Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University.
George Washington University’s basketball team was almost unbeatable in Foggy Bottom this year but very ordinary on the road. This performance reflects a pattern that cuts across all sports — home-field advantage. But what explains that? L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers discuss and dismiss the obvious possibilities. “There’s very little to suggest that individual performance diminishes on the road,” they write. Avoiding the “rigors of travel” or playing on familiar turf doesn’t matter, either.
Here’s what does matter: Officials react to the crowd. At home, baseball teams strike out less often. Basketball teams shoot more free throws. Football teams receive fewer penalties.
Referees and umpires are not corrupt, the authors write, “but they are human, subject to the same social pressures as all of us. . . . When 50,000 people are telling you to make a call a certain way, you’re inclined to comply to avoid upsetting the masses.”
That’s one of many fascinating findings sprinkled through this survey of scientific and statistical studies relating to sports. There’s no clear theme here, and the book is more a collection of game-day snacks than a full meal. But it contains enough tasty tidbits to make you sound smart with your pals.
Take “action bias,” the concept that “faced with uncertainty or ambiguous problems, we would often rather do something than nothing — even if it’s counterproductive.” Statistics clearly show that the best way for soccer goalies to block penalty kicks is to stay “in the center of the goal.” Yet they consistently dive in one direction or the other, ignoring the precept that “sometimes the best move is no move at all.”
One revealing chapter focuses on why great players often make poor coaches. Ted Williams, one of the finest hitters of all time, stumbled as manager of the old Washington Senators, losing 91 more games than he won over four seasons. Conversely, there are 22 managers in the Hall of Fame; only 18 had significant big league careers, and for the most part they were “mediocre to below-average major-league ballplayers.” One reason: “the curse of expertise.” As the authors put it, “The better we get at a task, the worse we often become at articulating what we’re doing.”
Every Redskins fan who has screamed “We want Dallas!” at the end of a winning game knows the truth of another point: Sports loyalties are a form of “tribal warfare,” and true believers “often recognize and even embrace the irrationality of their calling.”
Harvard researchers attached Red Sox and Yankee partisans to brain monitors and showed them game highlights. Activity spiked in the “pleasure center” of each fan when their team did well, a predictable outcome. “Even more striking,” however, “was how the fans responded to the performance of their rivals.” When their hated foes failed, their “pleasure centers” were equally excited. “Seeing a rival lose was just as gratifying as seeing their own team win.”
Amen, brother. And the Cowboys can eat dirt.
By L. Jon Wertheim
and Sam Sommers
Crown Archetype. 279 pp. $26