I’m a huge football fan.
I’m also a fan of the reporting done by NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, and I look forward to hearing his reports on Morning Edition while navigating my way to work. Let’s face it, my ears perk up when I hear science stories in the news. I’m a science geek, and I’m unashamed to say it. And like Vedantam’s bio page says, The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways…my wheel house, welcome to it!
My ire gets turned up when I hear shoddy or misleading news stories about science.
This morning, Shankar presented a story called “Research Examines Character Concerns Versus Performance In The NFL“, about a 2012 study by Hamilton College Professor of Economics Stephen Wu and his student Kendall Weir.
The study examined the on-field performance of NFL players, versus their position in the NFL draft, and how run-ins with the law or issues with teammates / coaches might have affected that draft position.
In light of the recent troubles in the NFL such as Ray Rice’s domestic abuse case and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse case, this study seemed like the perfect vehicle for discussing the off-field behavior of professional athletes.
Until you think about it a bit deeper….
If Joe Schmoe is a star wide receiver from XYZ University, and is projected to be drafted in the top 10 on draft day, his star will fall if he is arrested on a charge of marijuana possession. But, he is still, from an ability point-of-view, a top 10 wide receiver. So although his run in with the law might drop him to lets say, 30th in the draft, because teams might worry that his off field issues would be a distraction for the team, the fact that he is good ON THE FIELD at his position hasn’t changed.
Well, the ’12 study by Wu and Weir proved this to be true:
“We found that the players who have a history of criminal charges were penalized too much in their draft position. On average, having an encounter with law enforcement does not negatively predict performance.”
On the other hand, having issues with coaches or fellow team mates SHOULD be predictive of future behavior. If you’re a jerk to the guys you play with and for, then your number will reflect it. Thats just logic.
The study also bore this out:
“In a nutshell, what this means is that if a team is on the fence about drafting a player who had been suspended for clashing with his college coach or violating team rules, the team might not want to take that gamble.”
So, in the the end, the study found that run-ins with the law were less a predictor of future on-field performance than run-ins with coaches and team mates would be. And in the NFL, where we may celebrate the star individuals but where the team is actually the most important, this study has huge significance.
“We think teams could benefit by taking more risks, on a case-by-case basis, to draft players with criminal histories. A run-in with the law may or may not reflect on long-term character; teams could use this research to enhance their decision-making.”
But…what about the NEWS? What about Shankar?
The problem is, anyone listening to the story on NPR this morning would NOT have come away with these ideas.
Because, lets face it, the NFL is under a microscope right now due to it’s own missteps in controlling the off field actions of its talent….and saying that “teams could benefit by taking more risks, on a case-by-case basis, to draft players with criminal histories”…that just isn’t newsworthy news. So Shankar Vedantam and the Morning Edition folks spun the story somewhat, leaving the idea that teams should be more careful drafting players with criminal records because new rules recently put in place by the NFL could keep these players off the field.
Cool story, bro.
Probably a true story, bro.
But, not even sorta kinda a little bit what this study was about, bro.
We get enough spin from our politics, with reporters and pundits taking what was said and trying to spin it into something else….we don’t need this with science reporting as well. Seriously.
The problem is, the average NPR listener probably wasn’t a weird combo of science geek and ravenous football fanatic who is prone to say “WTF’s Next?”
- Research Examines Character Concerns Versus Performance In The NFL – NPR
- Wu and Weir ’12 NFL Study Highlighted in NY Times and AJC – Hamilton.edu
- Manning or Leaf? A Lesson in Intangibles – New York Times
- First person Stephen Wu; Draft strategy has penalized players – Atlanta Journal Constitution [PDF]