Readings and other things

It’s been a while, but there has been plenty of content in the meantime, so here goes:

  1. A cracking breakdown of the trends of authenticity that include the hipster movement, and all the shit people hate on but secretly do themselves
  2. This bizarre story about the 76ers NBA team executive who seems to have created fake twitter accounts to big himself up and criticize players
  3. A great piece that delves further into the reasons for the state of the world, and how the top 9.9% of people (most of who don’t like Trump, Brexit or fascist ideas) are a part of the problem (including me)
  4. How dirty Russian money ends up in Britain
  5. Commencement speeches are neither here nor there, but Ira Glass from This American Life did a pretty good one
  6. A fun read on the sports apparel companies (Nike, Reebok etc) fight to sign LeBron James back when he was 18
  7. An unsurprising but still depressing story about how economic austerity is destroying a lot of people’s lives in Britain
  8. The Irish referendum and how it was done quite well, and how the winning side fought back against the Trump / Brexit type strategies
  9. An interesting angle on the similarities of the growth of Ethiopia in Africa to China’s recent growth by the relentless Tyler Cowen
  10. Addictive drugs continue to evolve ahead of the pace of the authorities highlighting that the War on Drugs will never be won with force
  11. A brief summary of the GDPR (Privacy) law that you have been getting a lot of emails about, and has just been mandated by the European Commission
  12. The relationship between populism (..fascism) and an aging population (hint: they are positively correlated)
  13. Another reminder of the day to day discrimination people face in the US (and everywhere)
  14. The psychology of Japanese train stations (another efficiency we don’t have here)
  15. Some background to the chaos of the Italian government from the always on point London Review of Books
  16. A new sports franchise that connects with the community in Atlanta, which is interesting because a lot of these franchises have completely bombed
  17. Why does no one ever leave Facebook, even their top top executives? (The meaning they find from pursuing the company’s supposed mission explains a lot of how they can’t see the problems they are causing)
  18. Unsurprisingly, Scandinavian countries are dealing with the advent of new technology better than the rest of us. Who knew higher taxes and better services were good?
  19. The traditional watch magazine Hodinkee talking to Jony Ive about the Apple watch (he is a famous Apple designer)
  20. A brief summary of the “incel” culture (involuntary celibacy – angry guys not getting sex). This stuff is important to be written about and to understand, but it’s still hard not to be depressed by the prevalence of this kind of stuff.
  21. Steve Jobs had a way of understanding the issues at his organizations that seems pretty useful (useful for managers who invariably don’t understand their organizations as it’s hard for employees to be open about their issues for a multitude of reasons)
  22. The semi famous Mr Money Mustache, a very smart man with money – and what he is teaching his son about money
  23. The dream (for some, and for most at least rhetorically) of a two state solution in Israel / Palestine is over
  24. Why are farmers committing suicide in Australia? No surprises that dodgy finance practices are in the vicinity of the issue

Football (AFL) Nepotism

In the AFL there is a rule called the Father Son rule which has been around for a long time. This has allowed for players such as Tom Hawkins and Matthew Scarlet to come to clubs like Geelong for free in drafts where they otherwise would have gone much higher. The rule has been tweaked now so that clubs have to bid for players, so if a player is particularly great there is some compensation and lost draft picks – using the Tom Hawkins example, a club would have to say they were going to take Tom Hawkins first, and then Geelong would now have to act like they had the first draft pick and give up a whole bunch of picks to use their father son rights to get him. Confused? It is confusing (and what is the point of governing bodies other than to make things harder to follow?). But they could still get him in a context where any other player of the same talent they could not, purely because his dad played for Geelong back in the day. Football nepotism. This is a confusing state of affairs for a league that prides itself on fairness and even competition.

In my view there are issues with drafts in the first place, because we are forcing players onto teams they don’t (necessarily) want to go to and incentivising losing. I understand there is an argument here, and it’s hard to deny the AFL is relatively even competition with all clubs legitimately having the ability to one day win a premiership if they make the right decisions. So given that there is a draft and with the assumption that is here to stay, I will look at the father son rule more closely.

