone’s anti-trust deal. How can the NCAA, for instance, make money off of his jerseys and he can’t, you know, make two bucks off of signing something like that, like other athletes can who happen to be in the Olympics. That’s just my opinion," Sharp said.
When a leader like Sharp feels comfortable expressing in public views that previously were only shared in private, then it is a good indication that the time are a-changing.

The video at the top has Sharp's comments in full

US Interest in UEFA Champions League

Follow up on yesterday's post using Google Trends to assess US interest in soccer, the graph above shows a map of US interest in the search term "uefa champions league."

It shows that US interest in international soccer -- football to most everyone else -- by this measure is limited to affluent, urban and globalized regions of the country.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

US Interest in Soccer from Google Trends

Google has a neat application which lets you track interest in a topic according to how much attention it receives. The chart at the top of this page shows for 2004-2013 the results of a Google Trends search on
  • soccer
  • football
  • basketball
  • hockey
  • baseball
You can clearly see the seasonal cycle of interest peaking during the seasons and falling off during the offseason. The data show that soccer remains in fourth place of the five sports, with only hockey trailing. The exception is during the 2006 World Cup when soccer rivalled basketball for 2nd place in peak interest. Interestingly, soccer shows no signs of increasing interest, but football and basketball do.

Here is just the soccer data: