Swimmer Sprinter Steeler(s) *Sigh*

michael_phelps

AP_oscar_pistorius_ml_140708_16x9_992 steelersweb23s-1-webRaise your right hand and repeat after me: Athletes are humans, too. I know, we sometimes forget when we read about all the superhuman things they can do. But, just like Newton’s “what goes up must come down” theory, eventually the superhuman Homo Athleticus trips up.

Exhibit A: Michael Phelps. Phelps was arrested for his second DUI earlier in October. And, as Gregg Doyel from CBS news emphasizes, FINA (the governing body for USA Swim) banned Phelps from competing in next year’s nationals. This penalty could very well take Phelps out of contention for the trials and Rio and 2016. Is the punishment too severe? Some might say so, but not the prosecution team down in South Africa where Exhibit B is located: Oscar Pristorius.

Oscar shot and killed his girlfriend through a locked bathroom door in his home. He claimed he feared she was an intruder. The judge found Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced him to five years in prison. Five years. Prosecutors are appealing the sentence and argue the judge let him off far too easily for the crime. In Phelps’ case the sanction may seem too harsh; in the case of Pistorius it appears the sanction is far too light. Are there any cases where Homo Athleticus errs and the authorities get it right?

Not really.

For  Exhibit C, D, …..Z I send you to the NFL arrest database compiled by the San Diego Tribune. Consider the foibles of two Steelers: Blount and Bell. Both were cited for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and one was arrested for a DUI. Nothing has been done by the team. (If you’ve only been half awake during any nightly news recap you will recall many more stories from the last eight weeks including those on Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald, etc, etc.) I have not conducted any formal analysis of the number of athletes arrested for misdemeanors and felonies compared to other professions (yet). However, I am aware of several economic theories which suggest this trend in the NFL and the curious cases of the Phelps and Pistorius behavior are not going to go away.

How can I be so sure? Let’s start with Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker. Becker suggested in the ‘60s that people who commit crimes are, in general, more risk “loving” than risk averse. That is, strictly speaking in economic theory, criminals tend to have increasing marginal utility of income. Most of us tend to exhibit the opposite case. That is, our additional satisfaction from additional income eventually decreases the more income we acquire. This leads us to be very biased in our choices and motivates us to avoid losses. (For the interested reader you cannot go wrong with Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow to explore this and a hundred other interesting ideas).

These notions from Becker and Kahneman have been put under the microscope by Todd Kendall in the Journal of Sports Economics.  Kendall wrote a paper in 2007 called “Celebrity Misbehavior in the NBA” where he investigates this tendency toward breaking the rules.  Kendall examined five other factors (in addition to the taste for risk I mentioned above) influencing misbehavior.  These additional factors are:  pure income effects, lack of substitutability, publicity, youthful immaturity, and peer effects.  Kendall’s approach is novel; he looked at technical fouls and ejections in the NBA for the periods 1996-2003.  He found that technicals and ejections on the floor do correlate with misbehavior outside the court.  In particular, the lack of substitutability was most significant in explaining fouls and other bad behavior.  It makes sense; star players/performers are difficult to replace.  The team, fan, and management options are limited when it comes to disciplining misconduct.  Kendall also estimated that up to 33% of the fouls and ejections (and therefore, other rule-breaking outside the court) could be explained by differences in personal preferences (i.e., taste for more risk).

What does this have to do with Phelps, et al? Well, risk lovers are not deterred by harsh or severe penalties like the rest of the crowd is. Rather, risk loving individuals are more effectively deterred by increases in the probability of being caught (arrested and/or sanctioned). Coupled with a tendency for all humans to overweight low probabilities these athletes are simply more prone than the rest of the population ( I am suggesting) to do something criminal and think they can get away with it. So, if there is some consensus that professional athletes are misbehaving and benefiting from special treatment is there a strategy (other than hastily producing catchy but useless public service announcements about domestic violence from the NFL for example) that might actually deter future offenses?

Yes; take steps to increase the probability of arrest AND conviction for these offenders. That is—demonstrate a credible commitment to punish those for DUIs, assault and—of course—homocide! Making a hypothetical penalty excessively severe is not going to dissuade risk loving individuals from committing crimes. Increasing the likelihood of getting caught AND punished is the strategy.
So, I join Doyel in applauding FINA’s decision. I support the prosecuting team in South Africa as they appeal a sentence that is obviously too light. I am not holding my breath for anything substantial from the NFL, but an ounce of increased crime prevention now may save tons of future public relations pain (and revenue!) in the future.

– Jill Harris