Category Archives: race to the bottom

The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller

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Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.

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When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.

NCAA Bans Satellite Football Camps–Stops a Race to the Bottom

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A few weeks back I wrote a post titled: Michigan’s Harbaugh Rankles SEC Feathers With Spring Practices at Florida High School Recruit Factory. There I discussed how Michigan’s plan to hold spring practices (which have since taken place) at a high school in Florida upset many coaches and fans in the South Eastern Conference (SEC).

Today, the NCAA made a ruling on the use of camps. Mitch Sherman at ESPN writes:

The NCAA has shut down satellite camps, effective immediately, with a ruling Friday by the Division I Council that requires FBS programs to conduct all clinics at school facilities or facilities regularly used for practice or competition.

Satellite camps rose to prominence over the past year as several programs, notably Michigan and others from the Big Ten, conducted camps in the South and regions rich in recruiting prospects.

The ruling Friday is effectively a win for the the SEC and ACC, which had banned their coaches from working camps at destinations outside a 50-mile radius from their schools.

It seems that the NCAA has effectively stopped what may have become a race to the bottom (see my previous post). Perhaps it is also time the governing body addresses the geographic advantage in recruiting enjoyed by the SEC.

 

Michigan’s Harbaugh Rankles SEC Feathers With Spring Practices at Florida High School Recruit Factory

It’s an understatement to say that college football is a competitive game-both on and off the field. For big football schools like Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia, a successful school year includes a conference championship (or better) and plenty of revenue.

Coaches spend inordinate amounts of time and money recruiting top-tier high school players to ensure they can compete at the highest levels year after year. And typically, schools do their best recruiting relatively close to home. This tends to help the programs of the South Eastern Conference that are located in some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation.

The NCAA attempts to regulate college football recruiting to ensure schools do not become disruptive to high school students and to maintain the illusion of a level playing field between big and small schools (guideline & calendar). The period in which Michigan plans to have practices in Florida is considered a “quiet period” for recruiting, meaning coaches can only have face-to-face contact with college-bound recruits on their own college campuses. The NCAA also only regulates the length and frequency of spring practices, not their locations.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh recently sought and received approval from the NCAA and the Big Ten to conduct spring practices at an elite Florida football high school, IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. This is not the first time the school has conducted “satellite” camps, either. Last year Michigan conducted 11 satellite camps in 7 different states.

SEC coaches strongly dislike this trend:

Nick Saban of Alabama:

Jim McElwain of Florida:

Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss:

Brett Bielema of Arkansas:

And Kirby Smart of Georgia:

“(The Wolverines are) obviously trying to gain a competitive advantage, and that’s their right,” said Smart, who took over the UGA program in December and served as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama the previous eight seasons (2008-15). “But I think the NCAA, in due time, will have to step in.”

Jim Harbaugh responded quickly to Kirby Smart’s comments, stating:

The NCAA recruiting rules exist for a reason. Without them, large universities with lots of money would seek even more elaborate ways to woo the talented high school students they wish to sign. The more money and effort pumped into recruiting, the less effective it would become as all other schools sought to do the same. Eventually, all of the major schools would be spending (even more) massive amounts of time and money for arguably little improvement in recruiting (not to mention the growing distraction to the high school students). Professor Joseph Heath labels this type of behavior a race to the bottom: “in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.”

The NCAA rules help the big schools overcome a collective action problem. These schools have come to a collective agreement about the rules of recruiting to prevent the very race to the bottom that Harbaugh may reignite.

The SEC commissioner is currently seeking to block Harbaugh’s plans through appeals to the NCAA about college players’ “off-time”; if that effort fails, discussions about changing the SEC prohibitions on these so-called “satellite” camps may soon follow. If Harbaugh wants a recruiting war, I’m sure the SEC football programs would be more than willing and able to outspend him in prime southeastern recruiting territory.

So who is right? The SEC coaches who own a distinct geographic advantage on fertile recruiting ground? Or is it Coach Harbaugh who is most likely realizing improved exposure to key recruits by practicing in “warmer weather?”

Harbaugh may not be breaking the letter of the law, but he is pushing the spirit of it. Being a Georgia football fan who has long supported Georgia’s recently started indoor practice facility construction, I’ll remind the readers that Michigan has one of these:

Athletics, Dave Ablauf

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

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Competitive extemporaneous speaking: unchecked rhetoric is a race to the bottom

Extemporaneous speaking (extemp for short) is a competitive event in high school speech and debate where competitors are given thirty minutes to come up with a seven-minute speech on a randomly selected topic. Competitors are judged on their analysis of the topic, their use of sources, and their oratorical presence. A video of the 2004 National Champion in Domestic Extemp can be found here. By putting a non-competitive activity (public speaking) into a competitive arena, students find a fun and engaging way to hone their skills.

In addition to their own knowledge, competitors are allowed to use and cite sources from a tub of evidence they prepare before selecting their topic. All other factors being equal, competitors who cite more sources in their speeches win more. In the past, the standard number of sources for a good speech was three. Three sources in a speech works because most speeches are structured to have three separate points, and while three was not a written rule, it was a known convention. However, competitors over time have defected from this collective agreement in order to improve their chances of winning. In a classic race to the bottom, other competitors deviate from the three-source standard to keep up with their opponents, and over time, the average number of sources per speech has risen to nine.

