How to Lose Millions in a Day Without Benefit of the Stock Market

Matthew J. Darnell, writing on Yahoo!’s N.F.L. blog, talks about how Andre Smith, an Alabama offensive lineman slotted as a potential overall No. 1 draft pick, has destroyed his own value with a series of bad decisions and, most recently, a really bad workout in front of pro scouts:

I can’t recall anyone’s draft stock falling quite like Andre Smith’s. Picture Wilford Brimley‘s frail and helpless body tumbling end-over-end off a cliff, picking up speed as it goes (Note: Do not picture this if you are Wilford Brimley, or someone who knows him). That’s about what we’re looking at here.

Darnell quotes a report from TFYDraft.com:

His bench press results were a pitiful 19 reps. His position work was also very mediocre. One scout has told us is it the “worst workout he ever saw” and a number of scouts are cranky that they made the long trip to Alabama to watch the pitiful workout. A second scout has told us “Smith lost millions of dollars.”

It is an eternal and interesting question: how can someone with such strong incentives to do the right thing spend so much energy doing the wrong thing? The same could be asked, of course, about Eliot Spitzer or Bernie Madoff.

But the N.F.L. draft is more of a zero-sum game than either politics or money management. Smith’s loss is someone else’s gain, almost dollar-for-dollar.

Fans of Michael Lewis‘s book The Blind Side will be pleased to know that its subject, the Ole Miss offensive lineman Michael Oher, is also entering the draft this year and is therefore in a position to grab a few of Smith’s dollars. But according to The Sporting News, Oher hasn’t done much to help his own cause either.


Howard Tayler

While that kind of scale is out of reach for most of us, the principle certainly applies to nigh everyone. There are times when good performance will be disproportionately rewarded, and bad performance disproportionately penalized.

The words "good career move" and "career suicide" leap to mind.

econobiker

Maybe it comes down to the big fish in a small pond versus a small fish in a big pond type deal. That he doesn't understand that he needs to be the best possible to get to the next level because he is enjoying the top of this level.

Mr. Soul

How much effort, or lack thereof, does someone have to put in to avoid being picked by the Detroit Lions or other low achieving team?

Fred T.

While there's no doubt that Andre Smith has done a good amount of shooting himself in the foot, I also wonder how much of his stock falling has to do with teams not wanting to pay a lot for a guy with huge question marks now hanging over his head. It's quite easy for the scouts to manipulate things and decide that because Smith isn't showing the level of commitment they want, they'll just start knocking him down a few notches.

In the end, Smith will still garner a high draft pick. There were plenty of questions surrounding Vince Young's Wonderlic test results (was it a 6 or a 16?) and he still went as the #3 overall choice.

Some coach or GM out there won't be able to resist the temptation to think they can shape him up and get the pro-bowl tackle that everybody else got scared away from.

Heck, even Maurice Clarett (the previous incarnation of Andre Smith?) got drafted on the first day of the draft when most "experts" didn't think he'd get selected until Day 2, if at all.

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C.Larity

What's really sad is that if he falls out of the first round, he'll be paid less in the NFL than he was at Alabama.

luke

the odd thing is is that it might help his NFL career, if not his paycheck.

first round picks, particularly for potential no. 1's, are very expensive for teams. now, it will cost less for a team to draft him. this means more teams might be interested at his apparent potential the new bargain price, figuring that he might have had a bad day, or just not trained much before, and he could be spiffed up in the off season, or maybe even for a year and a half from now.

Trevor L

It is possible that both Oher and Smith understand the rarity of quality left-tackles (especcially since Michael Lewis's bestselling book). Oher and Smith may thus know that there is a shortage of left-tackles and they are certain to be picked in the top 15 picks of the draft no matter how hard they try. Therefore, they take advantage, sit back, and wait for the inevitable million-dollar contract which is going to come their way no matter what.

dude

Lol, commenter 3 is probably right. I myself would consider tanking a workout to avoid playing for the worst team in the history of the NFL. Pay cut? sure, but he'll still get millions over his career, assuming he can hack it at LT.

