Accountability in Sports

One of the criticisms professional sports players receive is that they’re paid millions to play “a child’s game.” This is to discuss one aspect of why professional athletes receive high compensation: Accountability.

I’ve spent considerable time discussing why I think professional sports at the highest level is just not playing a “childs’ game” – if you really think they’re playing a child’s game, I would direct your kind attention to some Little League baseball. Please do report out when you get back. Here’s but one defense of high salaries. Please note, however, that I do believe – as in any industry – there are those who under perform their salary, there are those who outperform their salary, and those organizations who have no idea how to compensate or evaluate.

Tell me the last time you heard anyone reference Roger Clemens’ little league or high school pitching statistics. That’s right, you haven’t.

Over a 5 year career between 1938 and 1942, Leonard Barnum played 52 games and started 21 of them for both the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles as a punter, and quarterback. You can find his statistics in as much detail as was available in the day, which weren’t much, but then again they weren’t paid as much. You can look up the 1910 statistics on Nap Lajoie. In fact, you can look up just about any player who has played any professional sport ever and see what they’ve done when the lights come on. Nap died 50 years ago, yet we can find out what he did in any given season; as we get more sophisticated, we know what any player did on any given date in any given day.

There’s been a level of accountability in sports for as long as there have been professional sports – some more rudimentary than others, but the numbers are there. Today, we’ve got home/road splits, slugging, first pitch, second pitch, against lefties/righties, all sorts of minutia and all sorts of derivative statistics which will live on for as long as anyone cares about a given sport.

I’m not arguing that one has caused the other – in fact, I don’t much care which came first – I am however arguing there is a correlation: a statistical strength of relationship, but not a causal relationship.

As with any job that carries with it a high salary, there are expectations and is accountability. To pull down that six- or seven-figure salary, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate performance on specific metrics: shareholder value, income growth, expenses reduction, etc. We can argue whether or not sports metrics are meaningful, but we can’t argue that we could indeed – were we so inclined – to track just about every pitch Curt Schilling has ever thrown, how many innings thrown, how many pitches per inning, wins/losses, hit batsmen. How many of us have that level of accountability in our jobs? How many of us could account for every minute of every work day we’re on the job with definable metrics? How many of us would have a significant amount of time in the restroom or at the coffee machine?

For sure, pro athlete stats are tracked on their game performance and not necessarily what they do on the job, but off-field, but rest assured, they are fully accountable for what they do before, after and in preparation for the game. The meaning of the numbers – comparisons across different eras – is up for debate, but each athlete’s performance represented as quantified statistics is there for all time. I cannot think of any other profession where there is such a high degree of accountability.

Afterward: This is a post I had written in February/March 2008 and recently just uncovered.  I’ll post them as I cull through for the most interesting among them. Happy 10 year anniversary!

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