In a tightly controlled league, if there is one thing that is not tightly controlled it has the ability to distort the competition. As it currently stands, the system works to prioritise kids who want to play for the team their father played for. It gives the son a choice, they can activate the father-son rule, or they can not. If there are multiple clubs their father played for (provided he hit the eligibility mark of XX games with that club), they can choose which one they want to be picked by. I am relatively pro this part of it, as it actually gives the players some choice (who wouldn’t choose Hawthorn over Brisbane or the Gold Coast). But leaving that aside, is it an option that makes sense? The AFL has decided that we should not allow players to have choice based on the club they support, the town they grew up, the club with the best chance to win, the club with the best chance to get playing time, the club with the best support structure, the club that doesn’t have a lot of their players going off the rails. These are all elements that a young player is explicitly not allowed to make a choice on.

When you are a great player and you are 18 looking to enter the AFL, if you are lucky you might get a choice (I support choice). But the choice you are given is not based on any of the above factors, that seem to me to be reasonable factors in deciding where you want to spend potentially 10-15 years of your life. Instead, the one choice they might get, is to choose a club that the only connection they have is their dad played for them back in the day. They might not even like their dad – they certainly had no input into where the dad played and whether (20-30 years later) the club their dad played for back then is any good now. So we are banning choice, UNLESS your happen to have a dad that played for a team back in the day, in which case you can choose to go there if you want. Hmmm.

One of the problems here is the distortion of incentives. What on earth are the incentives of the Father Son rule? To pray that any player who plays enough games for your team finds a lovely partner and they happen to have a fertile partnership that results in some able bodied sons? I actually remember a good friend of mine being excited that a great player of their favourite team had produced 4 sons. Pretty absurd that the fertility of players is actually worth following.

The biggest problem this confronts is this nostalgia for “back in the day” times. I have specifically used that term, because it best describes the nostalgia for a time that was actually arse, it’s just that people look backwards with rose coloured glasses because it is nice to be able to do that. That time back then was when the stadiums were terrible, the football was never on TV, and players regularly fought with each other. Sure the biff was kind of funny, but given what we know about head injuries and brain damage, it wasn’t that great. What people always fail to recognise when they look back on these past era’s is that the quality of football was terrible. Guys that were unfit, slow, and relatively unskilled (they often had other jobs). The league has professionalised and it is for the better for everything. (The only thing it is for the worse – well there are many things but this is the main thing – is the clubs no longer feel like a community with all the corporate crap). The father son rule allows people to fantasize that this past was meaningful and related to the current game. It isn’t, it is a long way off and that is fine.

If we are going to keep this “no choice” mode the players, at least go the whole way. Don’t make the only choice based on their genes.

Are athletes finally using their leverage?

In the NBA one of the major stories of the last year has been a player by the name of Kawhi Leonard who plays for the San Antonio Spurs. He has an injured quadriceps, which became apparent in a playoff game at the end of the last season where he landed on another players leg. He has played 9 games this season. It is weird for a guy to play only 9 games when recovering from a quadriceps injury, as it is not a broken leg or an effed knee. Because it’s weird, it has become a big story, his teammates have openly questioned why he is not back with the team, his coach suggested he was coming back soon but then quickly rescinded that. Whilst the Spurs have been playing in the playoffs, Kawhi continues to rehab in New York under the supervision of the Players Association. Traditionally an injured guy would be with the team cheering them on from the bench, like Steph Curry at the Warriors. So whats going on here?

The normal stuff

A lot of the things happening here are standard for professional athletes in a team setting. Injuries are complicated and there is a long history of team doctors favoring the outcome best for the team’s short term interest over the player’s long term interest. Encouraging players to play through pain, making injuries potentially worse. This is a constant. With players having more money, there is a great amount of them that have their own doctors, and get their own independent medical advice. The public stories like Tom Brady and his own health guru who has had a complicated relationship with the teams staff., are representative of a common trend. LeBron has a trainer that is allowed to be around, just not in team spaces, so he does his pre-game work in corridors. Kawhi trusts his own doctors, or Players Association doctors more than San Antonio team doctors. This makes a fair bit of sense. It’s a bit weird, but it is not wildly uncommon. It’s a symbol of players being more empowered and understanding that the team will not always look out for their best interests.

