What we cannot reliably learn from former NFL players about the “bounty” system (or anything else)

Posted on March 7, 2012

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It goes without saying that most of the chatter on the sports networks comes from the mouths of former players and coaches. There may typically be one journalist or “broadcaster” moderating a discussion, and occasionally there are non-player “experts” about particular subjects internal or external to the sport in question (from folks who analyze the potential of prospective players, to lawyers who can explain how an arrested player might be treated within the justice system). But mostly we hear the opinions and arguments of former players.

So what expertise do former players actually bring to the table? On what topics can we expect them to speak with more authority and understanding than can, say, you or I? Never having played most sports at a particularly advanced (i.e., post-middle-school) level, there is no doubt that I’ve learned a LOT from former players about how easy or difficult certain moves, plays, or tactics are, or about how things look and feel on the playing field or in the locker room.

But there are real limits to usefulness of the first-hand practical wisdom of former players on a range of issues routinely debated in the sports media. The predictable debates over “bountygate” are a case in point. (For links with more information about the NFL’s recent enquiry into the use of a bounty to reward defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, see the post preceding this one.)

Here’s what a player might reliably be able to tell us about “bounties”:

  • whether he has ever played on a team in which there was a bounty system, and if so, what the “mechanics” of that system were like, and what kinds of actions were awarded with bounty money;
  • whether he has ever played on a team in which there was definitely no bounty system, and if not, what prevented it from emerging;
  • (somewhat less reliably) how widespread the bounty system is across current and recent NFL teams;
  • (even less reliably) whether the amount of money available for, say, a punishing hit is a “meaningful” amount of money for some of the less-well-paid players who might be able to collect.

But here are some things that a former player, as a former player, does not have any special knowledge or expertise about:

  1. whether the existence of a bounty for especially punishing hits (or even explicitly for sending an opponent to the locker room, if not the hospital) actually succeeds in motivating players to change the way they play;
  2. whether there is anything wrong with bounties given out for spectacular non-injurious play (such as running a punt back for a touchdown, forcing a fumble, or downing your own punt inside the opponents’ 5-yard line);
  3. whether there is anything wrong with bounties for injurious or potentially injurious hits that are perfectly “legal” according to NFL rules (e.g., not to the head, from behind, at the knees, after the whistle, etc);
  4. whether there is ultimately anything the league or team management can do to seriously reduce the extent of bounty arrangements among players; or whether this is just a part of the culture of football players that will never disappear;
  5. what the league ought to do to try to reduce the prevalence of bounty systems, if anything (what fines/suspensions are appropriate, etc).

Don’t get me wrong: players are certainly entitled to opinions on all of the issues on this second list; and some of them can surely make a strong case for particular conclusions. There are, as a matter of fact, some very smart current and former football players among the pundits. My simple point is that all of the issues on this second list require inferences, deductions, and arguments that go beyond anything that can be observed or experienced directly. So once players have shared with us some facts of the sort mentioned in the first list, they are in no better position than you or I to address the second set of questions.

And in fact, you and I are not necessarily the most qualified people to address these questions either. The first question is a matter of cognitive psychology, and ultimately of brain science. Now if most players came right out and said that a $5000 bounty would definitely provide the incentive to deliberately injure an opposing player, then (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) we probably wouldn’t need to call in the brain scientists to infer that the incentives work. But as a matter of fact, almost all of the television pundits seem to think it is ludicrous to imagine that “professional” football players would deliberately maim one of their fraternity for cash. Yet even when they report earnestly that they personally would not be affected by the existence of an incentive, we know too much about the unconscious effects of incentives and cognitive biases to take such introspective reports at face value. No doctor thinks that a “seminar” held by a pharmaceutical company at a golf resort will have an impact on the choice of prescriptions he or she writes for patients in his or her care. But good empirical studies show otherwise. In fact, what they show is that even those little pens and notepads left by pharma reps end up unconsciously biasing physicians’ supposedly “expert” judgment.

There is, in short, every reason to think that bounties have the same impact. Indeed, why else would savvy coaches like Gregg Williams (who was investigated for the scheme in place while he was defensive coordinator of the Saints) aid and abet the practice? When we add in the strong social pressures that would prevent a player from bragging about, or even admitting, that he deliberately maimed an opponent — not to mention the fact that such an admission would mark him as a target on the field, and perhaps even in the courts — we should not be surprised to find that players are either lying about the impact of bounties on their motivation, or (more likely) that their unconscious minds work very hard to suppress conscious awareness of such a motivation.

Here’s some free advice, ESPN: for every 10 minutes of former players weighing in on questions like #1 in the second list, above, try to get at least a one-minute interview with a cognitive psychologist or behavioral economist like George Loewenstein or Dan Ariely, or an informed popular science writer like Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide.

The 4th issue on the second list — about what teams or the league might do to eliminate bounties — is also a matter that goes well beyond what can be observed or experienced directly. Cultures and practices can change and have changed, even in locker rooms. And there is expertise out there on how to do this; some of it, fortunately, is already in place in the League’s front office and within the management of particular teams.

So what can player-pundits add to our knowledge of what policy changes would or would not work? We can think of it this way. If Ford were to bring in experts on organizational change or ethics-and-compliance management in order to improve the culture of the firm, these experts would surely seek out the perceptions and even suggestions of the employees on the line. They would not, however, simply let the employees argue the issues out and vote on the policy changes they would like to see. The same goes for the Detroit Lions, the team owned by the Fords. There really is useful knowledge from sociology and social psychology, filtered through the managerial sciences, that can speak to problem of bounties and related issues of changing rules and attitudes about injuries in this violent sport. And enough of this has already been applied adeptly in the NFL to manage other aspects of its organization and product. If sports TV really wants to understand how bounties persist, and what would make them go away, there are plenty of less charismatic “insiders” who could speak with some authority.

Of course, it’s far from obvious that sports TV actually does want to get to the bottom of issues like this, or that insiders — from former players to former or current league officials — really have an incentive to speak with candor.

In sum: player-pundits have plenty of relevant experiences they can convey, but they are no better than the rest of us at drawing inferences from this experience in matters (such as 1 and 4) that could benefit from knowledge of behavioral and social sciences.

As for their ability to opine with special authority on the questions of ethics and law in points 2, 3, and 5, above; well, that’s a question for the next a future post.

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