How is this different from any other race to the bottom? In thirty minutes of preparation, a competitor has to scour mounds of newspaper clippings to find relevant sources, incorporate those sources into a speech outline, memorize the speech, and practice it a few times. Simply, it is impossible to write and practice a speech with nine distinct sources in thirty minutes; so, competitors choose to cite fake sources. Judges rarely check if competitors are citing real sources—one could spend more than the entire speech’s seven minutes back-checking nine sources. In a competitive event that teaches students how to persuasively and eloquently convey information, students are also learning how easy and convenient it is to lie.

Lying in a public speech is not unique to high school forensics—politicians regularly lie in debates, because the short-term benefits of making a seemingly valid point outweigh the long-term effects of a lie. Rep. Michelle Bachman, in the recent Republican Primary Debates, was notorious for this—she regularly misrepresented the views of her opponents (check it out at 2:00 here). Many news organizations, notably the New York Times, try to ‘live fact-check’ these debates, but there is little damage to the liar if they come out of the debate unscathed.

Having nine sources in your extemp speech does not necessarily mean you are citing fake sources. Some competitors craft universal sources for every speech they could possibly give by memorizing a citation for a popular book or study. While these ‘canned sources’ are successful, they defeat the extemporaneous nature of the competition.

Free trade = more regulation?

In the context of a domestic economy, a call for “free markets” or “free-market solutions” is often a plea not to regulate markets. But international agreements for free trade are by their very nature attempts to regulate international markets. As a deliberately adversarial institution, a free-trade agreement between two or more countries forbids various sharp competitive strategies that any given country can use to create a competitive advantage for itself (e.g. tactics that would allow its goods to be exported while it restricted imports from trading partners). The whole point is to solve a collective action problem between rival countries: when each country is allowed to pursue protectionist policies, say, they will all end up worse off. That is more or  less the point of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. (It was not this point.)

But in today’s New York Times there’s an op-ed pointing out another interesting way to think of international free trade as involving more, not less, regulation. Layna Mosley, a political scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill, has study the way free-trade agreements between developed and less-developed countries seem to generate a regulatory “race-to-the-top” on labor standards.

There is…a more general way in which trade agreements — and the economic ties they generate — benefit workers in developing nations. As Colombia and Panama expand their trade relationships with the United States, workers stand to gain more than just the job creation and higher wages that often come with expanded trade. Research I conducted over the last several years with the political scientists Brian Greenhill and Aseem Prakash suggests that trade with developed nations helps developing countries expand labor rights themselves.

Why? International trade gives producers incentives to meet the standards of their export markets. When developing nations export more to countries with better labor standards, their labor rights laws and practices tend to improve.

With a shout-out to David Vogel’s “California effect” explanation of the way in which the state of California raises environmental standards for other states in the US, she continues:

This California effect works in two ways, both based on global producers’ own calculations of self-interest.

First, multinational companies often carry their management and production technologies with them when they produce goods abroad because, like automakers selling to California’s consumers, they find it efficient to standardize their practices in plants, regardless of location. Those practices — including rules for the appropriate treatment of workers — then set an example for other employers throughout the host economy.

Second, the multinational company knows that many consumers, activists and shareholders in its home country will judge its imported products on whether they were produced in ways that reflect the firm’s public commitment to corporate social responsibility. This spurs multinational firms and importers to press locally owned companies in their supply chains for working conditions that meet internationally recognized labor standards.

So not all unforeseen consequences of regulating contests (in this case, the contest between national economies in international trade) turn out to be perverse consequences. Not all races involving more- and less-regulated economies are races to the bottom.

[Note: click on the “race to the bottom” category link, in the right-hand column, for more posts on this general topic, mostly by star students in my Adversarial Ethics class at Duke in the spring of 2011.]

 

Race-to-the bottom watch: competitive babies?

This spoof cover from the Onion advertising “How to get your premature babies into the best incubators” presents a comical account of parents anxious to give their children a leg up on the competition.  The humor of the cover, however—like the comedic value of most good jokes—comes not from its outlandishness but from the close-to-home truth it conveys.

Particularly in the fields of academics and athletics, parents are reacting to competitive pressures by pushing their kids to start earlier and work harder.  The 2008 documentary Nursery University documents how some New York City preschools are charging up to $20,000 per semester per child—higher than the average tuition of private American universities.  It should come as no surprise that this escalating preschool market is taking place in one of the most densely populated places in the world.  The high volume of children in the city results in a high demand for a limited amount of spots at “elite preschools.”

Many bloggers, including economics professor Charles Wheelen, have noted that participation in sports has also become increasingly competitive among younger players.  The goal of little league – in which I was taught “to have fun”—is slowly fading away as parents and coaches enforce the omnipresent urge to win.  Sometimes pursuing the goal of winning even comes at the cost making kids prone to certain kinds of avoidable injuries, which at times even eventuate into the need for reconstructive surgery.  Wheelen writes:

“If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific.  But I don’t think that’s what is going on.  As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.

The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one.  Here’s the problem with that:  The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed.  So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.

If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements.  And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing ‘kick the can’ in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids’ lives are worse for it.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a race to the bottom is the difficulty or impossibility of escaping it.  If parents prevent their children from starting competitive sports until they are ten years old or even older, then those kids will have to live with a competitive disadvantage unless all the other parents make this same decision.  On the other hand, pushing kids into sports and preschools earlier and earlier degenerates into a race to the bottom in which everybody comes out worse off.

It remains to be seen what mechanisms could prevent this collective action problem.  Wheelen points out that little leaguers are operating with fewer regulations that professional athletes.  While this lack of regulation used to suffice due to a lack of necessity, it seems increasingly possible that regulations are needed to protect even the youngest of the current generation from plunging into various races to the bottom.