The other rumour bubbling below the surface appears to be an increasingly common one in NBA circles. Murmurings about a player who is one of the top players in the league (sometimes players are inflated in their own views, but not in this case) wanting more public profile are becoming increasingly common. LeBron went of Oprah and said he wanted to be a global icon, and everyone laughed (and said he wasn’t focused enough on basketball). The reality is that he is a global icon, and that other players notice that. Personal brand is a big deal. The bigger that is, the more cash you can command. It goes hand in hand with being good – or at least it can. The exceptions to this rule are rare, but it is more common for a player that is good to have a poor personal brand. Think a previous Spur – Tim Duncan. He was not a national figure in any context other than basketball. You never saw him on late night TV or in national commercials. It is widely understood that it was his choice. People thought Kawhi was making the same choice. But the rumblings are that he isn’t. And if he starts thinking about personal brand, he will start thinking about how best to cultivate that. He is with the Jordan brand, which is super cool, but they are not going to hype him to be his own brand. The brand is already named after someone else. He is in San Antonio, where the team culture is against individual brands and players putting themselves out there. It’s also not a huge city. There are a few more things but you get the idea. Metaphor.

Less normal stuff and future trends

The Kawhi situation is representative of more. There are other trends here that have been gradually showing themselves. While it is not rare for players to have their own medical staff and second opinions, in the Kawhi situation it is rare for him to be rehabbing completely outside of the teams facilities, and be completely disconnected from the team. This is so extreme that players are opening calling him out. His own teammates. This is more rare and demonstrates a rare situation. But the broader trend here is he devaluation of the team. And even though it sucks, because sports is becoming more like the rest of the world, it makes sense. For a long time owners have used “the team” as a way to keep players in the same place, playing for less money. Not just owners, coaches, fans, everyone. The skew of a player who wants more money, or more freedom or more global recognition has always been that they are selfish, and letting their team down. Even in this scenario there is the usual pieces about how Kawhi is being selfish, and should be with the team supporting them. Whilst it is nice and sounds true, it is actually another cover for the idea that the player should priorities the team over themselves. The society we live in, in every other context does not work like this. People leave workplaces all the time because it’s the wrong place for them, or the culture is wrong, or something else doesn’t feel right. It makes sense.

The other thing that has changed is the perception of team actions, and players realising the collective power they have to change this. Largely empowered by LeBron James, players are more likely to hold teams hostage and make decisions that are best for them. This is decried by old school analysts, fans and especially old school players. They used to hate their opponents and shudder at the idea of joining up with them. But in reality, that was a construct and made no sense. Why arbitrarily hate another team? It is just a made up team which you have no history with. There is no required loyalty to a city or to a franchise. That is why in the NBA offseason the Isaiah Thomas trade was such a change in mindset for the players within the league. Here was a guy who killed it for Boston all year, played through his hip injury in the playoffs at the detriment of his own body, only to be traded by Boston for a better player.  As a result, his new team (Cleveland) wanted him to prove he was worth paying a big contract. Isaiah knew this and rushed back from the hip injury, only to be underdone and blamed for the teams poor play. He was then traded again to Los Angeles. His $120 million contract is more likely to be $20 million now. That is a lot of money. The loyalty shown by Boston was 0. They treated it like a business decision, as they often do. Why should players be any different? Kawhi is just treating his injury like a business decision.

For Kawhi, in the new world, he can’t trust the team he works for and the culture they are trying to create. Sure it’s the Spurs, but there is no reason for Kawhi care about all that nice stuff. Is winning really the ultimate goal worth sacrificing agency and money for? Probably not. And in this season, the chance of beating Golden State of Houston is low. And even so, there are better places to win than San Antonio. So he has a sore quad, and the team isn’t quite good enough to win this year. He doesn’t trust their trainers, and he doesn’t trust himself not to get sucked into their loyalty pitch – after all he is a human, just like Isaiah Thomas, going up against a corporate machine, with fans that love him because he happened to put on the colours of silver and black. He also is one of the best players in the league and has a small shoe deal and no national commercials. It’s a combination of things. But there is no denying that part of that combination is new.

The players have the same playbook as the teams.