Playing the Nerd Card: A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: photosteve101)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Playing the Nerd Card.”

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It’s about the rise in basketball players (and other athletes) showing up at press conferences wearing the kind of eyeglasses usually associated with Steve Urkel and Buddy Holly. Among the practitioners: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Robert Griffin III.

What’s going on here? Has the rate of myopia exploded, even among premier athletes?

We talk to Susan Vitale, a research epidemiologist with the NIH’s National Eye Institute, who worked on a large study on myopia in the U.S. There has indeed been a huge spike in recent decades, and it’s especially pronounced among blacks:

So does that mean that all these ballplayers are simply part of the Rise of the Nearsighted?

Um … no. In the podcast, you’ll hear LeBron and D-Wade tell us why they wear their glasses. Hint: It isn’t to see better. And some of their former NBA brethren think the trend has already gone too far.

You’ll also hear from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, a familiar presence to Freakonomics readers. Fryer talks about whether the “acting white phenomenon” comes into play here, and he discusses all this glasses-wearing as a “two-audience signaling” situation:

FRYER: “These guys are saying to one audience, ‘Hey, I’m here, I’m an athlete, I’m a Heisman Trophy winner.’ To the other one, ‘Look at the glasses.  Look at how I’m dressed.  Look at how I carry myself.  I can promote your product.’”

FWIW, we put out another podcast about myopia among rural Chinese schoolchildren and how some kids turned down an offer of free eyeglasses because of the stigma associated with poor vision.

Isn’t it interesting that what’s stigmatic in one setting can be so desirable in another?

Audio Transcript

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name -- it is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, good to have you back.

Stephen Dubner: Great to be here, Kai. I don't know with the L.A. teams out of the NBA playoffs now -- I don't know if you're still paying attention or not.

Ryssdal: I am so done with the Lakers. And this is where the hate mail from L.A. comes in. But I mean, come on, really? Get over yourselves.

Dubner: Well there is a trend -- besides the demise of the Lakers -- that is unmistakable, but it's a trend off the court. It's something you see during the post-game press conferences, and that is is that just about every star player -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant -- they're all wearing these big, chunky, black eyeglasses. You know, the kind that Urkel used to wear; depending on your timeframe, Buddy Holly.

Ryssdal: That's right. I saw -- who was it? -- I guess it was LeBron I saw at a press conference, from Miami, yeah.

Dubner: There you go. Now, in the old days, it was pretty uncommon to see many athletes wear any kind of glasses. So my first thought was simply, 'Hey, maybe poor eyesight is on the rise.'

So we reached out to Susan Vitale, she's a researcher at the National Eye Institute, and she has looked at the rate of myopia -- or near-sightedness -- among Americans in the early 1970s and then again in the 2000s.

Susan Vitale: So in '71-'72, the prevalence of myopia in people who are aged 12 to 54 was 25 percent, or one in four people. And when we applied those same methods to the later population, we found that the prevalence was 41.6 percent, which is roughly a 66 percent increase.

Ryssdal: So that's a lot, right? Sixty-six percent in 30-something years. Are we just getting older or what's going on?

Dubner: Well, you know, the causes are the subject of a lot of debate. Some researchers think it's all the close-up work we do, like reading the myriad screens we're tethered to. Others think it's because we don't get enough sunshine.

Whatever the case, we asked Miami Heat superstar LeBron James if he actually needs those glasses to see.

LeBron James: No, I don't need glasses to see. No. That's just fashion. It's about fashion. If you wear them right, sometimes it looks good, sometimes it can not look so good.

Ryssdal: He's faking, man! He's wearing non-prescription lenses.

Dubner: As millions of Americans do each day, we learned. Probably about four million. You know, they're plain-os, or glasses with plain lenses.

Ryssdal: Really?

Dubner: Yep. Yes sir.

Ryssdal: That's -- I don't understand that. Well, he is so cool that he can look cool wearing glasses? I don't even know.

Dubner: I think that's about right. The fact is, this trend has blown up all over the NBA, the NFL also. I asked the Harvard economist Roland Fryer about this, and he suspects -- as only an economist could suspect -- that this is what you'd call a 'two-audience signaling mechanism.'