Sorka

Smith seemed like a sure thing such a short time ago; it's shocking to see his stock fall so quickly. Perhaps he took it for granted and read into his own press coverage too much? Young players like Smith need to realize that it's no longer enough to be a stud at the college level, even at Alabama; you have to prove to NFL teams that you are smart, hard-working, dedicated to fitness and learning your position, can handle the distractions, and professional in your behavior. NFL teams are tired of sinking a lot of money into players based solely on their talent, and then winding up with nothing when the player misbehaves or just flops. It seems like college stars trying to secure a high draft pick need to act less like a jock and more like a business-school grad applying for a plum corporate job - wear a suit, polish up their communication skills, market themselves, present a balanced, impressive resume. I would think that preparing players for this would be the agent's role - but the young men have to accept the responsibility and make the effort. Perhaps Smith is a bit immature - but when it comes to the NFL, there are few second chances.

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contrarian

If this spared him a short life (see other football players dead at unusually young age) for a more rewarding equally hardwoking longer life in another field would you still define it "doing the wrong thing"?

Ben

It just goes to show that high profile athletes are not immune to self destructive behavior. Some people struggle with this type of thing every day, and often a change in incentive, outlook, or ego can help him reset his work ethic and prove his level of performance. It's frustrating for an economist to look at this as the amount of $ he "lost", but it's easy to impose our own motives and goals on others and criticise them for their "career suicide". if it was all part of his plan to lower expectations so he can have some peace, and rise from the ashes, more power to him. If he is having some personal issues, then shame on us all for using him as an example. The NFL draft may be important to a lot of people (read: payday), but this is a human being we are talking about and we should not be so quick to judge.

Laura A

Two words: Maurice Clarett

Steve

Has anyone ever actually done a study of how well the Combine predicts future NFL success? If so, I'd love to hear the results. If not, why not? The Combine has always struck me as a somewhat bizarre one-shot indicator of potential future talent, overhyped to extremes by the sports media.

Mike M

@ Steve (#13)

Yes. I'd imagine just about every NFL team.

But just like evaluating a player in the combine, it's difficult to break down a player's talent level once they are in the league. Statistics are good, but they are affected by the other members of the team, weather conditions, other personnel competing at the same position, WHICH position, injuries, the design of a team's offense/defense, etc.

I guess it boils down to the question of what is success in the NFL. Championships? Pro-Bowls? Games started? Years in the league? Position statistics?

The variables are too numerous and the conditions are such that they are impossible to isolate. It comes down to a judgement call, albeit based on the best available information. The combine is a tool to help determine talent, potential and work-ethic.

My take is that, yes, the combine is over-hyped by the media, and sometimes teams fall into the hype. But generally teams just use it as another tool to evaluate their options. (and lately the NFL uses it to make money).

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David Scott

It is an eternal and interesting question: how can someone with such strong incentives to do the right thing spend so much energy doing the wrong thing?
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Having watched the self-destruction of Maurice Clarett -- ad nauseum -- very little suprises me.

muD

Every NFL team uses a different set of hard criteria and a certain amount of personal bias in determining who to draft and where. Because it takes 5-10 years to assess the validity of the selection criteria and because most coaching staffs don't last that long, it is doubtful there are any rigorous evaluations of drafting criteria. From what I have seen and read about teams selecting players it reminds me of picking horses in the sixties. A lot of informed hocus-pocus. Considering the amount of money at stake you would think someone would have created a better system.

Manny

Sure, the best tool to predict future performance is to look the workout for a couple of hours!

Give me a break. That guy will be picked early because he has already shown how much his value is.

Madoff was excellent at the workouts in front of the regulators and look at what happened.

Damian in NOLA

Smith may be one of those linemen that understands things like the combine can be really paint the wrong picture of a player. He may be purposely lowering his draft position to increase his odds of playing for a better team, thus increasing his visibility and his chance of winning a championship sooner rather than later. This almost always ensures a higher pay day.

Haas

Commenters 3, 6, and 8 are right: being a top draft pick can be a terrible curse. Since the top picks go to the worst teams, it is often lower picks that shine in the NFL, being blessed with better teammates and better coaches. So Darnell's poor performance could be entirely rational.

The broader point is that while behavioral economists like Dubner relish in debunking "rational" economic models, ultimately their applicability to real life is limited. Since we can't observe an individual's internal decision-making process, we cannot know whether behavior that seems inexplicable to us is actually irrational. It could be the case that we have simply failed to adequately characterize their strategic environment.

Grant

Actually, the draft (and professional sports in general) strike me more as a negative-sum game - millions of people waste billions of dollars trying to be at the top of the heap, which can of course only be occupied by a select few. The expected payoff for most people playing the game is negative, but everyone is after the huge payoff at the top and pursue it.