The Year in Ideas 2009
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The New York Times Magazine's December perennial, "The Year in Ideas," had a bit of an off year in 2009. For example:
Black Quarterbacks Are Underpaid

When Rush Limbaugh tried and failed to join the clubby ranks of National Football League owners this year, his past comments came back to haunt him, none more so than his assessment of the Philadelphia Eagles star Donovan McNabb – namely that the news media overrated McNabb because he is black and that he was simply not "that good of a quarterback." But according to the economists David J. Berri and Rob Simmons, Limbaugh might have been giving public voice to what the owners who spurned him think privately.

In an article for the February issue of Journal of Sports Economics, Berri and Simmons found that black quarterbacks tend to be paid less than their white counterparts and that the pay disparity is especially pronounced for top-flight black quarterbacks, who don't make as much money as the best white quarterbacks.

Given the N.F.L.'s sorry history when it comes to black quarterbacks – it wasn't until the mid-1990s that many black athletes even began playing the position – it's possible that the pay disparity is attributable to simple racism. But Berri and Simmons offer a more subtle explanation: statistical bias.

White quarterbacks earned more on average, but black quarterbacks outperformed them in a key category over a similar period.The key is that owners do not fairly compensate quarterbacks who are good at running the ball in addition to throwing it. Using 35 years of data, Berri and Simmons found that while white quarterbacks, on average, run with the ball on only 6.7 percent of their plays, gaining a measly 7.3 yards per game, black quarterbacks run, on average, 11.3 percent of the time and gain 19.4 rushing yards per contest. In other words, many black quarterbacks tend to be good runners as well as good passers. And quarterbacks are not paid for the rushing yards they produce.

Perhaps that's because the quarterback rating – the N.F.L.'s gold standard for evaluating quarterbacks statistically – does not include rushing yards as one of its four components. The formula considers only completions, passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions. Thus "a key offering" of many black quarterbacks, write Berri and Simmons, "is ignored."


Another brilliant insight on the part of Berri and Simmons. The notion that "a key offering" of many black quarterbacks (rushing for an extra 12 yards per game) "is ignored" ranks right up there with their assertion that there's no correlation between draft rank and NFL performance!

How indubitably right they are.

The public's obsession with the Passer Rating "gold standard" explains why the running skills of black quarterbacks have been shockingly ignored in this decade. Look at how many Super Bowls black running quarterbacks have won in this decade (eight? twelve?) versus how few black quarterbacks have made the cover of the annual Madden NFL video game over the last ten years: merely Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, and Vince Young.

Where's Akili Smith?

(In contrast, no white quarterback made the cover until Brett Favre on Madden 2009. No covers for Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger. After all, what have they ever done?)

What casual fan doesn't know how to calculate the NFL's passer rating formula "gold standard" in his head? For you foreigners out there unfamiliar with this treasured bit of Americana known to every American schoolboy, the passer rating formula is simply:

Step 1: Start with completion percentage. Subtract 30 and

divide by 20.

Step 2: Yards per attempt. Subtract 3 and divide by 4.

Step 3: Touchdown passes divided by pass attempts and multiply by 20.

Alternatively, divide the touchdown percentage by 5.

Step 4: Start with 2.375. Subtract from that the interception percentage

(interceptions divided by pass attempts) divided by 4.

(Note: Sum of each step cannot be greater than 2.375 or less than 0.)

Add the sum of 1-4, multiply by 100 and divide by 6.

The rating formula simplifies to:

[25 + 10 * (Completion Percentage) + 40 * (Touchdown Percentage)

- 50 * (Interception Percentage) + 50 * (Yards/Attempt)] /12

I think it's the seductive simplicity of the passer rating that caused ESPN's SportsCenter to stop showing highlight plays on Sunday nights in 2001 and instead merely televise the sportscasters punching in this formula on their calculators and getting into arguments over who got the number right. You can't argue with the Nielsen Ratings!

Meanwhile, Malcolm Gladwell tells Bill Simmons on

What we're talking about is what are called capitalization rates, which refers to how efficiently any group makes use of its talent. So, for example, sub-Saharan Africa is radically undercapitalized when it comes to, say, physics: There are a large number of people who live there who have the ability to be physicists but never get the chance to develop that talent. ...
That's obvious from the huge number of African physicists outside of Africa.
One of my favorite psychologists, James Flynn, has looked at capitalization rates in the U.S. for various occupations: For example, what percentage of American men who are intellectually capable of holding the top tier of managerial/professional jobs actually end up getting a job like that. The number is surprisingly low, like 60 percent or so. That suggests we have a lot of room for improvement. ...

Case in point: Everyone always says what an incredible advantage it has been for Peyton Manning to have had the same offensive coordinator and the same offensive system his entire career. Football offenses are so complex now that they take years to master properly, and having one system in place from the beginning has allowed Manning to capitalize on every inch of his talent. On the other hand, someone like Jason Campbell has had a different offensive coordinator in virtually every season of his pro and college career (and I'm guessing he'll get another this offseason). I'm not convinced that it's possible to say, with certainty, that Campbell has less ability than Manning. I'm only sure we can say that Campbell has not been in a situation that has allowed him to exploit his talent the way Manning has. We just don't know how good he is capable of being — and we may never know.

Then again, perhaps Peyton Manning's offensive coordinator's career stability has benefited from having Peyton Manning around to execute his offensive ideas. At the 14-0 level of success, a lot of different people each deserve a lot of credit. But, then again, if we just packed up Cal Tech and moved it to Kinshasa, we'd suddenly have a lot more physicists, so what do I know?

By the way, Gladwell goes on to say:

To me, Olympic swimmer Dara Torres is far and away the greatest athlete of our generation.
Dude, Dara Torres made her big Olympic comeback at age 41 (three silver medals) when she was dating her endocrinologist, David Hoffman. Why is that more impressive than what Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens were doing at similar ages?
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