Roland Fryer: These guys are saying to one audience, 'Hey I'm here, I'm an athlete.' To the other one, 'Look at my glasses, look at the way I'm dressed, look at the way I carry myself -- I can promote your product.'

Ryssdal: Oh my god, that is so cynical. That's horrible. Right?

Dubner: Well it may be much more than that as well. Even Roland Fryer says that. Fryer has also studied the 'acting white' phenomenon, right? Which is when black kids who study too much get called out by their peers, as if there's a stigma in trying to accomplish too much. So now, with all these black NBA and NFL stars wearing their big nerd eyeglasses, it may be that they're sending a message that the 'acting white' stigma is over -- or at least that it should be over.

LeBron's teammate Dwyane Wade told us that he doesn't need his nerd glasses either, but he does like the message that they send.

Dwyane Wade: Yeah, it is cool. You try to go out and talk to kids, you try to let them know that it's cool to be smart, it's cool to be educated, you know? So it's a message behind the madness, you know?

Ryssdal: That's actually great, 'message behind the madness.' It's acting smart is not acting white.

Dubner: That's exactly right. Although I will tell you something very interesting: Roland Fryer, who's also African-American, told me that even he -- a Harvard econ professor -- that he wears glasses that he doesn't need, also in order to 'relax everyone,' as he puts it. And I should tell you this also: The signaling at Harvard doesn't end with eyeglasses, according to Fryer.

Fryer: A couple years ago, I was talking with one of my colleagues here at Harvard, and they said to me -- they confessed, let's say, to me -- that they dyed their hair gray. And I said, 'Why would anyone do that?' He says, 'Well I want people to take me more seriously.'

Ryssdal: Wow. I will never understand people, can I just tell you that?

Dubner: I understand you, though, Kai. I understand you.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner, is the website. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: Thanks for having me, Kai.


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  1. Chris says:

    In the West we have fake tan, in the East they sell creams that bleach the skin.

    We’re a funny bunch, us humans.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 1
  2. Enter your name... says:

    In my early 30s, I considered dying my hair gray (well, getting white highlights, really), when being an older, more experienced woman would have been a career asset. Eventually I decided that I couldn’t really be bothered with it, especially since I was going gray earlier than average anyway, and so little of my work was done face-to-face that it would be full-time maintenance for a few hours a month. The end result is that I’ve saved all the money that most graying women spend on hair dye.

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  3. J says:

    Wesely Morris actually had a great article about this at the end of last year that talks about how much this has changed in basketball, and why the phenomenon is cropping up.

    Here is the link:

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  4. Steve says:

    There’s a great Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about this topic, here is a clip:

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  5. Phil says:

    Why just myopia (nearsightedness)? What about farsightedness? Is that increasing too?

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  6. James says:

    The irony is that anyone seriously, or even marginally, athletic would either wear contacts or get corrective surgery.

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  7. KevinM says:

    I.e., it’s “stigmatic in one setting,” but astigmatic in the other.

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  8. Link says:

    I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this podcast. I suggest however that maybe you have the trend backwards. I am a teacher in an inner city charter school in a large midwestern city. About two years ago, I noticed several middle school girls wearing the 3d movie glasses with the lenses popped out. I wondered about it but didn’t investigate it. Students started buying big nerdy glasses and popping the lenses out that the administration, with shameful intolerance of the vagaries of teen fashion, decided to ban the students from wearing glasses unless they were prescribed. Of course, that only made the trend more popular and forced it underground. While I noticed a few kids wearing them now and then, I forgot about it until I heard the podcast. I failed to look at the issue with a freakenomics lens, or I would have been on top of this trend ages before two of my heros! So please consider my anectdotal evidence in support of the theory that the trend actually emerged on the streets instead and percolated up to the elites of the NBA. Fashion can be oddly democratic sometimes. Or maybe some NBA stars recently dug up one of Spike Lee’s first and best movies, She’s Gotta Have It, which unmistakeably and irrevocably links nerd glasses and basketball. Thanks for inspiring me to look at my classroom with a freakenomics lens, maybe I will beat you to the punch next time!

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    • frankenduf says:

      the Rock facilitated the proliferation of this irony, when he would get indignant during interviews and threaten to ‘get nerdy on ur candya$$’

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