My favorite academic papers on sports

Over the last few years, several friends and colleagues have asked me to send along papers on sports which have been published in academic journals. While studies of teams or athletes often serve to identify top teams, players, or mechanisms for winning games, several have helped shape league policy through the discovery of surprising or corrupt activity. Often, these papers serve as a reminder that sports can provide a window into human motivation and behavior. At any rate, here are my favorite sports-related journal articles, with a brief summary and links, where available.

Duggan, Mark, and Steven D. Levitt. Winning isn’t everything: Corruption in sumo wrestling. No. w7798. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2000: 168 citations.   This paper identified a bizarre scoring system in sumo wrestling which created incentives for athlete corruption. The system incentivized sumo wrestlers to throw matches at the end of tournaments to allow the other wrestlers to improve in national rankings. Evidence provided called into question sumo wrestling policy and confirmed decades long suspicions of corruption. The paper is linked here

Price, Joseph, and Justin Wolfers. “Racial discrimination among NBA referees.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 125.4 (2010): 146 citations. One of the most unique hypothesis in this group, this paper generated significant buzz among the NBA and its fans. The authors use 13 years of data to suggest that “more personal fouls are awarded against players when they are officiated by an opposite-race officiating crew than when officiated by an own-race refereeing crew.” The NBA, not surprisingly, dismissed the study. ESPN highlights the arguments here. I thought it was interesting that the buzz over this paper started in 2006, long before it was eventually published (2010). My question: is it worth generating buzz without the peer-reviewed process to fall back on?

My favorite part of the debate comes from an independent economist called into contrast the authors’ study with that done by the NBA:

In fact, after studying the NBA. data, Katz, one of the nation’s most respected economists, told us: “It was so poorly presented that it was hard to figure out what they were doing. And to the extent you could figure out what they were doing, there was such incoherence you couldn’t draw any conclusions from it.”

Also there’s this:

“If you have a conclusive evidence you want to come out with, you can almost make statistics prove what you want to prove.” – former NBA coach Phil Jackson

The NBA and officials paper is linked here, at least via presentation slides.

Frank, Mark G., and Thomas Gilovich. “The dark side of self-and social perception: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports.” Journal of personality and social psychology 54.1 (1988): 235 citations. I loved everything about this paper, too. An oldie but a goodie.  Controlling for other variables, teams with black (and red?) colors in their uniforms were found to have been called for a higher number of penalties. This paper is publicly linked here.

Buraimo, Babatunde, David Forrest, and Robert Simmons. “The 12th man?: refereeing bias in English and German soccer.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society) 173.2 (2010): 33 citations. This is the first of a few recent papers which have used empirical evidence to suggest that referees issue make-up calls. Also included is evidence of refereeing bias in favor of the home teams. The paper is linked here.

Barnsley, Roger H., and Angus H. Thompson. “Birthdate and success in minor hockey: The key to the NHL.” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 20.2 (1988): 116 citations. This paper is the original of several similar manuscripts finding that players born in certain months will have an increased likelihood of earning a spot in professional hockey. The reason?  In youth sports, teams are assigned based on an age cutoff. In playing with younger opponents, older athletes are both more likely to earn roster spots and gain experience, allowing for a greater chance of future success. The article is linked here.

Kahn, Lawrence M., and Peter D. Sherer. “Racial differences in professional basketball players’ compensation.” Journal of Labor Economics (1988): 195 citations. The title says it all – The authors estimate that, controlling for player ability, age, and other variables, the average black player is paid 17% less than the average white player. Further, as the number of white players increase on an NBA roster so too does expected attendance, even after controlling for market and team history.

Keep in mind that this study was published in 1988- does it still apply now? American born black players currently compose roughly 80% of the NBA’s players. This study is not publicly linked.

Taylor, Beck A., and Justin G. Trogdon. “Losing to win: Tournament incentives in the National Basketball Association.” Journal of Labor Economics 20.1 (2002): 61 citations. The sun rises in the East, sets in the West, and NBA teams tank games to improve future draft pick chances. An intuitive hypothesis, but a valuable one. There is no publicly available link for this manuscript.

Rees, Daniel I., and Kevin T. Schnepel. “College football games and crime.” Journal of Sports Economics 10.1 (2009): 42 citations. College football games cause increases in crime in the host community on the day of the game. Quoting directly from the abstract, “Upsets are associated with the largest increases in the number of expected offenses.” This article is linked here.

Kovash, Kenneth, and Steven D. Levitt. Professionals do not play minimax: evidence from major League Baseball and the National Football League. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009: 17 citations. This article suggests that football teams should be passing the ball more than they currently do. The good news? Passing attempts in the last few years are higher than they’ve ever been before. The paper also argues that professional baseball pitchers throw too many fastballs. The paper is linked here.

Romer, David. “Do firms maximize? Evidence from professional football.”Journal of Political Economy 114.2 (2006): 87 citations. Same theme as the Kovash & Levitt paper above – NFL teams are too conservative. In this paper, Romer suggests that teams should go for it on “4th down” substantially more often than they do now. However, according to one analysis, coaches are actually more conservative now than in the last 15 years.

Quotes on the subject:

“[This] would be fine if I completely understood it. But I don’t think you can get all the variables on one page. I don’t care what the equation is, you can’t get them all.”– former NFL coach Bill Walsh

“There are only two numbers. And those are 50-50. You either make it, or you don’t.“-former NFL coach Brian Billick

Berman, Shawn L., Jonathan Down, and Charles WL Hill. “Tacit knowledge as a source of competitive advantage in the National Basketball Association.” Academy of Management Journal 45.1 (2002): 340 citations. Using the NBA as a backdrop, the authors identify competitive advantages that come from teams sticking together longer, with this advantage eventually turning into a disadvantage over time. There is no public link for this article.

Madden, Janice Fanning. “Differences in the Success of NFL Coaches by Race, 1990-2002 Evidence of Last Hire, First Fire.” Journal of Sports Economics 5.1 (2004): 35 citations. This manuscript looks at the differences in the success of white and black NFL coaches, finding that teams employing black coaches, all else being equal, were more successful. As a result, the suggestion made is that black NFL coaches are being held to higher standards than their white counterparts. Curiously, the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule right around this time, which mandated that at least one black coach be interviewed for each open coaching position. As of now, there are three current black NFL coaches. The paper is linked here.


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