sporting lads — when style trumps success

I know, I know … I said I’d write Sunday pieces about the book, and I’m hoping this interview will satisfy any *Stealing* related hunger. (Thank you, too, for picking it up — sales remain steady.)

Two things, though, came together to get me thinking about the impact of culture on income and sports. I’m reading Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ’n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968, by Michael James Roberts, which is a fun and smart analysis about how the American Federation of Musicians excluded rock’n’rollers by insisting upon the status of notated music over the oral tradition, and ensured its own demise. Roberts deftly analyzes how the celebration of leisure by rock’n’roll, R&B, and jump blues posed a threat to the American work ethic (run amok), and — if you’re a punk fan — the lead-up to NBC’s paranoia over Elvis Costello’s performance of “Radio Radio” on SNL back in December 1977. It’s a quaint moment, if only to recall that rock’n’roll was deemed dangerous back in the day. (And now it’s unavailable on youtube, for some reason.)

Arsenal's Goalkeeper (C) punches out the
Ospina punches — could he have made the catch?

Second, Arsenal’s 2-1 loss to Tottenham might have been prevented had the keeper Ospina actually caught the ball, rather than punched it meekly to the Tottenham player who knocked in the first goal. I’m looking for help here, but I think it’s a lad-culture thing for keepers to punch the ball (looks more aggressive), rather than catch it. Yes, the current ball when struck without spin wobbles more in the air than the old model, I get that. But when it’s spinning, keepers should be able to track the ball well enough, catch it, and take possession of the ball.

Style counts in pro sports, as in US football, when defenders lay big hits on receivers (and fail to wrap them up), and the receivers bounce off of them and continue on down the field. In baseball, the snatch catch (Barry Bonds’ signature defensive move) or the one-handed catch in the outfield has become routine. I was delighted to see Pablo Sandoval pretty much make this a two-handed grab.

B-ballers avoid use of the backboard, even if it might improve their shooting percentage. Those who do, a la Tim Duncan, you get the nickname “The Big Fundamental,” which isn’t much fun on social media. Big defenders, too, when it comes to blocking shots, are like goalkeepers — the ball ends up in row 3 or higher, and insures that the opposition retains possession. That’s changing a bit, but ever slowly.

The soccer penalty kick, though, offers the most compelling case where culture trumps success. According to the good folks in the Freakonomics enterprise, going either left or right, randomly or not, will not produce maximum yield the way going down the middle would — since the keeper almost always dives one direction or the other. I like the comments below in this article, and certainly the method of Landon Donovan and others, who watch the keeper dive and go the other way, seems quite smart.

If there’s a number cruncher out there, though, who can share some data on my punching vs. catching question, please be in touch. Cheers!